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Ngugi wa Thiongo endures travel nightmare in the hands of Virgin Atlantic

Posted by Administrator on December 28, 2010

By Ngugi wa Thiong’o

I did not know that a one day dream flight from Nairobi to Los Angeles would turn out to be a five-day nightmare.

I had pestered the hosts of the Kwani Literary Festival to ensure my seat on Virgin Atlantic Flight VS672 that left Jomo Kenyatta airport on December 18 for London to connect with another Virgin Flight VS007 to Los Angeles the following day.

My wife was scheduled to have surgery at the Douglas Hospital of the University of California, Irvine, on Tuesday, December 21. I would be back to my home at the University Hills, Irvine, by Sunday.

The festival, a conversation among generations of African writers, particularly those of the 1960s represented by Micere Mugo, Rebecca Njau, and Philip Ochieng’ and the current, represented by Binyavanga Wainaina and Billy Kahora, among others, had gone remarkably well.

My sunshine memory was rudely interrupted by the flight captain announcing that a snowstorm had taken over Heathrow, we were going to land in Lyon, France, and spend the night there.

Then it was announced that only Schengen and European Union passport holders would be allowed out of the terminal to spend Saturday night in a hotel courtesy of Virgin Atlantic.

Kenya passport holders were specifically singled out and isolated from the rest. Our bus was escorted by armed French police into a separate building at the airport into which we were locked. The three stewardesses in charge of us were ushered into a separate room, clearly not a paradise, but it had cushioned chairs for beds.


The rest of us, all Kenyans, except for a Jamaican and a couple of British passport holders who stayed in solidarity with their Kenyan wives, were each given tiny low red plastic bedlets with aluminium foils for blankets.

The cement floor was cold and dreary. It was a winter night after all. The French authorities would not even make an exception for Imani, a one-year-old, who had to share the cement floor with her parents, Brenda and Colin.

We raised many questions: why were we, bonafide passengers, who had had no say in the decision to land in Lyon, treated as if we were terrorists and refugees about to take over France? The captain, our captain, had abandoned ship. Not a word from him. The stewardess tried their best to cope, care and calm nerves.

They seemed equally helpless. Ironically, it was Imani, with her smile and energy, who kept our spirits alive. She never once cried through the night and she shone her smile on all.

I witnessed an incredible display of unity and solidarity among the Kenyan Asians and Africans of all ethnic backgrounds and religions. Humour, stories, laughter, kept us going, under our aluminium sheets. I learnt more about Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and the humanism they shared, from those stories than I had learnt from books. People offered support to each other.


Barriers of race and class and gender had broken. There were some touching stories, like that of the “just married”, Oliver Apunda from Ahero and Agnes Kahindi from Kikuyu, whose love had withstood the inter-ethnic tensions of the post-poll chaos.

Simon Onderi, a medical student at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York, acted as our unpaid doctor, attending to our different ailments. Somebody had the presence of mind to alert Kenyan embassy in Paris.

I don’t know if it was her intervention, or our near riot protests, but on Sunday, we were moved into a hotel to join the other passengers.

It was not until Monday evening that we eventually left Lyon for Heathrow where this time, those of us with connecting flights were allowed into a hotel.

My Virgin Atlantic flight would now leave for Los Angeles, on Tuesday.

I would not be able to accompany Njeeri for the surgery, the very purpose of my having to leave Kenya on Saturday, but at least I would be with her in the evening.

I went to terminal three, Heathrow, three hours before my scheduled flight. Alas, all Virgin Atlantic flights to Los Angeles had been cancelled. Heathrow was a mass of endless chaos.

I looked for a Virgin Atlantic office, to see about my options. I found none.

I approached Virgin Atlantic ground crew attending the long queues the few flights to other destinations. No help. No information about the Los Angeles route. After dragging my luggage around through the muddy snow, I eventually bumped into a frantic Virgin Atlantic official, who thrust some papers in my hands but would not otherwise answer questions.

When I raised my voice in protest, he threatened to call police, with implied but unmistakable hints that he would not hesitate to brand me a terrorist menace. I dared him to go ahead. He vanished in the crowd.

Dispirited, I returned to the Holiday Inn where I had spent the night but now under my own care.

Fortunately I found some of my fellow Kenyans still there, awaiting later flights, among them Simon Onderi, who had acted as our unofficial doctor through out our plight. I was freezing.

My asthma was back. I was wheezing. Dr Onderi took over and eventually got through to a switchboard and spoke to a human voice representing Virgin Atlantic.

The next possible flight would be on December 28.

Alternative flight

And even then, it was not certain for sure. He pleaded with them to offer me an alternative flight.

He told them about my wife in hospital, my own condition, asthma, high blood pressure, to no avail.

Dr Onderi had to rush for his flight. For me it was another night at the Holiday Inn.

My wife was in hospital, my two teenagers in the house. My asthma acted up.

I had undergone severe attacks of asthma in the past, once in Senegal in 1969, and again, years later in New Zealand in 1984.

And in both cases, I actually had to be rushed to hospital in the middle of the night. I feared the same.

It was then that I called Barbara Caldwell, my research assistant at the University of California, Irvine. She was on a Christmas break.

But within a couple of hours, from her home in far away South California in the US, she did what the Virgin Atlantic could not.

She got me a seat on a British Airways flight to Los Angeles for the following Day, Wednesday.

It was a one-way ticket but with the price tag of a return business class.

I flew back to California on Wednesday, December 23, five days after I left Nairobi, to take Njeeri home from the Douglas Hospital.

Dr Karen Noblett and her team had successfully carried out the four-hour surgery on my wife.

She was in much pain, but at least, we would have a Christmas reunion with our children. 


14 Responses to “Ngugi wa Thiongo endures travel nightmare in the hands of Virgin Atlantic”

  1. cathy said

    thanks for the above I will never try this airline, if Kenya airways is not available, the british airways. This is so upsetting.

  2. Kip said

    what an ordeal! racism and incompetence combined. glad you made it home safely. let’s redirect our cash from Virgin ATlantic please.

  3. pennie said

    this man is an amazing writer. he’s one in a million. i have enjoyed all he has written n would be honored to meet him.

  4. Albert Mwangi said

    That is terrible lapse in customer care for Virgin Atlantic which prides itself in Customer oriented service. It is good to hear that even after the ordeal, you made it to the US safe. I wonder what Richard Branson will do about this. Also note to self: Never ever use virgin atlantic..EVER

  5. George Kuria said

    It is sad and regretable what you and the other passengers went through. Inspite of all that,we thank GOD for your safety and the good health of your wife.i wish her quick recovery.i also hope there are valuable lessons learnt by parties involved in this very ugly and inhuman incident.

  6. Shirley said

    This story is shocking. I can’t believe that an airline can be so careless and racist. Glad you reached safe though.

  7. Ezra Mwirigi said

    Sir Richard branson needs a copy of this gues to have a taste of how the Virgin group treats tha clients

  8. Angela said

    wow, quite an ordeal. Thankfully there was a whole bunch of you to comfort each other..

  9. Dman said

    Before everyone gets on their high horses and starts shouting “rasist”, have a read of the Facebook response to this from Virgin Atlantic. Blame French laws, not the airline who were diverted to Lyon.

    “VS672 was diverted to Lyons on the 18 December due to the severe weather conditions at Heathrow airport and we are very sorry for this. However, due to French laws on visa controls, Kenyan passengers were not permitted entry to France via immigration so had to spend the night in the terminal whilst the captain fought for their visas and looked after the remaining 130 passengers that were processed into the country. The captain requested that two Virgin Atlantic cabin crew members stay with the Kenyan passengers to ensure that they were as comfortable as possible and update them on the conditions at Heathrow. The captain then had to travel to a local hotel in order to take the minimum rest required by law so that he was able to fly the plane to Heathrow as soon as the weather had improved. We recognise that the conditions and disruption all our passengers faced due to the diversion were extremely difficult and we are very sorry for this and I would like to assure you we tried everything we could.”

    • leo said

      Well,Why did’nt the captain take time to explain this in manner that everyone would understand? It appears that he hurried out of there like it was nobody’s business.Now that you are explaining though late,kind of see what happened and yes Kenyan and French goverment can work on this to avoid future problems.For the virgin atlantic crews,work on your communation skills and if you need help,Ngugi wa Thiongo can teach you.He is a great communicator.

    • mwangi said

      Oh yea, now it is on face book! did all these kenyans buy their tickets over FB? Has there been any communication to them about the whole mistreatment? imagine if this was done to someone else by KQ! Did virgin issue an apology via any of the kenyan media? whats my point? using FB is just a PR stunt! the grieved parties bought them tickets and have contact info and you can use that to contact them!
      Lastly, i stand to be corrected, by Ngugi knows what is comfortable for a baby and an old man who has been to torture chambers before, so for virgin to say …”the captain requested that two Virgin Atlantic cabin crew members stay with the Kenyan passengers to ensure that they were as comfortable as possible……” is pure BS!

    • kitise said

      This is a lot of crap. Who said those passengers would be able to see this apology on their(Virgin Atlantic) face book page? They should have taken the time to explain what was going on at the time. At least it would have made things easier to know that someone was fighting for them! What good is it to post this on facebook after the damage has been done?
      Bad customer service. As Mwangi said, these people did not buy tickets on facebook. I have never flown Virgin Atlantic, and after reading this, i will never attempt, unless they are flying me to heaven.
      They should know that they have lost several customers, because I will share this with my friends just like other people who read this.

  10. Sam said

    This unfortunate incident was beyond the pilot. Immigration laws are dictated by governments of kenya and france. Word of advice, lets fly BA, KLM or even better Ethiopian. I flew Ethiopian and it was owesome. Flew direct from Washington DC to Addis. Very short flight home. Very professional crew and guess what….everyone was African. Lets support our fellow Africans. Where is KQ? Please start flying to North America. Europe is just too congested and full of silly immigration policies. I have heard many negative experiences about virgin and Air france.

  11. Henry Migosi said

    I love traveling with Virgin Atlantic from London back to Kenya and Many Kenya travel more often with virgin, but this terrible accident, May God heal and restore their health.Bad weather has become the major problem worldwide disaster.About racism is a single seed in every individual’s heart of believe about others, in humanity but in God;God has no respecter of persons.In the flesh ground of the world we are not equal.etc

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