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Frontline Lagos: Taking the negotiation out of aviation

LAGOS AIRPORT is one of the world's least favourite places for airlines. It was never worse than earlier this year when it had its first aircraft hold-up. A Kenya Airways jet, taxiing to take-off, was blocked by bandits who opened a hatch and carried away baggage as crew and passengers looked down in disbelief.

The image of the Nigerian capital's airport has not been helped recently by a six-part Channel 4 documentary showing heavy-handed soldiers, clapped- out air-conditioning and immobile luggage conveyor belts. But all that is about to change. Lagos international airport, helped by British security specialists, has embarked on an aggressive image-building campaign.

The challenge is huge. Africa is the continent which has given us Air Tragique (Air Afrique), also known as Air Peut-Etre (Air Maybe). Tanzania's ATC is said to mean Any Time Change, Any Time Cancellation and Angola's TAAG approximates to Take Another Goat. Air Senegal,with its one-aircraft fleet, is known as Air Ca M'est Egal (It's all the same to me) and Air Zaire used to be called Air Jamais (Air Never).

Kenya Airways is not flying over new year - not as a millennium bug precaution but because not enough people booked. Everyone has a Ghana Airways story, but given that the crew are always so charming the airline gets forgiven for not having enough aircraft to cover its advertised routes.

With so much trouble in the African skies, despite the fares being among the highest in the world, it is no wonder that things are bad on the ground. Lagos may have a bad reputation but really, what happens here happens everywhere else on the continent, too, except on a smaller scale.

Here, the journey is not a means of getting from experience A to experience B. The journey is an experience in itself, ranging in length from a few hours to several days. If a head of state has decided to requisition the particular aircraft you were due to fly on, you could be stuck for a week.

But suddenly, being delayed at Murtallah Mohamed International Airport , not to be confused with Lagos's still nightmarish domestic terminal, is a pleasure. Gone are the "agents'', individuals with home-made laminated badges who offer to help you clear formalities in return for "family support'' (a cash gift). Gone are the passport officers who search for some defect which can be sorted out in three days of formalities or by paying up immediately.

In the departure terminal, the security officers whose body searches were aimed at locating your cash and whose less than subtle "and what do you have for me?'' are no more. Instead, hand-held metal detectors skim respectfully over clothing and security personnel politely ask "please could you open your bag''.

The duty free boutiques are being given a "millennium look'', as one assistant said. The new business lounge is all nouveau, with a lot of beige and pine and very cold air-conditioning. The monitors still aren't working and the trinket counters are still there, but this is guaranteed to change soon.

The transformation has come about for a very simple reason - the Federal Aviation Administration is in town to decide whether United States aircraft are to be allowed on the lucrative Lagos route again.

A week ago, British Airways relaunched its service after it had been suspended for four years, ostensibly for security reasons during a particularly brutal episode of the former military regime. Helping turn this new leaf is a team of six British security officers from Heathrow and Gatwick who have a six-month contract to train their Nigerian counterparts and lure the Americans back.

"Things have really changed in three months and the staff seem to be getting into the new culture. We've got rid of most of the touts and created some jobs for bricklayers along the perimeter fence,'' said one of the British security team.

I had two hours between check-in and departure, necessary because, in Africa, planes sometimes leave as soon as they are full. Dazzled by two hours of efficiency and customer-service, I found myself startled when a baggage handler on the Tarmac, pledging that my bag would be safely loaded, asked the perfectly normal question: "And what do you have for me?'' I succumbed, as you do, and handed over a 20 naira note (12p).