Frustrated travelers leave BWI for Ghana

Bitterness lingers over being stranded for a week

August 04, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

After waiting more than a week for a flight to Ghana, more than 190 passengers stranded in Baltimore by the grounding of Ghana Airways were undeterred by a 5 a.m. wake-up call, five hours in a check-in line and a two-hour departure delay.

All they wanted was a flight out. And yesterday, after negotiations between U.S. and Ghanaian officials, they got their wish. About 1:30 p.m., a charter flight operated by World Airlines took off from Baltimore-Washington International Airport bound for Accra, Ghana.

The flight was the first to Ghana since U.S. officials grounded the country's state-run airline July 27 to investigate alleged safety violations and the failure to renew its operating license.

Marooned for days at the Ramada Inn in Laurel, the passengers - who leaned against cartloads of baggage in a line that snaked through the international terminal, many dressed in brightly colored African garb - expressed mixed emotions as they waited to check in.

"I'm so excited because I didn't think it would happen this soon," said the Rev. John Prempeh, a Catholic priest leading a group of 23 parishioners on a spiritual mission to Ghana, his native country. "I kept calling the airline managers and insisting that we had to get to Ghana, and here we are - finally."

According to Henry Van Eck, spokesman for Ghana Airways in North America, at least 500 more passengers with return flights remain stranded in the United States and Accra. Approximately 190 of them are scheduled to depart tomorrow afternoon from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on another charter flight. The airline, which put up the passengers and paid for meals, is working to book the remaining passengers on other airlines.

Still, Van Eck said airline officials are thankful that yesterday's flight took off without a hitch.

"We are very relieved because, for now, this is all we hoped to do," he said. "We need to satisfy our customers. Unfortunately, right now we are not able to satisfy them as much as we would like to."

Many of yesterday's passengers said they remain angry and frustrated with Ghana Airways. Several had complained that their luggage was damaged by heavy rains when it was left out on the tarmac last week.

"We've been up since 5 a.m., and after what happened this week, we're not sure of anything," said Musa Ndie, 20, waiting to return home to Gambia.

Ndie said he was upset by the airline's refusal to allow more than two pieces of luggage, a complaint echoed by many of yesterday's travelers.

"What airline would do this, after all the inconvenience they've put us through?" said Elaine Bright of Ghana, who was told she and her husband could not check two of their six bags.

Bright's son had to drive from his home in Bowie to retrieve her two bags, which he will have to ship to her in Ghana.

Van Eck said the two-suitcase rule was a necessity on the full flight. "We want them [officials] to allow the chartering of more flights," he said. "So we didn't want to further aggravate the situation with excess luggage."

Despite troubles with baggage, BWI officials who monitored the flight's departure said it went smoothly, but that Ghana Airways must continue to cooperate with U.S. investigators.

"The safety and security of passengers traveling through BWI is our No. 1 priority," said Jonathan Dean, an airport spokesman.

Charles O. Oluokun, executive director of Koch Charters International, a Baltimore-based international charter company working to make BWI a hub for flights to West Africa, said a lengthy suspension of Ghana Airways would have a major effect on travel to countries such as Ghana and Gambia.

"Ghana Airways is its only surviving airline, and the Department of Transportation should do whatever it takes to get it flying again as soon as possible," he said.

U.S. transportation officials said the airline would remain suspended until questions were resolved. In the meantime, Ghana Airways' Van Eck said the company hopes to resume service as soon as possible.

"There are requirements we have to satisfy first," he said.

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