THE WINNER of Walled City Marathon was left ‘devastated’ when his luggage containing donated items of clothing for his children in Africa was refused by Etihad Airways on his return flight to Kenya.
Eric Koech captured his second Derry marathon victory on Sunday afternoon in a time of 2:34:19 and didn’t have time to catch his breath before he was swiftly on his way to board his flight from City of Derry Airport ahead of a connecting flight in Manchester to Nairobi via Abu Dhabi.
However, at the Etihad Airways’ check-in desk at Manchester Airport the 37 year-old athlete was told he would have to fork out a staggering £800 if he wanted to include a second hold bag and a small bike box which contained a tricycle for his young kids.
Both Eric’s suitcases contained items of clothing kindly donated by people in Derry while the tricycle was given to him by his host family in Ballymena where he stayed during his short visit to Northern Ireland last week, a trip facilitated by Project Africa, the charity set up to help support disadvantaged athletes in rural areas of East Africa.
The Kenyan, who also won the 2016 Walled City Marathon and the 2018 Belfast Marathon, attempted to negotiate a reasonable fee with the check-in staff to have his baggage included on the flight.
However, he claims he was astonished when the Etihad staff refused to accommodate his request due to confusion surrounding his luggage allowance.
Eric and his host family claim they had phoned Etihad Airways in advance to inform them of the extra baggage and yet, despite his tickets clearly stating he was eligible to load two 23kgs bags onto the plane to the Kenyan capital, he was forced to leave the donated clothing and his children’s tricycle at the airport.
Project Africa founder, Mr Ciaran Collins from Co. Tyrone, who helped organise Eric’s trip to Derry to participate in the Walled City 26.2 mile race, blasted the airline for their treatment of the Kenyan - a situation he described as a ‘nightmare’.
Mr Collins said he had never encountered a problem like Eric’s since he set up the charitable organisation back in 2014 and promised never to fly with Etihad Airways again - one of the second largest airlines in the United Arab Emirates.
“Basically what happened was he won the race and then it was very much a mad dash to the airport where he was flying from Derry to Manchester at 2p.m with Logan Air before he flew back to Nairobi,” explained Mr Collins.
“When they come through the project there’s a call-out for a donation. So people would donate clothes and whatever for the athletes to take back to Kenya with them. We booked in two bags. Eric had a couple of bags of donated clothes.
“There were no issues with Logan Air at all and they got the bags to Manchester. He also had a small bike as well and they put that on the plane. We had all that resolved with them the day before and we thought we had with Etihad as well.
“He got to Manchester and they told him they weren’t accepting his second bag, even though his ticket said he could have two 23kg bags.
“They said whenever they put it into their system it was showing up that only one bag was allowed and they were adamant he wasn’t getting the bag on.
“We were prepared to just pay for the price of the extra bag then they quoted him £800 which was absolutely ridiculous. He had a little tricycle in a bike box he was taking back as well.
“We told him to forget about the donated clothes but he desperately wanted to bring the bike back to his kids. They quoted him £350 for the bike alone to put that on the plane.
“Eric has a boy and a girl but he had to leave the bag and the bike behind in Manchester as it just didn’t make sense to pay £350 for a tricycle.
“The donated clothes were going back for his family. There was clothes for his kids and for himself which was donated and a lot of running gear for his training mates back in Kenya. They were all left behind,”
Mr Collins explained how Eric’s visits to Northern Ireland to compete in long distance races have helped him improve his family’s quality of life.
Before he first arrived to win the 2016 Walled City Marathon, Eric was living in what he described as a ‘mud hut’, high up in the mountains beside the Great Rift Valley with his wife and two young children.
However, the prizemoney from that race helped him buy a plot of land and develop sustainable farming back in his rural village which has since led to a better life for his family.
“That’s really been the benefit of him coming here and racing and winning the likes of the Derry marathon. These guys we work with are not professional athletes. He doesn’t have a contract and he’s not sponsored by Nike or Adidas or any of the big brands. They’re farmers first and foremost. and talented athletes as well.
“As a project we try and give them a platform to get on the start line for big races and raise their profiles as athletes and ultimately expand their economic opportunities through the sport.
That’s how Eric has been able to build a better life for himself and his family.”
While the aim is to harness the athletes’ talents and help them realise their full potential, it’s not always plain-sailing as cases like Eric’s has shown.
“The athletes go through so much frustration to get their visas,” explained Mr Collins. “It’s so challenging for them to get their visas and they’re only here for a short period of time.
“Clothes like the items which were donated, just aren’t readily available in Kenya. The fact he lost that stuff because of an airline like Etihad couldn’t be a bit reasonable with him and help him out, he was absolutely devastated.
“From my side with the Project, we just thought it was ridiculous that a multi-billion pound organisation wouldn’t accommodate one bag. I understand you book the bags in and it’s done but there was no leeway, no flexibility or consideration for Eric on Sunday night when we made the phone call to try and reason with them. We were willing to pay a fee but there was no budging them at all which I felt was wrong.
“It said on the ticket 2x23kgs bags. One bag was 22kgs and the other was bang on 23kgs. The ticket said he was eligible for two so we didn’t feel we had to contact the airline about any extra baggage.
“A guy Trevor, who was hosting Eric, he called Etihad on the Saturday and he was reassured there would be no issue with the bike as we did do a due diligence check with Logan Air as well and there was no issue with them.
“We checked with both Logan Air and Etihad over the phone. They were obviously wrong as when we got to Manchester Eric hit a brick wall with that.
“We won’t be flying with Etihad again, that’s for sure. The confusion was over what was initially booked in and what was on their system and what was printed on the ticket.”
While Eric has given up hope of retrieving his abandoned luggage it hasn’t put him off returning to Derry as he still plans on defending his Walled City title in 2020.
And Mr Collins is hopeful he can still retrieve Eric’s baggage in due course.
“We’ve been bringing athletes across the UK and Ireland since 2014 and this if the first time anything like this has ever happened.”
When the ‘Journal’ contacted Etihad Airways about Eric’s situation, a representative claimed check-in staff were not authorised to waive such a large excess baggage without approval from the company’s Head Office.
“With regard to excess baggage, we do try to review requests made in advance on a case by case basis, particularly from certain humanitarian organisations and charities. However, in this instance we were not contacted about this in advance.
“The check-in staff at the airport are not authorised to waive such large excess baggage without prior review and approval from Etihad Head Office.”