Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fly the Unfriendly Skies

Untied Pilot advising passengers of delay...

18:30 Pilot: Sorry folks, we’ve had a little problem at the gate, I’m just going down to sort it out, this could delay our departure by a couple of minutes.

19:00 Pilot: Sorry folks to keep you waiting. All fixed now. We should be on our way in ten minutes.
(Good old Untied, they never miss a chance)

20:00 Pilot: Apologies again folks. I’ll just update you to keep you in the loop. A passenger was denied boarding because he was drunk. Our airline has zero tolerance for alcohol so we had to deny him. Unfortunately he took a swing at me. The doc has OKed me but regulations state I have to complete some paperwork. It shouldn’t take more than an hour. (Oh no, what kind of pilot have we GOT here? What kind of airline IS this?)

21:15 Pilot: Hello again folks. Sorry, it took a bit longer than expected. Unfortunately we have lost our place in the line so we’ll have to hold here for another half hour until we’re cleared for takeoff.
(Could I have a glass of water? Sorry, water's off)

21:40 OK folks. We’re on our way. Get you there as quickly as possible.
(Where is this pilot GOING? He's heading NORTH, we should be heading SOUTH).

300 people were kept waiting for three hours. The airline blames the drunk. But I wonder if the airline regulations weren’t at the heart of this Kafkaesque episode.

Managing problems like this requires some commonsense. First, and most obviously, an airline captain should not be exposed to potential physical injury prior to or during a flight. Second, backup airline personnel should be on hand to cope with such events and to do the paperwork so the flight can depart on time. Third, some better prediction of how long the process would take with appropriate announcements and actions like deplaning passengers to the lounge could be expected. Fourth, would you have confidence in flying with a pilot who has just been assaulted? And lastly, this simplistic “zero tolerance” attitude seems to be encapsulated in the “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” For their dedicated efforts to mismanage this event, Untied Airlines gets the award for “The Worst Flight I Have Ever Taken.”



Aviatrix said...

The commander of the aircraft has the ultimate authority to decide whether or not a situation is acceptable for departure. He or she can't override the regulations, but can override an interpretation made by the gate staff. In many cases, the captain coming down to the gate is the reason someone's problem is solved. It's like speaking to the manager to resolve a problem in a restaurant or store. The front line staff make conservative decisions based on experience and policy. The Reader's Digest moments when someone gets on the plane after all are often due to an attentive captain pulling strings.

Had the gate staff known that the denied passenger was likely to hit the captain, they might have just called security. As it was he was probably a super-premium-deluxe elite and they knew he was going to make trouble one way or the other, so passed that trouble up as far as they could. Everyone wants safety, but no one wants the rap for pissing off a top customer.

The paperwork did take an extraordinarily long time but I imagine that was more due to waiting for the right people to bring it, witness it and approve it. The paperwork is specifically there to make sure that you're not taking off with a crewmember who has been injured in a way that renders them unfit for duty.

It is illegal for an airline to board a drunk passenger, so there wasn't a choice there.

Pencilist said...

As usual, Aviatrix makes some sound observations reflecting her diverse experiences in the cockpit. Many passengers still have an image of the pilot as some burly macho guy who not only makes the key decisions but who sorts out problems with troublesome passengers (some Asian airlines don't have male cabin crew at all). I just wonder if this pilot didn't get whacked because he was taking his own stereotype too seriously.

As for being trapped on planes for three or more hours, chatting with friends about this and recalling my own nightmare flights, I feel it is extremely common. Airlines now know that passengers like to be kept informed, but they appear to think it is ok to keep them in their seats, often without the air-con on, for hours on end as long as they announce "We should be getting the go ahead any minute now" every 20 minutes or so.

Once a flight has lost its allotted take-off slot anyway, wouldn't you think the airport authorities would be only too happy to have the passengers back in the terminal wasting money on overpriced duty-free purchases?

Manila N. Velop said...

As usual, Pencilist gets to the crux of the issue - not so much how to handle the troublemaking client/scheduling cock-up/technical glitch, but how to handle the passengers affected by it. On many occasions I too have been kept inside a hot plane for several hours on end, and while it is certainly annoying to be told nothing at all, it is almost as bad to have a cheerful announcement every few minutes to the effect that everything will be sorted out very shortly so please sit back and relax. Perhaps a bit more realism or even pessimism would be in order (coupled with letting us get off the plane before we develop thromboses)?

In Japan, when you request a service (delivery of purchase, completion of repair, re-issue of bank card or whatever) the company inevitably tells you "I'm afraid this will take at least ten days. Will that be all right?" To which you think Strewth, why are they so slow/bureaucratic/lazy, but just accept with resignaton. And then three days later (occasionally it is four) you get a phone call telling you the thing is ready, which makes you think Wow, this company really got its finger out for me.

On the other hand in most Anglo-Saxon business cultures they will cheerfully tell you "Oh yes, we'll have that ready in three days". And inevitably you find yourself calling them daily for the next fortnight trying to work out what they are up to.

From a consumer's point of view I know which culture I prefer. Perhaps the airlines could also take note. (Come to think of it, the Japanese ones already have. Last week I was sitting on an ANA plane waiting to depart from Hong Kong when it was announced, with deep apologies, that we could be delayed for as long as an hour. Of course there were groans, but additional apologies from the attendants, bearing extra drinks, extra reading material and reminders that we could still use our phones, all helped to assuage them. And lo and behold, 15 minutes later we were taxying to the runway.

Auntie Love said...

Thank you to commentators for information about airline. I always reading your blog for help my poor English but today is first time for me to leave your comment.

Today we have discussion about blog in English class. Some student ask: Is Untied Airline so rude only to Japanese? Or treating rudely to everyone with equality? Please your opinion. Thank you.

Manila N. Velop said...

Well done to Auntie for posting your first comment. Not perfect English, but much better thah my Japanese. Ganbatte kudasai.

As to your question, I do not believe Untied has a racial discrimination policy. Basically they have a corporate philosophy, carefully crafted over decades of international experience, in order to intimidate all passengers, regardless of ethnic background, just enough to ensure they do not get in the way of important discussions among flight attendants about shopping in Singapore and Hong Kong, but stoppong short (prinicpally through liberal use of the words 'sir' and 'ma'am') of verbal abuse that could lead to a lawsuit.

My own Unfriendly Sky favourite put-downs include:

Passenger: Do you have any reading material?
Attendant: You should bring your own entertainment, sir.

P: Excuse me, could I...
A: Can you get someone else? I've just flown from Anchorage.

P:I notice the emergency exit seats are not taken yet?
A:Don't even think about it, sir. You are too short.

P: This is orange juice. But I asked for tomato juice.
A: Tomato juice? What is it you want?
P: You know, like she's got?
A: You mean tomayto juice sir?
P: Yes, tomato juice.
A: Please feel free to ask for language assistance, sir.

A: Be quick [in the restroom]. I need to clean it. Unless you'd like to clean it yourself, sir.

Barry Natusch said...

Thank you Aviatrix, Pencilist, Manila N. Velop and Auntie Love for putting me straight about flying as a passenger.

On my last Untied flight though I did note that the announcer substituted the term "passenger" for "customer". I wonder if that elevation in our status gives us slightly more clout? I mean "passenger" shares its lexical kickoff with "passive". "Customer" implies a contractual exchange.

Aviatrix, an especial thanks for your down to earth (?) comments. I had actually run across you before when I googled "cockpit conversations" and was directed to your excellent blog. Will drop in regularly.

Manila, your captured conversations, I am sure they are not apocryphal, their bizarre nature just echoes what I hear from gaggles of Untied flight attendants as I am buffeted in their wake on airport walkways.

My frequent flight experiences on Thai Air are invariably polite, helpful and pleasant compared to times when I am reduced to using UA.

I sense a business opportunity here. Could we offer a course for Untied Air flight attendants skilling them in how to talk so they boost customer satisfaction levels enjoyed by Singapore Airlines, Thai Air, ANA, et al?