What type of service is perceived a good service? It is common knowledge to any gregarious service provider to embrace this service philosophy that ‘Customer is KING’, period. But in reality, some customers are never satisfied - no matter how hard we try but notwithstanding, they are still KING. Even SIA, consistently ranked among the best airlines in the world receives the same amount of compliments as opposed to complaints and like it or not, they will continue to face this stigma of sorts for as long as they are still in the aviation business. Unless proven utterly wrong by any wise Alec, they will still be ranked among the best in the world while complaints on them continue to gather pace.
That was 1988, a DRAGON year and it was an exceptionally bumper harvest for Singapore’s hospitality industry, the airlines included too. Suffice to say, the foray of tourists, the world over visiting our bustling lion city was fast filling up the hotel rooms scattered all over our little land mass.
Still in my mid 20s, I was a junior passenger handling officer with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines based in the world’s best airport, Changi International Airport which still ranks among the best till these days. I would like to relate an unforgettable incident at work but I can’t remember the exact day or month. It was somewhere at the tail end of the dragon year. Our KLM aircraft, one of Boeing B747-300 series, then the sleekest, the biggest and the most modern commercial aircraft in the world, which SIA named it the ‘BIG TOP’ then, was scheduled to fly to Amsterdam enroute New Delhi from Singapore. As already expected, we were overbooked on the flight, near 400 passengers without a sweat. We were not the only carrier doing a roaring business, most airlines were full to the brink and our state-of-the-art Changi International Airport was bustling with activities of sorts.
Queue was already building up when we proceeded to open our counters for check-in and on this flight, we had a good mix of Indian, European and some Singaporean passengers. The Indian passengers were mostly traders who purchased bulky TVs, video sets & other electronic goods at up-and-coming Mustafa Centre and the ‘Mamak’ stores at High Street Centre to be sold for profits back home whereas the Europeans, among them, expatriates with their children in tow were on long home-leave for the Christmas cum New Year. It was going to be another hectic flight for us given the overbooking status and our job was intermittently slowed to a crawl at times when some of these Indian passengers started to haggle for waiver on their grossly overweight baggage citing all sorts of excuse, much to the annoyance of some European passengers who were queuing behind them.
Our flight was scheduled to take-off at 2300 hrs and 45 mins prior, many passengers were already assembled at the boarding gate waiting for boarding clearance. At the check-in counters, we managed to clear the queue and closed half an hour prior to departure. We were in good time to manifest passengers & cargo and finally readied the load sheet & flight plan to the Captain for final approval.
Meanwhile, boarding clearance was given and passengers started boarding. The door was shut right on the dot after the last passenger and we were ready to push-out. “Phew, what a hectic flight, it has been!”, I said to myself. After half an hour waiting, the aircraft was still sitting idle on the tarmac and by then, we learnt from our ground engineer that they were facing some technical difficulty with the aircraft at the last hour. But our ground engineer assured that the technical hitch-up should be resolved quickly and we felt comforted. Another hour had gone, trying to steal a peep from the misty window panel at the holding gate to catch all the actions on the tarmac, I can see our technical department colleagues moving frantically around and much as we would like to help them, the most we can do to help was to patiently wait for the outcome. One more hour had gone past, none of my senior colleagues on duty had taken the initiative to either transfer some passengers to another airline or to arrange to house them in the hotel for the night. By then, some passengers started to walk out of the aircraft to the boarding gate demanding an explanation from us for the damning crippling delay. As front liners, we were the bashing boys for the passengers and at the same time, I had wished I was working for the technical department away from the taunting of our passengers.
It was already way past midnight, save for the ‘sickening few’ who were stretching our patience to the limits, most of our passengers remained deeply rooted to their seats, supposedly too tired to raise a ruckus or two. Food & beverages were served and after the meal, many started to doze off.
Finally it was the most dreading news I wished to hear last, our Chief Engineer, Mr Ong confirmed with our Station Manager, Mr VanDinther that urgent parts were needed to be flown in and we had no other choice but to ground the aircraft. It was already 3 am when the bad news was broke to us. Immediately, we started to prepare the ground arrangements. “How & where to accommodate some 400 passengers in such short notice?”, I quipped to one of my colleagues. Moment later, the phone in our boarding gate rang and one of our handling agent staff tasked to source for hotels called to confirm that Orchid Inn (it was then known, now it is called Copthorne Orchid) has enough rooms for all our passengers. I was pleasantly surprised indeed. What followed next, coaches were rushed to transfer the passengers and immigration & customs offices had to re-call their officers to perform CIQ functions. It was about 0500 hrs, weary passengers were woken up from their sound sleep. Some children were heard wailing and systematically, everyone was escorted out of the airport to the awaiting coaches at the carpark to be transferred to Orchid Inn. At about 0600 hrs, the last coach finally left with the remaining passengers and we headed back to office hoping to catch a few winks before calling it a day.
Not long later, our office phone rang and it was picked up by one of my colleagues. An agitated staff from the hotel demanded to know why we dumped our passengers at their hotel when they had no rooms at all. Almost falling off from my chair, “Impossible?”, I gestured to my colleague who was still on the line with the hotel staff. The hotel staff insisted someone from our side to be present to pacify the angry motley of passengers before all hell broke loose.
My senior colleague and I were tasked by our Station Manager to rush down first. I was in my colleague’s car (he was the Duty Manager) and while on the move, he quickly took off his epaulettes from his uniform. When I saw it and ‘reading him like a book’, I pretended to ask why he took off his epaulettes. He told me that he won’t want to be fingered out as the most senior person from our company for fear of being bashed up at the hotel. On duty, we are required to don our epaulettes which indicate our seniority in our prim white shirt & dark blue pants. My senior colleague had three gold-threaded bars on his epaulettes while my one & only ikan bilis gold-thread bar remained glued on my frail shoulders throughout the saga.
It was about 0700 hrs when we arrived at the hotel entrance and almost immediately, I was ushered by the hotel security to the big function hall where all our passengers were temporarily housed to keep them away from the hotel guests. My senior colleague was not nowhere to be seen though we stepped out of the car together and I had no inkling where he shot off to. When I stepped in and identified myself from the company, I saw angry faces rushing towards my direction and within spilt second, I was completely surrounded. Fortunately for me, the hotel did assign some security officers which were my only protection from any aggressors. I did not have time to feel ‘frightened’ but admittedly, any kindest soul on earth would have felt the fire in their belly to ‘roast alive’ anyone from the airline for such screw-up. A visibly angry young European lady jumped in front of me, gave me a hard push and started shouting at me. Knowing my own fiery temperament too well and under any normal circumstances, my immediate instinct would be giving her the same treatment back but something told me to restraint from such reaction. Had I laid my hand on her, the angry crowd behind her could have broken me into many smaller pieces. Comforting enough, there were some forgiving ones who stood up for me actually reasoning with them that I was an employee of the company who was assigned to solve the foul-up. I took the opportunity to plead for some time to allow us to make alternate arrangements. Not long later, two more colleagues of mine arrived to render extra help and we used the desk in one section of the reception area to perform our urgent tasks. Most if not all hotels were full, there was no way we could find one or two hotels to accommodate everyone in one go. We had to plead with hotels to squeeze as many available rooms including suites for us.
In the midst of our many frantic calls to all over, the hotel duty manager asked to see me and I went over to meet him. Some of our Indian passengers were held up by the security officers for breaking the marble table out of sheer frustration and unless someone can guarantee payment, they will not be released from custody. After consulting our Dutch boss, we decided to absorb the damage which cost some thousands but I cannot remember the exact cost.
By noon time, we managed to transfer bulk of our passengers to many different hotels from the posh Shangri-la to sleazy Lai Ming in redlights Geylang, they were accommodated in any first available rooms we can lay our hands on. While we scrambled to find rooms for our affected passengers, we did not have the slightest opportunity to record vital information of their whereabouts for our compilation. We simply transferred them onto the coach or hailed a taxi for them once we managed to secure rooms from a particular hotel. In our rush, we actually lost control of the situation.
When we finally transferred all our passengers to their hotels, it was past 1500 hrs by then and the aircraft was still sitting idle on the tarmac. Gosh, we had another scheduled flight on the same day to Amsterdam to contend with and our staff manning was already spreading thin. I was deprived of sleep for more than 12 hours and I did not have breakfast or lunch either. Miraculously I did not feel tired or hungry.
I did not go home except to press on. The urgent parts finally arrived in the evening from another flight and quickly sent to our aircraft. It was installed, tested and final OK given by our engineers. Given the good news, we had re-scheduled to leave at 2300 hrs, some 24 hours later.
Contacting passengers was ‘mission near impossible’ for we did not know who was staying where, who had been transferred to another airline earlier or who had onwards connection, so on and so forth. It was nightmarish to think of the many logistical issues but somehow, we managed to get the remaining affected passengers to the airport for re-checking. When the last passenger boarded, the door was shut and we kept our fingers crossed while waiting for the push-out. Eventually, we saw the towtug pushed the aircraft out of the tarmac, we felt so relieved that we gave each other a pat on our shoulders for a job well done, never mind how.
The aircraft may have departed but the aftermath that followed next was equally daunting. The amount of complaints and claims received from passengers were beyond description. The cost of accommodation alone was some 6-figure sum, I came to realize later.
After more than 24 hours without sleep and proper meals, I was totally beaten when I reached home. That has remained my longest day work by far but I do not think I can ever beat this non-stop working record now in my 40s.
What lesson have I drawn from this one-off experience? For once, I’ve learnt to appreciate situation on ground zero and take responsibility especially when the situation warrants an immediate response and subsequent follow-up. There was no time to pinpoint who was at fault then, rather working together as a team from top down was the only way to sail out of this ugly mess. Throughout the whole period, none of us wore a faintest smile on our face while attending to our passengers. We probably had forgotten ‘THAT SERVICE WITH A SMILE’ motto but as far as we were concerned then, smile took second place.
I firmly believe that as a service provider on the frontline of business, everyday is a new experience for every encounter with customer is different while the job may seem rather monotonous.
Wishing All A Merry Xmas & Happy New Year!!!