The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


HAVE A NICE FRIGHT, SIR © Duncan Graham 2005

This is going to be a high octane complaint about airports and airlines. But because I’m an expert don’t send me your troubles; I’ve got enough thanks. Just fasten your seatbelt and put the tray table uptight – sorry, upright. And don’t bother corresponding with the airlines; did you think the Lost Property Office is for baggage?

Better rant at the cardboard cutouts of smiling staff which clutter the check-in aisles. Now that could be really effective.

Top of my list is the bouncy M’bak Mandala who sold me a ticket to Manado, gave a receipt and then said the plane had been cancelled. The obvious question was: ‘Then why did you just issue the ticket?’ Lots of laughter. The joke was like the flight: I didn’t get either.

Actually she failed Airline Standard UP/U. This requires passengers to be given notice of cancellation after they’ve arrived at the airport. Well-qualified staff (Star Air used to be tops) put your baggage on the conveyor belt and wait till it has vanished behind the frilly plastic curtain before announcing there’s no plane.

There’s no value in asking: ‘Why didn’t you call me before I checked out of the hotel and took a two-hour cab drive through the Valley of Death? You’ve got my HP number.’ At this point the giggle-meter goes off the scale. Stupid questions must come from a stupid questioner.

They’re right - the problem is the passenger. The sacred airline credo reads in letters of burnished aluminium: ‘The customer is an idiot.’ Staff recite this awesome oath daily to keep their jobs.

Like most consumers of nasi plastik at 30,000 feet I like a little assurance that everything is in order. It seems logical that if the ground staff haven’t got their act together maybe the cabin crew are equally sloppy. Did the refuellers really top-up the tanks with the right stuff? Has the pilot kicked all the tyres? So here’s the wish list:

Precise details on the boarding pass, please - no blanks. If I wanted to be in a guessing game I’d enter Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? – not an airport, and be confronted by an intimidating Tantowi Yahya: ‘Before boarding Doom Airlines Flight Z 999 will you use: 1) A departure lounge? 2) A toilet? 3) An emergency exit? 4) A lawyer?’

Can the departure monitors function and have factual timely information? Yesterday’s schedules may give historians hot flushes, but today’s are more useful for travellers. Staff telling passengers for Surabaya, whose tickets stipulate Gate 10, to board through Departure Lounge 6 where the flashing sign says Jakarta, builds confidence in the future like a politician’s pledge to eliminate poverty.

Public Address systems are fine if they work (amplifiers built since Marconi are on the market) and the broadcaster articulates the words clearly. That means employing someone with a good voice. Airline policy currently prohibits using anyone other than Miss Communication but surely she’s overdue for a transfer? Even Miss Direction would be an improvement.

Could staff insist passengers follow the published rules or abandon them? (The regulations, not the passengers – they’re lost already). Like not serving fat and aggressive late arrivals who barge to the front when other potential passengers have been queuing patiently for 30 minutes? The latecomers can’t all be wives and mistresses of the airline’s directors.

Are those warnings about not using mobile phones serious? I quit complaining on a Lion Air flight when the attendant ignored three users (including a bule) sitting close by her safety-feature presentation: ‘Use of mobile phones and other electronic devices is strictly prohibited.’ That’s what she probably said. Who knows? Her voice was drowned out by ring tones - Greensleeves, the 1812 Overture and a few bars of Air Supply.

Maybe such instructions are just to pass the time while they look for a pilot who remembers how the thing works because the right captain is still sitting in the wrong departure lounge. How can little Nokias upset the navigation systems of big Boeings? The idea is ridiculous. Who cares whether the cockpit dials say we’re descending into Sukarno-Hatta when we’re really circling Mt Bromo? Stop worrying. No-one has ever got out of this life alive.

Lest you think these are the ravings of a bule who has lived too long in Indonesia (or maybe not long enough), read on about my last trip south.

The plane arrived late into Perth and the airbridge doors into the airport were closed. More than 160 Australians, rugged individualists all, independent custodians of a great birthright of robust anti-authority sentiments, stood for ten minutes in a sealed steel tube waiting for someone to do something. Just like sheep – except that sheep bleat.

Immigration sneered that it was nothing to do with them. Airport management said it was the responsibility of Air Paradise. The airline blamed the airport; no one else had whinged – so what was the problem?

As I said – maybe it’s the fault of those naive passengers who really believe the captain when he says: ‘Thank you for choosing to fly with us’, when he knows seat price not brand loyalty was the key factor.

But Australian airline staff still have much to learn from their Indonesian counterparts in dealing with aggrieved customers. For starters the Aussies don’t laugh. Well, not to your face anyway.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 31 July 05)

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