Food for Thought
Style over Substance
Some of you may recall the severe storm that raged through the Dhaka skies a fortnight ago, on a Thursday night. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to be comfortably ensconced in your homes, safe and dry; if so, I wish I could have shared your experience. I, for one, will not be forgetting that night in a hurry. Nor will any of the other wretched souls who were my companions on that flight from Calcutta to Dhaka on that stormy night...
Things started out inauspiciously when a rainstorm began at Kolkata airport shortly after we had checked in. I wondered briefly whether it would delay our flight, but soon after the scheduled time, passengers were called to board the aircraft. I shrugged off a slight sense of unease, assuming that the flight professionals were best placed to judge the safety of the situation. After all, this was not the notoriously unreliable national carrier Biman we were talking about, but a private sector service, that billed itself as efficient and modern - and therefore presumably, very safe!
As far as assumptions went, that proved to be one of the most erroneous I have ever made. That the flight crew were fully aware of the less-than-favourable weather conditions was made evident by the announcement immediately after takeoff that passengers should keep their seatbelts on as some turbulence was expected. The first ten minutes of the half hour flight passed without major incident, but soon thereafter the turbulence became all too evident. Despite that, to my surprise, the stewardesses went ahead and served the meal - only to announce, within the next five minutes, that all tray tables were to be stowed, and food boxes were to be held in people's laps.
Within the next 15 minutes, all hell broke loose. Unusually for the Dhaka-Kolkata sector, we were in a large aircraft; despite that, the force of the winds could be felt within the cabin. As the plane began bucking, battered by the bad weather, the worried passengers tried to remain calm. The flight crew had strapped themselves into the crew seats, and no announcement was immediately forthcoming to calm the strained nerves of those on board.
After it had become evident to all but the clinically insane that we had not hit a bad patch of weather, but were engulfed by a full-fledged storm, the pilot finally announced that due to a "severe storm" raging in Dhaka, the flight was unable to land; therefore, we would maintain a holding pattern until it was safe to land. Given the sound and fury of what we were witnessing from the aircraft windows, it seemed crazy to me that we should consider remaining in the area until the storm died down. But once again, I tried to reassure myself that the pilot knew what he was doing. That is the last time I will ever make that assumption where the staff of this airline are concerned!
The next hour was pure hell. There is no other way to describe it. We held our breath in terror, as the aircraft alternated between appearing to hang suspended, unable to progress against the wind, and pitched sharply in a series of volatile movements that left some passengers begging and screaming for help, while others prayed out loud for deliverance; many began vomiting violently, as their tortured stomachs rebelled against the mid-air roller coaster ride. And in the midst of it all I kept wondering WHY the pilot didn't simply try to fly us out of the storm rather than circle around Dhaka airport while lightning flashed uncomfortably close to our windows...
It is impossible not to think about death at a time like that, and as both my parents confirmed to me afterwards, they too had been wondering if this would be the end. My mother thought that this must have been how the passengers on the ill-fated Titanic had felt, knowing that something had gone badly wrong, but not sure whether they would yet make it out of the crisis alive. In the end, after the longest hour of my life, the pilot bowed to the inevitable and flew us back to Calcutta. If only he had decided to do that 45 minutes earlier! Or better yet, if only GMG had had the common sense not to risk passengers' lives by flying us into a storm in the first place! Interestingly though, Biman had chosen to delay its departure instead of doing so…
Nor did what was at best a serious error of judgement by GMG - and frankly, in my view, the height of irresponsibility - end there. Despite having had half an hour to prepare, we arrived back on the tarmac in Calcutta to find that the ground staff had not even bothered to organise a bus to take us back to the transit lounge. Indeed, as one of the first passengers out of the plane, I was greeted by ground crew asking each other "Are the passengers going to come out?" With an unknowing degree of prescience, I responded "After that flight, if you think that you can keep the passengers aboard the plane, you're mistaken - don't even try it, you would have a riot on your hands!"
A young ground staff member shouted at passengers in a hectoring tone, instructing us to form a queue and follow him. What the queue was for, who knows, because after we had followed him back to the transit lounge, we were quickly abandoned, without being offered any apologies, a word of explanation, or even a drink of water! For the next two and half hours, the airlines in question displayed an unparalleled degree of arrogance in their handling of the shell-shocked people who had disembarked from flight Z5 OO8 expecting a minimum degree of concern and comfort from those who were supposed to be responsible for their welfare.
A group of expatriate school children, accompanied by their teachers, were among the first to make it clear that they did not wish to fly to Dhaka again that night. Many of the passengers shared that view, being unwilling to subject themselves to the possibility of yet another mid-air ordeal. It's hard to describe how frightening the prospect of re-entering that aircraft was. As a reasonably frequent traveller, I have been through my fair share of turbulence, but nothing remotely approaching what we experienced that night. And frankly, if we had not been travelling in a large aircraft, I don't want to think about what the outcome might have been.
To my amazement, not only were the ground crew unwilling to listen to the pleas and concerns of the passengers and make arrangements for them to recover from the ordeal overnight, in fact they did not even bother to enquire after passengers' welfare or provide any refreshment or reassurances until a group of irate passengers made their way back to the immigration hall in order to confront the airline staff. Even then, their handling of the situation was shockingly amateurish; at one point the aggressive manner and rudeness with a female passenger leading other passengers to demand an apology on her behalf.
I will spare you the long story of the arguments that followed, but in addition to the obnoxious behaviour displayed by the ground staff, reassurances reluctantly given were ultimately proved worthless when the airline made it clear that passengers who did not wish to fly that night would not be accommodated in any way. No amount of calm reasoning or impassioned pleading made any difference; nor did the total breakdown of one of the schoolchildren who wept heartrendingly after being informed that she would have to get back on the flight, despite having been to hell and back in the space of the last few hours...
The extent of the airline's determination to avoid their responsibility was evident in the fact that for over half an hour - despite repeated demands to speak to the manager - the member of the staff trio who was actually the manager failed to identify himself until one of the passengers, who was clearly a frequent flyer, disclosed his identity. Clearly that is one man who is proud of his job NOT!
Indeed the airline's unwillingness to take responsibility clearly pervaded the airline from top to bottom. After we had been forced to return to Kolkata, the stewardess said that she hoped we had enjoyed our flight (!) and calmly welcomed us to the city that we had been hoping to leave. Upon being asked by a passenger why they had not apologised to passengers, Stewardess Shikha replied haughtily that "the weather is not our fault, so why should we apologise". It was perhaps unsurprising that once the flight finally landed in Dhaka in the early hours of the morning, and the stewardess once again had the nerve to say that she looked forward to flying with us again, she was greeted with howls of derision and comments like "never" and "we will not be flying with the airline again from irate passengers"!
But the experience in Calcutta was really the height of bad service. To add insult to injury, one of the staff smirkingly informed me, "Madam, of course we will not make alternative arrangements and create any hassle for ourselves" (“oboshshoi amra nijeder kono khoti korbo na”). I pointed out to him that by treating passengers with such callous disregard, his airline would ultimately end up doing themselves quite a lot of damage, not least because passengers like me would do our level best to ensure that we never had to fly with them again!
But clearly, he was unmoved by my statement, perhaps failing to realise that in this one evening this private airline had truly proved itself to be the worst of both worlds - displaying a combination of private sector (misplaced) arrogance compounded by public sector standards of inefficiency! And in a country that has experienced the appalling standards of "service" set by Bangladesh Biman that is really saying something. At least it took Biman a few decades before achieving such a stunning level of deterioration in service provision…
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