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      Volume 11 |Issue 05| February 03, 2012 |


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Food for Thought

Airport Adventures of the Worst Kind

Farah Ghuznavi

Image: Courtesy

In recent years, “air rage” has become a well-known phenomenon, with airlines taking great pains to keep potentially problematic (as well as actually unruly) passengers firmly in line. Measures to do so range from strategically placed placards warning of dire consequences unless staff members are treated with due respect, to limiting alcohol consumption of pugnacious passengers, to the swift summoning of beefy security personnel/air marshals, where necessary; the latter "service", however, is available only on limited flight routes, usually in the US.

Interestingly, there seems to be rather less awareness of what might be called "flight-related ground rage" (FGR) or "transit rage", something I was a recent victim of during a (longer than expected) transit stop at Helsinki airport. After delays in disembarking passengers from our arriving flight, unexpected and lengthy security checks, and phenomenally long Schengen entry queues - interspersed with a series of encounters with strikingly unsympathetic airport staff – I, perhaps unsurprisingly, missed my departing flight.

To make matters worse, I had to listen to a heartrending series of final calls for passengers on my inaccessible flight - so near, and yet so far - while remaining trapped in a pointless, endless queue waiting to enter Schengen. Nor was I alone; several dozen people missed their flights as a result of the airport staff being unwilling to designate one of no less than fifteen desks processing passengers as a priority queue. This could never have happened in Dubai where the aforementioned priority queue would have been set up in a flash - or even in Dhaka, where passengers would simply have been called to the front in order to make it onto the plane in time. As a result, I was able to finally understand why some people are willing to make a spectacle of themselves by having a meltdown at a place as public as an airport.

Of course, I couldn't give into it; otherwise I would never leave Helsinki! No, I had to get myself on the next flight out, by somehow maintaining the facade of being a calm and trustworthy passenger. When I finally reached the transfer desk, about two dozen extremely harried people were being desultorily (mis)handled by a number of airline staff. To cut a long story short, I found out that two of the Indians from my flight who had been successful in talking their way to the front of the immigration queue - by appealing to other passengers, and ignoring the airport staff who had bullied the rest of us into the back of the queue - had actually made it to their gates before their planes departed. Only to be informed that the gates were closed, and they would not be allowed on the planes! After hearing that, I could only be grateful I had not been with their group; otherwise the disappointment might have undone my good intentions regarding blameless behaviour...

To cut an even longer story only slightly shorter, I was immensely grateful to get on the next flight out. The young man who was in front of me in the line - one of those who had not been allowed to board his flight despite arriving at the gate before takeoff - had to join yet another queue to get the necessary boarding card to catch the next flight out to his destination. So it made me even more grateful that I was, inexplicably enough, given my boarding card without having to queue again. Perhaps they heard the sound of ticking from my soon-to-explode temper - or maybe it was the look of utter desperation on my face. Oh, I forgot to mention that my mobile phone battery gave up the ghost after I arrived in Helsinki. Frankly, I was grateful that I managed to leave without suffering the same fate as the battery...Though I certainly felt thoroughly battered as a result of the experience.

When I recounted this experience to a Swedish friend of mine who lives and works in Albania, she responded, "When the Finns have caught up with what is needed to run a hub, let us please send them to Budapest, which is my most often frequented hub. Since the Finns and the Hungarians share the same root language, the former might be able to come up with a few helpful solutions for the latter! In Budapest, they only recently abolished the one kilometre-long corridor that passengers have to navigate upon disembarkation. Fortunately, it has signs to keep up your morale if you are flagging (!). For example, the placards read '500 metres to go, it takes only 3 minutes to walk' or 'Only 150 metres left: 1 more minute to walk'".

She continued, "In addition, in Budapest there are never any trolleys to be found (there the Hungarians can already learn from the Finns). So when I'm walking with my three year old son on one arm, my six year old walking in front, and several pieces of hand luggage in my 'free' hand, the walk seems endless. And it's even worse when we are on our way out from Albania, entering Schengen, because the line to get in is very, very long. Adding to the fun, the stopover is often one hour, within which time we have to manage all of this! Of course, the advantage is that flights both in and out of the hub often have a similar delay of 30 minutes or more, so most of the time you make it through in the end!"

Getting back to my Helsinki experience, one must be fair. The fact is, for my arriving flight to be delayed, or even to miss a connecting flight - while unpleasant - was hardly a crisis. What I couldn't understand was why the airport administration was not organised enough to create a priority queue for passengers delayed due to no fault of their own, who had flights that were well within the realm of possibility to catch; why they couldn't be bothered to inform passengers on the announcement system that they should go to the transfer desk at such and such location if they missed their flights, as so many of us did that day; why passengers were misdirected and instructed to go to gates when flights had already left (it turned out I wasn't the only one with this experience); why people were turned away at the gate when the planes hadn't left; why distraught passengers were handled with an icy indifference that rivalled the infamous Scandinavian winters; and finally, why we weren't even given the courtesy of a bottle of water or a snack, let alone an apology!! That trip really put the "hell" into Helsinki, as far as I am concerned, and I will not be in a hurry to return there as a transit passenger until someone reliably informs me that the standards of care have been irrevocably dragged into the 21st-century. Based on past performance, I am not holding my breath on this one...

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