Rio de Janeiro’s domestic terminal was in chaos – the computerised self-check-in system was broken. What I presume would have normally been a straightforward and smooth process became a babbling bedlam of confused and irritated passengers.
My girlfriend, Jo and I had got out of bed in the middle of the night to make our way from Copacabana for a stupidly early flight to Sao Paulo, where we would connect with another flight, leaving Brazil for Lima in Peru. It was to be a long and tedious day, spent merely travelling a long distance. When we arrived at the airport, however, the departure board showed no sign of our flight number and we wondered if maybe we were at the wrong terminal. Surely the airline’s customer service staff would be able to help us? As a businessman myself, who now mentors and coaches other business owners, this was about to be quite an interesting experience.
We had been pre-warned by our travel agent that South American Airlines are notorious for changing flight times, flight numbers and even carriers, without even the perfunctory politeness of bothering to inform passengers. Nevertheless, this was somewhat alarming.
As most of our planned holiday would be spent in Spanish speaking countries, I had learnt some rudimentary travel-related Spanish. Since we only had a few days in in Brazil though, I had not bothered to learn the more complicated-sounding, native Portuguese language. This was a moment when I wished I had.
As we were early for check-in, in case of delays with the chaotic Rio traffic, there were very few passengers around, and only one or two staff in the whole building. I approached a girl in a uniform, armed with my flight itinerary. Of course, ‘Sod’s Law’ ensured that she spoke not a word of English. I persevered with my best sign language and followed the example of my English forbears in such situations – I spoke English slower and louder, with a couple of ‘Obrigado’s’ (thank you’s) and smiles thrown in for goodwill. I’m happy to accept my responsibility for travelling in a country without knowing the language, but it was a World Cup soccer year and English is the language of the skies.
I believed I had established that the airline alliance had changed the flight carrier from TAM to LAN, or the other way around, so we now had an unknown flight number. Rather like an Australian bank would do with their tellers, both airlines had numerous check-in counters that were of course all irritatingly closed, but a queue of tired and bewildered people with luggage had begun to form. It was the only line so we joined it.
Time was marching on and nothing was happening, so when two counters opened suddenly on the other side of the building, people broke ranks and cantered towards that check-in area, going as fast as one can when pushing trolleys or struggling with heavy bags. As nowhere else was open, we figured, that’s us too.
On approaching the roped area we discovered a number of self-check-in computers, guarded by two uniformed airline staff, one girl and one guy with a crackling portable radio. The new queue had no relation to the old queue – the ones now at the front of it were the passengers who had reacted the quickest to the activity. The computers were working intermittently, so some people were successfully printing boarding passes and moving on to the baggage drop counters. Things were moving so slowly that people began to be visibly concerned they would miss their flight and it now appeared that the staff were checking in more than the one flight in the same place.
When we finally got to the computer and entered our names, we were delighted when the system recognised us. The joy was very short-lived when the next screen said, ‘Sorry but we are unable to process your check-in. Please see counter staff for assistance.’ Luckily we were able to attract the attention of the radio man. He spoke a little English and instructed us to follow him as he took us to a different queue, one that was for first class passengers, people with massive boxes, guitars or randomly weird objects or families with children, all of whom were summoned ahead of us. The screaming kids added to the early morning chatter and increase in volume.
I felt as if I could feel my beard growing as we waited an eternity, being systematically ignored by everyone. We were also somewhat ‘disappointed’ to observe that the second, old queue had progressed to the point where we would have now been at the previous counter, had we stayed put. Our stress level was visibly rising as the girl at our new counter did everything possible to avoid making eye contact with us. My partner Jo, left me with the bags and went in search of the radio guy.
When she returned with him, he reassured us to wait in our queue, until the girl called us beyond the white line. We did as instructed and finally, nothing happened! By now, it seemed we would not make our flight, which would then make us miss the onward connection, so Jo approached yet another staff member, while I waited with the bags.
Finally, the girl who had avoided all eye contact had no choice but to serve us, so we showed the itinerary and explained our plight. As she tried to find us in the system, a German girl surged forward and began ‘losing the plot’ and ‘going off’ at the unfortunate staff member. She ranted and raved and stomped her foot, almost foaming at the mouth at the prospect of missing her flight because of their incompetence. We understood her agitation as we had been there far longer than her, but she had clearly not read ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. She was politely asked to wait her turn and reassured that the flight was delayed and to please keep calm. The German girl stepped back, but steam continued to escape from her ears! I remembered of course the stereotypical Germanic trait of the need for efficiency at all times and I couldn’t help smiling.
Transformed surprisingly from a serial eye contact-avoider, the airline’s Juliana now became super helpful, perhaps because we had not allowed our Aussie brand of steam to escape in her general direction. She explained that we would now be too late for the connecting flight from Sao Paulo to Lima; that the next flight would be twelve hours later; and that we could go back to our hotel and return for a flight in the afternoon. Rather than go through all this again and risk the Rio traffic, I negotiated that we still catch this flight and wait in Sao Paulo airport for the connection. Juliana then amazed us by organising for us to have a hotel room for a few hours in Sao Paulo, along with lunch, all courtesy of the airline. We thanked her profusely, but couldn’t help reflect that had she just acknowledged us earlier, we would have suffered a lot less anxiety. Maybe she had just felt overwhelmed by the chaos and her supervisor had been too busy flapping to exercise leadership!
We finally dropped our bags and headed for the security screening area at the entrance to the departure lounge, only to find another lengthy queue – one of those annoying snake queues with chrome poles connected by fabric strips. Even your hand luggage becomes heavy as you shuffle forwards, like lost, desperate souls at a soup kitchen, gradually remembering to remove your belt, metallic objects, mobile phone and so on from your pockets. The departure board showed our flight as ‘Delayed’, so we thought ‘Phew, plenty of time still’. I was amused to see the German girl behind us, clearly still seething, while her boyfriend stood behind her, still looking embarrassed at her earlier outburst that had resembled a pre-school tantrum.
Out of the blue two English girls joined the back of the queue and began negotiating past people at speed with ‘Excuse me please, I need to get past’. It was just like in Robert Cialdini’s student experiment stories in his book, ‘Influence’, as the queue behaved like sheep and obligingly stepped aside, just as we have all been trained since kindergarten, because the girls implied that their particular situation was of the utmost importance. Only when they met an obstructive passenger, did one of the girls say, ‘Excuse me please, we’re going to miss our flight’.
Just as the words left her mouth, the Departure Board message changed, not to ‘Boarding Now at Gate 36’ as you’d normally expect, but it went immediately to ‘Final Call’. A ‘Bing-bong’ announcement confirmed the news, just as the English girls barged past the last passenger and rushed through the security scanner. The queue as one, realised that we had all been duped by the girls, who were in fact on the same flight as us all. The outrage was intense and tangible. That’s when something happened, such as I have never previously witnessed in an airport terminal.
Formerly well-behaved passengers reacted with intensity and within seconds turned from a passive, polite, orderly line into a seething, angry mob. In post Zombie-Apocalypse fashion, the frenzied militants unclipped the connecting strips from the poles, in fact a couple were simply knocked over, and they charged at the security staff!
The guys sporting the blue security uniforms were not exactly petite fellows as you would expect, but they were alarmed as the mob surged towards them, blending the ingredients of panic at the thought of missing their flight, with tiredness and frustration at having been kept waiting for hours, along with anger and outrage that those girls had simply been allowed to jump the queue at their expense.
Things went into slow motion at that point as a melange of arms, legs, angry mouths and baggage fused into a tsunami of uncontrollable humanity. It seemed as if the security staff would be trampled and their machines and scanners would be smashed into oblivion by the tidal wave of wrath.
Then suddenly, above all of the din, one voice of authority yelled ‘STOP!!!!!’ and a single security guard with a raised hand stopped the crowd like a shotgun going off in a Western movie saloon fight.
Stunned silence prevailed.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, you must stay in the queue please. Nobody will miss their flight. The plane will not leave until you are all on board. Please everyone, you must stay in the queue and take your turn through security.’ He repeated the instructions in Portuguese. The relief was palpable and I was impressed with the man’s ability to remain calm and polite, yet still be assertive.
Having cleared security, we ran to the gate and were very relieved to board our aircraft. The security man had spoken the truth, however, because we then sat on the plane for another eternity as stragglers from the queue continued to trickle on and take their seats.
From a business perspective, I reflected on what had transpired over those few hours. I had seen people wait patiently for hours, with very little communication from anyone to explain what was going on, what the airline were doing about their problems or how it would impact on the passengers. This had been in complete contrast I must say, to all of the other flights we took with the same airline and other airlines throughout our South American adventure. What was particularly striking though, was just how quickly good behaviour turned to panic and almost riotous behaviour, when the circumstances appeared to be calamitous, inconvenient and unjust.
Customers will understand if you are experiencing challenges beyond your control. Mostly they remain polite and cooperative, but if you want them to remain that way, communication is vital. Acknowledgement, smiles and apologies go a long way. Conciliatory gestures, like the free meal and somewhere to rest and refresh made an even bigger difference. We could see that the staff were trying and that they were clearly stressed by the system breakdown. They just needed to make more of an effort to keep us informed.
If your business suffers technical issues, always remember to keep your customers in the loop. That just may make the difference as to whether they ever come back!
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