Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Flights of The Celestial Crews

I'd be grateful if you would indulge me a few bytes of your bandwidth to publicly recognise two crews with whom I had the pleasure of spending some time earlier this week. Unusually, I spent far more of that time with the short haul crew allocated to my one hour domestic connection than I did with the long haul crew who brought me in from the USA - but that's one of the odd delights of 'irregular operations' for you.

Anyway, please step forward firstly the crew of last Tuesday evening's BA188 from Newark and, secondly, Wednesday's BA1332 to Newcastle.

With the weather conditions in the UK being reported Worldwide, no-one on board the Newark flight was under any illusion that we would definitely be heading back to Britain with guaranteed access to Heathrow, either on-time or otherwise. Throughout the flight then, crew were visibly engaging with passengers who had onward connections and helping to reassure them.

As it was, the 777 touched down on Heathrow's Runway 09L almost on-time, but then had to wait a while for snow clearance to pull on to a remote stand around 35 minutes behind. Stairs were delivered reasonably promptly and then a bus appeared. As door 2L was open and passengers had begun to move forward, it was a cold wait for that bus - made even fresher when the hi-lift arrived for assistance passengers and 2R had to be opened, creating a biting cross-wind. The crew, lead by the CSD, spent the time offering cups of tea to those standing closest to the doors, and running up and down the stairs to speak with ground staff who had access to the latest operational information which they could then relay back to passengers with connections. If that was a crew disaffected by new working conditions, then they were paragons of professionalism in disguising it - but more likely they were simply pleased to be helping their passengers in any way that they could and for that, they deserve due recognition.

Once we were disembarked and were through the FCC, we had a couple of hours to kill in T5 before we boarded the 1332, showing as being an hour late on the screens. Unfortunately, the operating Captain for our flight was stuck on his inbound operation, which we were told was itself waiting for a stand to become available. Naturally, with cancellations and delays building, there were far more aircraft on the ground than normal and space was at a premium. Still, the First Officer gave regular and constant updates on the Captain's whereabouts, which were largely immaterial at that stage given the continuing need for de-icing and a fairly long queue for that too.

Eventually, our Captain went out-of-hours and a new one was sought from the Crew Report Centre. We had a volunteer on board quite quickly, his intended IST sector having been cancelled. The wait for de-icing wasn't over however, so in time the First Officer also went out of hours and was replaced too, as was at least one cabin crew member.

Throughout, the flight crew, the Purser and his front-of-cabin crew-mate talked to us and kept us informed of developments - as did their colleagues to passengers seated further back. Our crewmember was relentlessly positive and up-beat; his Purser calm and measured. They made for a splendid team. A non-operating crew member, heading home to NCL, went and emptied the newspaper 'bins' at the head of the jetty and distributed them to those who hadn't picked one up on boarding. As the wait continued, tea, coffee and soft drinks were served, along with the now standard daytime cookie. To augment supplies, the crew managed to get extra cookies from the adjacent cancelled aircraft, which gave them the opportunity to perform regular refreshment rounds.

At last, the de-icing rig appeared and we were sprayed and sluiced and ready for departure. Take off was on 09R and the crew were straight out with a bar service as soon as they were able to. The Captain clearly begged the most direct routing to NCL and did not relent on the throttles until we began our descent towards the airfield. After a spectacular high-altitude view of the South and Midlands through crystal-clear skies, and then closer inspections of Durham's floodlit Norman Cathedral and Sunderland's Stadium of Light, we began finals into NCL and immediately encountered cloud that promptly delivered a dump of snow on to the runway. In the swirling darkness however, a tell-tale engine pitch-change and aircraft attitude alteration belied a go-around - confirmed 30 seconds later by PA from the flight deck.

We climbed into a holding circuit and passed St Mary's Lighthouse six times whilst we waited for snow clearance on the ground. Several passengers were clearly unnerved, and the earlier swoop and regular banking didn't do much for their digestive tracts. The crew stoically ran up and down with more of those euphemistically-labelled 'waste' bags.

The Captain announced that we'd be making another approach attempt pending reports from the ground but that, if those reports were not forthcoming or were negative, then we'd likely abort again and head to Manchester. So, once again, we left our clear skies and descended into the gloom, shortly to be pressed back into our seats by the force of the engines spooling up to give us lift as he abandoned the approach and headed back to altitude and across the Pennines. 'Manchester in 15 minutes', apologised the clearly disappointed driver.

It probably didn't help the nervous passengers that the MAN Fire Service saw fit to be sitting alongside the runway with their blue lights flashing as we touched-down - where it seems they quietly continued to sit in their strobing oblivion as we left the runway and began to taxi towards the terminal building.

And straight past it.

The tower allocated us a stand which turned out to be in the cargo area, a piece of tarmac which is possibly closer to Liverpool than Manchester. Nevertheless, some stairs were brought alongside and a bus arrived promptly. Baggage handlers were unavailable however, and the airport authorities do not allow disembarkation until bags are being unloaded, so we were to remain on board.

After a general PA, the Captain immediately came out into the cabin to talk to passengers and to explain what was being done. He offered access to the cockpit and his open window to those who needed fresh air, whilst we waited for the airport to allow a door to be opened. He ordered catering to be brought on board to sate us during whatever wait there might be, and before long paninis were delivered and heated. At the same time, the stairs were pulled to door 1L allowing it to be opened - although disembarkation was not still not approved. The paninis were devoured.

Despite having been emptied at Heathrow just prior to our push-back, the forward washroom waste tank became full, so the two aft facilities saw regular use.

Again, throughout the cabin, every single cabin crew member was talking to passengers; calming them, reassuring them, offering further refreshment, explaining what the options for onward travel might be. To a man (and woman) they were bright, positive, encouraging, efficient and authoritative. Of course, every single passenger had a reclining leather seat and a table, the APU was running so there was light and heat and cooling, and the flow of information was constant, if not always completely consistent as external factors influenced developments, nor necessarily guaranteed to be the most pleasing of news to receive.

All fairly run-of-the-mill stuff then, you may say, and it sounds as if everyone was quite relaxed unless they were suffering from Boeing Belly with all the swooping and looping. As such, the crew did well, but nothing that they shouldn't be expected to do, yes?

Well no, and I'll tell you why:

1. The Passengers

In one case that I observed on the 188, and in depressingly too many on the 1332, passenger behaviour was appalling. I don't mean a bit tetchy; I mean petulant, irresponsible, unreasonable, demanding, bullying, threatening, selfish, self-inflictingly uncomfortable and, on-occasion, downright abusive. The juvenile ranting wasn't reserved just for the operating crew - on the 1332 they saw the homeward-bound non-operating ones as legitimate targets too. But there was more, as those ranters sought to whip up discontent amongst other passengers who had more sense. I may have just made myself unpopular by saying all that, but I'll ice the cake by saying that it struck me as one of those times when British people try to emulate Americans, without having half the charm, understanding or imagination of the latter. They just shout with nothing to say.

It was embarrassing.

An elderly disabled gentleman sat quietly being talked to regularly by the crew, whilst over-fed, over-important types railed and riled in equal measure as they demanded that same cabin crew perform acts that would defy the combined efforts of The Queen, Jesus, Sir Robert McAlpine and David Blaine; from unilaterally overriding airport security (as barmy as it may indeed be) to personally creating three course dinners, building a five star hotel with Heavenly Beds and Frette linen immediately adjacent to door 1L, and then flying them on to Newcastle on the airport's conveniently-displayed (but resolutely earthbound) Concorde.

'Otherwise', they repeatedly threatened, 'there'll be a riot'. A pretty sight it was not.

So, faced with that, I do think that the crew did mightily well to show warmth, empathy and compassion to those in genuine need of assistance, rather than be beaten by those with a need only to hear the sound of their own voices.

Now, commentators on such circumstances may point out (in mitigation) that it's human nature to become agitated when matters are out of one's control. It's a fair point, and yet did any one of those people appear to have done anything to maintain any control themselves, or at least improve their own situations? Indeed, was that what they were demanding?

The paradox seemed to me to be that everything that they were demanding was to be more controlled. They wanted to be taken, to be put, to be fed, to be quenched, to be accommodated. Of those making their mouths go, none of them seemed to have looked at a weather forecast. None of them seemed to have looked out of a window at T5. None of them seemed to have thought it prudent to buy some extra food before embarking (if not for the flight itself then for their potentially perilous drive home from Newcastle). None of them seemed to think that desisting from comforting but otherwise unnecessary intake of liquids in Weatherspoons next to A6 might avoid later discomfort in loo runs.

None of them seemed to understand the relative position of a cabin crew in the structure of a body corporate. None of them seemed relieved that the limited-range aircraft was safely on the ground with everyone's life insurance no-claims bonus intact. None of them seemed to twig that the delay would be a damn sight more comfortable if they sat down in their air-conditioned, reclining leather seat rather than crowding the galley in the hope of being 90 seconds quicker to get off whenever the time came.

In short, none of them seemed to have a blind bit of imagination.

How depressing.

However, whilst a vocal minority made things even more inconvenient for the vast majority, the one thing we all had in common was that we'd paid for this experience. Some more than others, some possibly very little at all as an O&D itinerary, some perhaps a great deal as part of a Club Wolrld or even First Class trip. So, my second reason for thinking that the crew did a remarkable job is the behaviour of:

2. The Company

As many of you will know, I'm a huge supporter of British Airways. They're the airline that, I'm unashamed to say, objectively meet my needs most regularly and most reliably from my home airport and to the majority of worldwide destinations which I have cause to visit. Subjectively, I have a huge affinity with the brand, which I'd contend is very possibly the strongest commercial aviation brand in the World. It may be regularly on the receiving end of media criticism in its home market, but the fact remains that it's an aspirational brand in most (if not all) of the territories that it serves, and it connects Britons with over 150 destinations across the globe. It has, even in the last months, shown itself to be at the forefront of product and route development and remains one of the few airlines (notably other than the UK's other 'flag carrier' - Virgin Atlantic) which guarantee a flat bed in business class on every single one of its long haul operations.

T5, after its breach birth, is in my opinion one of the World's finest terminals in which to spend time (security and North upper-level airside toilets aside). Whilst premium passengers have access to some really very good lounges, it's non-premium passengers who I think do best; light airy open spaces, excellent shopping and dining options, a huge choice of seating types and seemingly always a relatively quiet corner to read a book - without the interminable walkways of Schiphol.

However, when comment and criticism is due, I'm not too blind to give it - and this week's experience raised some fundamental questions:

The first question has to be 'why on earth did the 1332 operate at all?' When the screens at T5 showed almost every single short haul flight cancelled, what was so important about 'The Toon' that seemingly warranted moving heaven and earth to get the aircraft away? The aircraft wasn't needed in NCL, as it turned out that there were a brace of Airbii on the ground there already. There didn't appear to be any Heads of State or UN Envoys on board. Indeed there wasn't even a Captain for a good part of the wait.

The second is why, after an almost 7 hour delay to departure, in the thick of the worst Winter weather to have hit the UK for 30 years, had the company made no contingency for the arrival of unscheduled aircraft at its own network airports? Remember, it could just have easily been our Newark that landed at Newcastle, or a Manchester-bound aircraft might have found itself in Tyneside had the snow been over Heathrow or Lancashire and not Northumberland. Yet at Manchester there was no-one waiting for us. No baggage handlers were available. No ground staff met us at the terminal doors. No BA reps were in the baggage hall. No coaches were waiting outside. Remember in the case of the terminal doors and the baggage hall, this wasn't 15 minutes after the abort at NCL; it was two hours after touch down at Ringway. Indeed there were still no coaches three hours after landing at MAN. Thinking about it too, why was there only one coach allocated to an almost on-time 777 arrival from EWR; a coach which then had to do repeated loops between T5C and T5A? Was it a shock for a flight to arrive from New York with 200 people on board?

Thirdly, why were the crew put in the position of having to explain, from only the best of their knowledge, what the company's policy might be in respect of this diversion? Turn to page 102 of the current United Airlines' Hemispheres magazine and you'll find that carrier's 'irrops' policy in black and white. You may not like it, but it's incontrovertibly not something that's just been made up by a crewmember, as some passengers accused the 1332's contingent (operating or not) of doing.

Fourthly, why did it take so long to make the decision to canvass for a replacement Captain from the rostered one, when it must have been likely that the queue of (reportedly) 20 inbound aircraft awaiting stands would not clear quickly? Indeed, why was the First Officer not replaced simultaneously, when it was obvious that the delay would render him unable to fly too?

Fifthly, why were passengers so hungry, and the only available sustenance at the company's home base was more biscuits lifted from an adjacent catered-but-cancelled aircraft? Why does a 'network' airline not understand that a passenger who books a through ticket from Los Angeles to Newcastle, or indeed to Geneva or Rome, is not someone who has left their own cosy kitchen just after their normal breakfasting time, their bellies full of slow-release porridge oats, their pockets full of tasty treats and rosy apples, a spring in their step and the airline's catering costs slashed? Why does it think that it's acceptable, but more worryingly why does it think that it's commercially astute to lift someone off the ground in California, give them a practically-pureed plate of indeterminate slop and a Kit Kat, leave them for eight or more hours before gifting them a Danish Pastry and a 'cuplet' of orange juice and then, even during times of perfect-connections and on-schedule flight times, think that a cookie will suffice through the minimum connection time, the boarding process, the flight duration, arrival, baggage retrieval and continuing journey to final destination? And no, it's not good enough to suggest that the passenger should eat a full meal in the terminal between flights; tends to encourage reasonably short connections and then everything and everyone in the airport does all it and they can to panic folks into being at the gate early, when on each inbound international connection they've also had to negotiate immigration, T5's glacial security and farcical trays and rollers.

And sixthly, why did it take so long to de-ice our aircraft? To that you might also add question 6a: why were so many BA flights cancelled on Wednesday and 6b: why is the short haul operation still shot-to-pieces and the long haul one subject to significant delay too, when other carriers are not suffering anything like the same levels of disruption - even at Heathrow?

Well, the answer to this is that de-icing of British Airways aircraft at Heathrow is undertaken by British Airways itself. And do you know how many operational de-icing rigs they have for T5, their home hub? I shall tell you what I was told today: it's two.

Furthermore, do you know how many aircraft British Airways accountants say can be de-iced per hour by those two rigs (together)? The same source advises: ten.

And do you know how many aircraft the reportedly two operational de-icing rigs at T5 can actually manage to de-ice per hour (which may or may not be related to the fact that at least one of them is on a chassis so old and unloved that it bears the Landor livery)?: it's two point five.

That's why they're having to cancel flights from a schedule that normally requires, you'll be unsurprised to learn, a touch more than 2.5 departures per hour.

And that's why I think that the crews did such a sterling effort; that's why I think that they're deserving of the highest praise; that's why I think that they should rid themselves toute-suite of their pernicious, selfish union agitators who clearly represent nothing of the passion and commitment that so many of their members display for their professions, their customers and their employer, and that's why I think that investors, analysts and the most senior executives at the airline must look incisively and immediately at what is happening, acknowledge the issues, address the challenges and restore goodwill with urgency.

Some passengers may indeed be unreasonable, but no company can afford to cut off the income that they provide in such a blase manner. And these may be some of the worst weather conditions for decades, but no airline company at Heathrow is affected as severely as BA, despite the disingenuous pleas for charity that the company issues on the entirely spurious grounds that it's bound to be most affected as it's the biggest operator at the airport.

Sorry folks: no. It should be the other way around.

At some point then, surely, British Airways needs to stop fighting these constant fires and, instead, work out who has hold of the box of matches.

And take them off them.

Preferably now.

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