Friday, 13 March 2009

Next Information at...

We've all been there I'm sure, sat at the gate with one/two/three hundred other passengers, as the flight information screen shows your flight as Delayed or Next Information at... The staff at the desk are being berated by your fellow angry passengers demanding to know what the problem is and when they are eventually going to depart. The staff unfortunately don't have any answers which only further fuels the passengers' frustration. Are they just being lazy and unprofessional, do they have really bad news they're too scared to tell you, or do they actually know as much as you do?

I've been on both sides of the fence, experiencing the frustration as a passenger without information about delays, and also as the staff member being at the forefront, being bombarded by a mass of angry passengers. Not a pleasant experience, and so I'd like to explain it from our side of the fence so hopefully you better understand next time it happens.

Depending on which airport you're at and which airline you're trying to fly with, the staff may be employees of another company contracted to represent the airline at that airport. I don't think many passengers actually realise this, that for the most part unless your flying from an airline's hub or one of its larger out stations, chances are all the staff you encounter are employed by a separate company (hence the different uniforms.) They are there to look after you from check-in to departure, and unfortunately all the delays in between.

I work for such a company, contracted by airlines to represent them. I'm not a direct employee of an airline, I wear a uniform that is non-representative of any airline, just my own company. Some of my colleagues do have airline branded uniforms, as they'll tend to work specifically representing that airline in my company. But none the less, they work for a separate company. As such, we aren't always fully aware of what is happening at the airline with regards to delays and cancellations, until the airline decides and then tells us.

We are generally at the mercy of each airlines' operations department in receiving information. These departments lie concealed in darkened rooms, deep in armoured bunkers, filled with computers, marker boards and phones. They are never seen by the public, or even by me, and are staffed by a magical workforce of busy bodies keeping an airline running. Or so I like to think so, given the impression I get when on the phone with them. They're job is on a different stress scale than mine, I can only deal with one aircraft at a time, they're looking after a whole fleet.

So when a flight has a technical problem on the ground, even though I may be standing aircraft side fully aware of what the problem is, talking with the engineers and the captain, I can't always pass that information on to my colleagues to tell the passengers. I am all for giving the passengers all the information I know, but I can't or I'll be slapped on the wrists by the airline's ops department. In these times of small profit margins, and stringent compensation rules, airlines are reluctant to pay out compensation in the form of food vouchers, hotel rooms or refunds. As such, information that is passed onto the passengers is considered carefully, and isn't always available immediately, especially to us as a third party.

Technical problems take time to diagnose and then fix, and it's unwise to estimate the time involved as it'll likely be wrong by a factor of three. Operational problems such as crewing or aircraft rotation issues, constraints with enroute ATC or destination, poor weather, local airport restrictions etc happen regularly but every case is unique and as such a different solution is required. The first solution isn't always the best, so the most efficient (and safest, if that comes into the question) has to be found, but it takes time. So your sitting in the lounge, you can even see your aircraft sitting outside the window, but all you know is it's been delayed. Rest assured that the folk behind the scenes are working on a solution, but until they come up with one, there's no point in giving you infomation that will most definitely be inaccurate.

Believe me when I say, if each time there was a serious delay I could hotel the passengers for the day, I would. 200 tired, angry and frustrated people hanging around in your airport lounge tends to prevent your day running smoothly. But we can only start to organise hotels and accommodate passengers when we are authorised to do so by the airline. Getting them to do this is generally akin to getting blood from a stone. Kent Wein did an interesting post a few weeks ago about a 26 hour delay on one his flights, and makes interesting reading telling the story from the crew's point of view.

For any airline ops people reading, I am not attacking your hard work, and I realise that many of the decisions regarding what eventually happens are made by folk above you, rather than those who keep the whole operation ticking. But hopefully you can sympathise with the situation faced my end, with my colleagues on the front line left dealing with the passengers.

Anyway, I hope that gives you some insight to where the problems lie and why there is sometimes a lack of information. As Captain Dave would say, life on the line continues...

Well in my case, life on the ramp continues...