AsiaNik Milanovic

​meditations on flight delays

AsiaNik Milanovic
​meditations on flight delays

A quick note on my impromptu stint working as an airline steward.

Anyone who has depended on me to get anywhere on time knows that I have terrible travel luck. I am not a stranger to inclement weather, mechanical issues, force majeure, or (mostly) missing flights because I refuse to arrive at the airport on time.

And so, unsurprisingly, our trip from Bangkok to Amritsar, India, ran into all of the above.

The first delay was our fault. We arrived at the airport an hour before our flight and Air India's staff had already left the check-in desk. Dejected, we pushed our flight time to the same shuttle the next day.

This is when things got interesting. An initial projected delay of 30 minutes spiraled into a 12-hour stay at the Bangkok airport. After continual announcements that the flight would be delayed by additional 30 minute increments, which eventually added up to 5 hours, the flight staff finally informed the passengers present that the mechanics had finished fixing the technical glitch on our plane.

Once we boarded, I overexcitedly typed out a note on my phone about my excitement for India:

"Writing this as I sit on a flight bound for Delhi is a good reminder of the first rule of the road - both sides of it.
After narrowly missing the check-in window for the same flight yesterday, we were rescheduled to fly today, at which point our flight was delayed 5 hours (and we had a 5 1/2 hour layover to make our connection, which it looks like we'll now narrowly miss.)
Still, even in a moment like this, even given our obvious frustrations, I can't help but feel excited. We're late, but we are traveling to somewhere completely new; somewhere we've only read and heard and talked about. India is the subject of so many pop culture references - from Life of Pi to Bend it like Beckham - yet it still feels as distant as any fictional place. Unlike so many flights I've taken along familiar routes to known destinations, sitting on this plane unaware of what the other side will look like rekindles that wonder and excitement for newness that we all feel from time to time.
On to the next chapter."

That note, as it turns out, was very premature. The plane was hot, and I was in a long sleeve shirt, so I closed my eyes to do some breathing exercises and fell asleep. 5 minutes later, I woke up drenched. The plane wasn't getting any cooler because the a/c was broken. This may not have been such an issue were we not on a Bangkok tarmac, in the middle of the day.

After an hour sitting on a hot tarmac, the passengers began revolting. Middle-aged men went up to the flight stewards to demand a status update, which the hapless stewards couldn't provide as they weren't sure what was going on either. Old women, sweating profusely, were using flight manuals as fans. Little kids were crying.

I'm not sure why, but watching the passengers sweat while the flight crew stood by, I decided that it was the right time for action. Grabbing three water bottles and a stack of cups from the crew's cabin stash, I started traversing the aisles handing out water. It must have been quite a sight for the bemused retinue of Buddhist monks and Indian septuagenarians for a white guy in a tank top to wait on them with the flight crew's water. Soon, a few other passengers got up and joined me in handing out water, just in time for the flight crew to get on the intercom and inform everyone that we would be de-boarding the plane.

Irate travelers wait in the immigration line to be re-accepted for entry to Thailand and shuttled to a hotel.

Irate travelers wait in the immigration line to be re-accepted for entry to Thailand and shuttled to a hotel.

A woman from Air India comes out to announce that our plane  will  be taking off that evening after all.

A woman from Air India comes out to announce that our plane will be taking off that evening after all.

The episode did not end there. After initially instructing passengers to go back through immigration into Bangkok, where the would be shuttled to a hotel, the flight crew reneged on that narrative and informed passengers that the plane would take off in another couple hours, whereas there was no guarantee of flight space the next morning.

Once we returned to the gate and boarded our second plane of the day, we discovered that the a/c was yet again not working. It was at this point that we witnessed a near mutiny. Upon failure once again to take off, multiple Indian men in their late 40's or 50's stormed the front of the cabin, demanding the plane take off for Delhi. One of them turned around and began calling for other passengers to rise up and do the same. Women in their seats began shouting that the flight staff could not treat them like cattle. Finally, the harangued flight crew decided to cut their losses and we flew to Delhi without a/c. Crisis averted.

Thinking on this in retrospect, the flight staff could have avoided what later became an unpleasant episode by following a few very simple management steps:

  1. Communicate - The most irritating part was not the delay itself, but the refusal of the flight staff to give any information to their mutinous passengers.
  2. Have a plan - I was amazed at how little plan there was for this kind of scenario. One has to imagine this happens frequently enough to have some best practices.
  3. Empathize - Some of the louder passengers just wanted to know that their frustrations were being heard.
  4. Give people options - Letting people get off the plane and book a hotel for the night would've rid the flight crew of some of its angriest hostages.
  5. Make concessions - Such as offering water to passengers being slowly microwaved inside a metal tube.

All's well that ends well.

Nik / 11.23.16