by Thilak S. Fernando

As the modern world keeps on Œ shrinkingı, day after day, and no two persons are twenty four hours apart, at least in theory, Aviation technology too keeps on changing and keeping abreast with the ever increasing competition in air travel to encourage more and more passengers to travel by air. Amidst such competition airlines have been improving their performances and thereby their image to woo more and more passengers to keep their fleet airborne. In a survival of the fittest scenario Air Transport Industry has come up with numerous incentives to act as an enzyme to help the airlines and one such design is by awarding a prestigious honour as Œ The Best Airline of the Yearı for overall best performance. The idea behind this annual exercise is believed to be to improve the services of all airlines for the benefit and the comfort of the airline passengers. One such Airline which has been consecutively receiving the ŒBest Airline of the Yearı award is Emirates Airways.

How does the Airline industry choose an airline as ŒThe Best Airline of the Yearı? Do they conduct customer surveys during in-flights or send questionnaires to all passengers who have travelled by various airlines or is it just by random questions from airport terminals?

Whatever the methods they adopt and whichever way they have managed to judge Emirates Airlines as the best airline of the year consecutively, the experience of an eminent Sri Lankan medical doctor based in Harrow, Middlesex makes one wonder whether such awards mean anything but just an eye wash! In this particular case Emirates Airlines in-flight service has brought more shame than fame upon them.

The drama aboard Emirates flight EK8 took place when the Sri Lankan doctor X ( who wishes to remain anonymous to the public) was travelling from London Gatwick to Melbourne with his 21 year old son on 27 January 99.

As the doctor settled down in his allocated seat he noticed to his amazement that the cushion on his seat was a used one by a passenger from a previous flight. This was more so evident from the dark hair dye stains on the cushion cover with a tuft of hair attached to it. Accordingly, the passenger brought this to the notice of a stewardess and requested a replacement cushion. However, the irrational behaviour and rudeness of the stewardess made the passenger dumbfounded at first, for he had never experienced or heard anything like that in his life time of air travel!

Displaying her uncouth behaviour and indignity the stewardess was heard bombarding the passenger, in the presence of others in the cabin, in a stern and an abrupt tone, "we donıt give used cushions ­ all our cushions are new!" Naturally the passengerıs reaction to such behaviour was to challenge her to observe the cushion for herself. Adding more salt to injury the stewardess had grabbed the cushion with force and rushed to the service area, brought two new cushions and a blanket and thrown at the passenger; still attempting to display a sense of authority she was heard addressing the passenger in a stern voice, " if you want a blanket also hereıs a blanket too." The passenger, being a gentleman and, by that time being already saturated with embarrassment in public Œhad to put up with all such nonsenseı, as he had embarked on a long journey to Australia only a few minutes before this unfortunate incident.

Another experience of this passenger en route to Colombo at his first stop-over in Dubai at 21 hrs (local time) was that during a six and a half hour transit wait he found that the resting facilities for passengers were totally inadequate, as passengers were seen seated on the transit terminal floor in a heavily congested and over crowded airport.

On his return flight EK69 on 20.02.99, Melbourne ­ Dubai London, this passenger highlights a situation where the aeroplane flew into to a heavy storm approaching Dubai airport. As the plane was coming to land at Dubai the Captain was heard announcing through the intercom system to fasten seat belts. The pilot went on saying that the flight ahead of him had just missed the landing and the weather conditions were extremely hazardous with an unusual storm over the airport and he was trying his best to have a safe landing. This announcement had naturally brought every oneıs heart into their mouths and the horror and terror was written over everyoneıs face as couples tried to squeeze each otherıs arms in a strapped scenario. Minutes later, the plane had started to vibrate violently and the passengers were thrown into an utter panic. The plane has fortunately had a safe landing amidst stormy weather conditions. The doctor-passenger in question in this flight is of the opinion that any sensible pilot in such a dangerous situation would have reacted in a more responsible manner and requested the Air Control to divert the plane to a safe area or airport at that particular point rather than risking the lives of the full compliment of passengers he was carrying on flight EK69.

Having already gone thorough several mishaps during his Emirates trip, the passenger in question states that when everyone disembarked at Dubai stopover, enroute to London, passengers were loaded into a coach, like chicken in a pen, and allowed to suffer in sweltering heat for 8-10 minutes with no ventilation at all and air-conditioning switched off. As some passengers started to cough and others found it difficult to breath in a phobic atmosphere this passengers likes to highlight this as another example of the services rendered by an award winning airline.

On 13.02.99 final leg of his journey, Dubai ­ London, flight EK001 this passenger has recorded another horrible in-flight experience. The passenger next to the Sri Lankan doctor was a British nurse travelling with her 2-year daughter from Melbourne to London. During mealtime when the child was crying with hunger the stewardess was occupied serving meals to other passengers completely turning a blind eye and a deaf year to several requests made by the childıs mother to have some food for the hungry child. It does not have to be an award winning airline to understand that itıs the norm, code of practice or common-sense, to serve children first with food before they embark on their rounds to other passengers, yet despite repeated requests and reminders to the stewardess the only response the mother of this child had from an agitated stewardess was, " I will try and see whether I can get something after I finish what I am doing" ­ meaning after serving others (adults). The disgusted and irate mother of the child was heard saying, " never again on Emirates in my lifetime."

The irony here is that airline passengers at times become innocent victims at the hands of some of the cabin crew during long hauls, especially on inter-continental flights after having paid their airfares. Amazingly enough though such victimisation is seen only on economy class passengers who make the bulk of the passenger complement of any given flight. Economy class passengers can, therefore, be regarded as the heart and soul of the survival of any passenger airline and that very fact will make it a bounden duty of the management to ensure that rotten apples and weeds are rooted out from their staff and passengers get a fair share of service for the monies they pay and the trust they place on an airline when they make their particular choice.

It is understandable that the cabin crews are pushed to the wall during their flights, always rushing to and fro and on their feet to serve the passengers. It is a job, which they have chosen and paid for, and that does not give carte blanche to any steward or stewardess to be undignified, offensive or behave in a misdemeanour manner to the detriment of the prestigious name of the carrier. In this particular experience, the Sri Lankan doctor wishes to send a message to the Emirate Airlines Management through this column, to investigate into this matter and take remedial action as so not have such repetitions or mistreatment to passengers especially when Emirates have been chosen as the best airline in the world.

Just because a passenger chooses to travel economy class he or she is not entitled to shabby treatment from cabin crews after paying their own money. Economy class passenger could be any eminent person in the society and cabin crews to assume and treat them as a speck of dirt should not be tolerated by any airline management- after all whatever make up a stewardess get plastered with or a uniform a steward puts on, these airline employees need to be reminded by airline management that they are only glorified servants of the passengers and at no time they should be allowed to suffer from egotistical hallucinations of grandiose.