I've had passport thrown in my face

I've had passport thrown in my face

Her job involves telling holiday makers that they will not make the flight.

The flight they have paid thousands for.

When airlines overbook flights, it is the ground handler's staff who have to break such bad news to travellers.

"Oh yes, it happens quite often," says Sats' airport customer service officer (CSO) Muliana Othman, 36.

Three to four out of 10 flights from Changi Airport are overbooked during the holiday periods, she reveals.

For these flights, getting a seat works on a first-come-first-served basis, so travellers who have yet to check in are told the bad news only at the airport.

Once, Mrs Muliana had to tell a honeymooning couple heading to Male, the capital of the Maldives, that they had to be bumped off their flight.

Says the CSO of 19 years: "Their faces just changed when I told them the news. They just kept sighing and didn't even want to look at me."

She has experienced the other extreme too: Where livid passengers start blaming her for disrupting their plans.

AGGRESSIVE

Some start screaming vulgarities at her while clutching e-mail printouts of their flight information or receipts.

Says Mrs Muliana: "They shout things like, 'How can you do this to me?', as if I'm the one responsible.

"They can get quite aggressive, too, so we have a security team on standby if anything happens."

Overbooking of flights is a standard industry practice as airlines do what they can to ensure a full passenger load.

Two to three days before the flight, the airlines will inform the ground handlers, in this case, Sats' "overbooking team" and there will be an indication about how many passengers will have to be bumped off, says Mrs Muliana.

To help mitigate the situation, CSOs will have to arrange in advance for seats on the next available flight.

They will also prepare hotel accommodation, transport and a small token, which could be monetary compensation or vouchers.

These gestures usually help calm the passenger down, says Mrs Muliana.

"Some will ask if we can do more, but we have to work based on each airline's policy," she adds.

Besides handling overbooking scenarios, she supervises the staff at check-in counters, departure and arrival gates, or be part of the six-man team in their operations room.

It is a job that requires her to start work as early as 4.30am and which could stretch till midnight. To cope with the workload, they take shifts over the week so that they can get enough rest.

It can be a thankless job, especially when passengers are unruly or rude, Mrs Muliana says.

One incident that stuck with her was that of a passenger who threw his passport at her face because he was frustrated for having to queue for a long time.

"I was still polite and served him, but inside I was fighting off tears. It was nerve wrecking. In the end when he realised I was being professional, he apologised and left. I smiled, closed my counter, went to the toilet and cried," she recalls.

In addition, some passengers who "know the system" will ask for seat upgrades, by claiming they are not feeling well, or are physically too tall for the economy-class seats they have paid for.

In such cases, Mrs Muliana always asks for doctors' letters for verification and this would usually be enough to get them to back off their claims.

She also has to deal with passengers with overweight baggage who "expect the additional fees to be waived", with some even arguing that going 10kg over the limit is acceptable.

Despite the difficult encounters, Mrs Muliana says she enjoys her job and she tries her best to help in genuine cases.

She once met a grieving woman who was rushing home to attend her mother's funeral. The woman could not compose herself and kept weeping.

Mrs Muliana arranged for the seats beside her to be empty so that she was left alone throughout the flight.

"It's things like this that makes my job as a CSO worthwhile," she maintains.

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