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. (See report on facing page.)

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.

SECRETS OF THE TRADE

1) If you encounter an abusive passenger, stay silent and listen, otherwise your words will be used as ammunition against you. Remain positive and polite no matter what.

2) Personal grooming is important for portraying cast a professional image. If you are dressed nicely, it puts the passengers in a nicer mood too.

3) Keep a list, or better, try to memorise the different passports from different countries. Just by looking at the passengers' passport from afar, you will know what sort of special visa requirements to look out for before they reach the counter.

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT OVERBOOKING

1) WHY DOES THE AIRLINE INDUSTRY PRACTISE OVERBOOKING FLIGHTS?

Every time a commercial aircraft takes off with an empty seat, it is a missed opportunity. Especially when profit margins are low with cheap fares and high fuel costs.

Some air tickets can also be changed and cancelled with little or no penalty. So there would be some travellers who do not show up for their flights because there are really no penalties.

And because their ticket can be applied to another flight, or refunded altogether, the airline can lose revenue on these seats.

Airlines use the practice of overbooking to fill the empty seats left by no-show passengers.

Problems arise when more people with confirmed tickets turn up than the flight can take.

2) WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT IN RETURN IF YOU 'VOLUNTEER' TO GET BUMPED OFF A FLIGHT?

The New Paper on Sunday understands that the perks of volunteering to be bumped off varies among various airlines and depend on whether there is an easily available next flight. .

Passengers choose to give up their seat for compensation which usually comes in the form of travel vouchers or cash. The agreement is not regulated.

3) HOW MANY FLIGHTS ARE OVERBOOKED?

Three to four out of every 10 flights from Changi Airport are estimated to be overbooked during peak travel periods. The most common destinations for these flights are holiday hotspots.

According to reports, overbooked routes are usually those frequented by business travellers, particularly those on Monday mornings or between 4pm and 7pm on weekdays.

The following may also be overbooked: departures after noon on Fridays or on Sunday evenings, and direct flights.

The US Department of Transportation reports that 117,976 people or about 0.7 per cent of the total number of passengers were bumped off US airlines in the first nine months of this year. A similar figure was recorded for the same period last year.

4) CAN OVERBOOKING BE GOOD?

Yes. Stopping the practice would either limit flexibility for business travellers or increase the overall cost of air fares.

5) HOW CAN YOU AVOID BEING BUMPED OFF?

Check-in counters will tell you that the flight is full if you are the last few people to make it to the airport. To ensure you can board your flight:

1. Check in online.
2. Arrive at the airport least two hours before your flight.

- Catherine Robert

ngjunsen@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 23, 2014.
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