Baker’s Dozen

Missing a flight could be socially enriching and possibly a life changing experience. Doesn’t always happen, but it could.

It happened at Islamabad’s tiny, crowded and thoroughly mismanaged airport the other day. The Karachi flight was to leave at 10 am. At 9.20 when the check-in counters were at their busiest, it was announced that the flight was full and therefore the rest of passengers could go take a walk … to Karachi if they wished.

Pakistanis have come to expect only the worst when dealing with a government-run organisation but this was beyond worst; this was obscene. A bunch of full fare paying passengers with a confirmed reservation status was being told their seats had already been taken! Who took our seats? How? Why?

All hell broke loose. Alarmed passengers abandoned queues and pushed and shoved their way forward to plead their individual circumstances. As minutes passed the crowd became more agitated and accusatory. Those who could not get close to the counter, launched an assault of their own by shouting at anyone in uniform. Anger has its own momentum, and it provides its own justification.

A woman calmly approached me, asked me if I was one of the confirmed passengers who were denied boarding, and then told me what was coming. She’d been to the ticketing office and was told she’ll have to have an endorsement that the cancellation of ticket is due to no fault of the passenger, to avoid a fine equal to half the ticket price. She seemed concerned and I suspect mildly excited too. She was tall and had the easy grace of a born leader. She recruited me as her first troop and we presented ourselves to the pink-clad check-in clerk who had refused her a boarding pass ‘before’ the official closure of the flight. The pink clerk plainly refused to testify. The leader persisted until pink’s supervisor intervened: ‘It is our fault, why should they pay a penalty for it. The least you can do in compensation is to write the endorsement,’ he addressed his colleague earnestly.

Pink clerk signed her name on the back of 18 tickets that morning. These passengers were all leader’s find. They were men and (majority) women who didn’t have the means or the inclination to shove and shout. They were sitting and watching and waiting for things long after the flight and the angry protesters had departed. We became a group. Without an apparent leader and without a budget or constitution, but with one clearly defined purpose: we had to make the airline admit it was at fault and not us. It meant not having to pay a fine, and be given seats on the next available flight on preferential basis.

Those who have tried it know government servants can’t be made to talk sense. Every official started by accusing us of missing the flight because we were late. We would present our arguments and evidence to prove the opposite. They would pass us to the next high official and the same conversation will start all over again. The middle managers were most offended by the fact that a lowly staff member had written on every ticket what they were denying forcefully.

The shift in-charge crossed out all endorsements before returning us our tickets, and reported the matter to the big boss. Not the matter of ‘chance passengers given seats ahead of confirmed passengers’, as we learnt in the course of the day, but the matter of unsuitable behaviour of pink who was promptly marched into the big boss’ office where she was reportedly given a proper dressing down and her supervisor was suspended.

‘It’s time for action,’ chanted a female student brimming with energy harvested from a week-long trekking expedition in GB. We had an operational meeting to decide how we were going to tackle the big boss. Our information was our ammunition and we had plenty of it, thanks to the honeymoon couple and leader’s trusted source — her husband — who had access to civil aviation records. We knew the last passenger boarded the plane at 9:55, half an hour after some in our group were refused boarding. We had all the details of the manifest according to which 69 chance passengers were accommodated …

Before the big showdown, a family of five left the group. We pushed ahead and managed to persuade the station head into accepting fault and taking remedial action.

Thirteen strangers took five hours to achieve a goal together. A majority of us had never done this before. But may often do it in future.


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