It will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked for an airline that, the larger the entity, the more inflexible it becomes and the more layers of management that must sign off on any sign of initiative from front-line personnel. Naturally, this stifles any effort to be creative and eventually word of those who have been burned for attempting such a thing spreads and the workforce becomes automaton-like.
Years ago, in an attempt to break this inflexibility, there was a policy adopted company-wide at my airline called “The Power to Please.” This empowered all employees who found themselves in a position to help out either a customer or fellow employee or improve the travel experience for them, to act unilaterally to do so. This was an unprecedented change of direction and I doubt that anyone thought it more than empty words as any such action would surely be viewed as transgressing upon many “empires” within the corporation.
All too soon, I was presented with an opportunity to put it to the test.
It happened one Christmas Eve, at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, where I was captain of the last 777-300 (sporting its stealthy, powder-blue metallic paint) of the evening departing for Vancouver. Sunset had happened hours before at this latitude and there were light flurries aimlessly wandering across the floodlight beams trying hopelessly to lessen the winter gloom.
Two minutes before departure, the last cabin door closed with the whirring of the electric motors that we can hear in the flight deck. A minute later, the passenger count form was delivered to the flight deck and I looked over the first officer’s hands to see the total count tally there: we were not full. Almost but not quite.
I looked out the front window to see passengers still running towards their gates, bags of Christmas gifts swinging, children struggling to keep up. I knew how long the lines had been at security when we came through an hour ago. Those still at our gate are just shadows at the window, silhouetted from behind by the bright lights inside the terminal but I could tell from their posture and motion that they were either out of breath or in tears, maybe both. In my peripheral vision, I sensed the bridge withdrawing from the aircraft, creating that odd sensation that it is us who are rolling backwards away from the building.
I called Ops, asking why we are being dispatched while we had empty seats and passengers at the gate. The reply was that we must depart on time, that hallowed mark of an efficient transportation entity. Determining that there was no flight waiting for our gate, I negotiated having the bridge put back on, the airplane filled up as well as our two jump seats filled with company employees desperate to get home to their families for the holidays. The price I had to pay was to verbally accept responsibility for the late departure and all the harassment this decision would surely bring down upon my grey-topped head.
While the considerable steps were being coordinated to reverse the departure dance, I advised our customers what was happening and assured them that it would not negatively impact our arrival in Vancouver.
Our view of the change of spirits at the gate was remarkable – people practically jumping for joy, gathering up their children and gifts, getting in line, their dashed plans suddenly brought back to life. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was surprised that the scene gave me the warm fuzzies.
We did depart full to the gills including the jump seats, I bumped up the cost index enough to ensure an on-time arrival on the West Coast without burning more than a couple of hundred additional kilos and we did our part to please a few extra folks.
And the aftermath that befell me for taking this action?
Nada; never heard a word, not the expected phone calls from the chief pilot or the base manager. Nothing. Quite remarkable in hindsight, considering the daily, system-wide conference calls during which every department head had to explain every single delay that had happened on their watch.
Well, that’s not quite the truth; some very thankful letters from some passengers were received and duly forwarded across several desks to my mail folder.
Corporations are but a piece of signed and stamped paper on file in a registry somewhere. It is the folks who toil within that company who make it work or fail. The tone of the company is set by those with the power to do so. These folks come in both good and bad forms and they both tend to drift from company to company. It is nice to be there when the good ones are at the helm.
Merry Christmas to all. And Peace on Earth too.