Recently there have been a spate of articles and letters in various newspapers complaining about Saudi Arabian Airlines or Saudia, as we here in the Kingdom call it.
Some of these articles have been very harsh and critical. For example, Reema Al-Shamikh's report, in the Arabic daily Al-Eqtisadiah of last Saturday on Friday's flight delays and cancellations affecting some five thousand passengers was the talk of Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. Al-Eqtisadiah is presently spearheading a consumer rights and protection campaign. A special page is allocated to the campaign and is filled by letters from angry people who are complaining about everything from damaged goods and poor service to rude salesmen and unexplained flight delays.
Saudi Arabian Airlines seems to occupy a large chunk of this page in Al-Eqtisadiah. I attribute the reason to its size and the nature and scope of its operation. Any public service utility or organization should expect to come under fire. And Saudia is no exception. It is the national carrier of the Kingdom and the sole one with domestic transportation rights. It exists, however, to serve the public and its failing to do so results in complaints, anger and unhappiness.
Domestic travel has greatly increased and consequently mistakes do occur. They may be man-made, natural or technical but they produce problems for those trying to use the airline's service.
The most common complaint by Saudia passengers seems to involve long delays. These can be very irritating and frustrating. As I travel between Riyadh and Jeddah four to six times a month, my blood pressure soars. What bothers me more than crowded sultry terminals is the Saudia staff's apparent lack of interest in dealing with the general public. The general public who is their customer and hence the reason for their job. On many occasions I have been "admonished" by the counter agent and told to stand in a line - which did not exist. All around me I see a mass of humanity waving their tickets in the air, their head-dresses awry.
"Where do I stand?" I once asked the agent who repeated without even looking at me, his famous words - "Stand in a line." For many who do not know, I once worked for Saudia, I would like to state that the airline played a key role in shaping my professional life. Beginning with the TWA days up to the eighties we were fired by a spirit of dedication and caring. Thus Saudia became a caring organization. It was also a "learning" organization. And, believe me, the knowledge we acquired would equal many "genuine doctorate" degrees.
What has happened now? The airline has obviously expanded. In addition, people's expectations have risen. They expect more. They are used to excellent service from other organizations. They travel abroad. In short they have a something to measure Saudia against.
Delays cause anxiety and frustration. I have no choice, however, but to work my meetings in Riyadh around Saudia flights. At times I have scheduled my lunches and dinners around it. Being unable to depend on published times makes this scheduling a nightmare.
It is of course impossible to predict arrivals or departures! This should not be the case but it is. I am not going into details of why. There must be an underlying cause and I feel sure those who head the airline's technical division are aware of them and are competent to take remedial measures. Let them do so at once. No right-minded person in any technical department would want delays, especially of the type and nature we have been subjected to.
The people in Marketing should also be made aware of this situation. Worse than getting no reply is getting incorrect information. "Yes, the plane will take off in half an hour" or "No, don't worry, in two hours you will be in Riyadh!" This does not placate or satisfy passengers waiting for hours. They want exact times. They will not be satisfied with anything less. Nor should they be. Their money has been taken. Where is the promised service?
Nor will they have any desire for letters from the public relations department or customer services. They have had enough of such empty communiqus. These letters discredit the signature of the heads of these departments when they appear almost daily in "letters to the editor" columns of papers. What is needed is a professional and frank appraisal of services and it is needed immediately. Followed by corrective actions.
In an age of speedy global communication and high-quality service, our national airline should not be found wanting. It has some very dedicated and professional staff who could work in any airline anywhere. This dedicated core should evaluate present conditions and come up with speedy solutions. We don't want committees to be set up. We want "task forces" authorized to take immediate action. Only this will offer a solution, however limited it may be.
Having said all this, I also firmly believe that many of Saudia's problems in reservations, marketing and services are the result of an irresponsible and uncaring public.
I cannot remember the last time I phoned reservations and was told "Yes you may book a seat for Riyadh" or even Timbuktu! It's always full. Any season, off-season, rainy season - it just doesn't matter!!
I think - and even know for a fact - that many people book on four or five flights and do not bother to cancel any. There are even a small minority of those who obtain their boarding passes and still do not show up for the flight. Yes, I agree; there are emergencies in some cases. However, I attribute much of this to a callous and indifferent public. These people cause the airline suffering and embarrassment.
As an astute observer of human behavior - though not an anthropologist - I find that in many ways we the traveling public contribute to confusion. Yes, the airline is to blame for certain shortcomings. But we also add to their problems and create some others.
On a recent flight from Jeddah to Cairo, as the plane landed and was taxiing a young man stood up, removed his bag from the overhead compartment and placed it in the aisle. We all know that passengers should remain seated with seat belts fastened until the aircraft has come to a complete stop. The stewardess rushed to him and asked him to remove it, citing safety reasons. He refused and after further requests, the stewardess went away. In the meantime - and as the plane was slowly taxiing - the passengers from the rear were rushing towards the front, pushing and shoving others. Another young man who must have been frustrated (yes, this flight had been delayed almost six hours) started climbing onto the seats and jumping over them like Cheetah, Tarzan's monkey. His head-dress was flying in every direction. I swear I am not exaggerating my description. There is surely no justification for such behavior from a normal human being.
The question is: Did the six hour delay trigger all this? I don't know.
What I believe should be done right now is to re-establish customer confidence while at the same time trying to ensure that flights if not on time, experience only acceptable delays.
Saudi Arabian Airlines was, is and - God-willing - will be a great airline. It is headed by some fine people who possess the vision, skills and the ability to turn it around and make it into a first class world class airline. Let us help them do it.