Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hubris - a cautionary tale of my adventures in the Frankfurt Airport

I learned the word hubris (hybris) in a sophomore classics class at Dartmouth that focused on the Greek tragic cycle. In brief, hubris is a consequence of ‘the sin of pride’ (ate). At a personal level, I try to anticipate hubris, or at least accept the reality of it, when things are gong especially well. Practically, it means that when things are going especially well, you should anticipate that trouble lies ahead.

This phenomenon seems to be part of my Karma when visiting Hungary where, thanks to the Balaton meetings and the efficient, considerate Hungarian people, things always seem to go well. Last trip, I left my computer at a security check point. This morning, I misplaced my luggage tags, with, I was told, potentially catastrophic consequences.

And things were going so well. I retired early, arose promptly, completed last minute packing expeditiously. The taxi arrived punctually. When the desk clerk forgot to return my credit card, I alertly caught the oversight. Airport formalities were without a hitch. All was well.... until I arrived in Frankfurt Airport, my transfer point.

Germans are renowned for their efficiency, but I found little evidence of this at the airport. The procedures for passengers transferring from ‘domestic’ (within European Community) to international flights were unclear. There were no signs locating Sri Lankan Airlines. Seemingly simple questions I posed to Lufthansa and other airport officials elicited puzzled discussions. When I began cross checking the information I received, there were contradictions. Signs identifying places I was seeking were nonexistent or unhelpful.

But these were minor irritants, easily resolved. I had ample time between flights and complemented myself in threading my way through the Frankfurt-Lufthansa maize with relatively little difficulty and a calm disposition, ...until I arrived at the Lufthansa business class lounge. When I presented my boarding pass (obtained with complications) the business-like attendant said she would need my luggage tickets, ‘because Lufthansa and Malev Hungarian Airlines have different computer systems.” The transfer desk said that lounge attendants could help solve the the problem, but they were mistaken. When I asked, the attendant’s response was an unequivocal ‘no - I can do nothing.’ How to track down the missing codes? Her only suggestions were to go back through security to the baggage claim area and check at ‘lost and found’ or the ‘information desk.’ Perhaps, she said, I would have to return to the ‘domestic’ terminal where I had arrived. If I did not find the missing codes, so they could be entered in Lufthansa’s computer, she emphasized firmly, not only would my bags not be shipped to Colombo, they might be relegated to some Lufthansa limbo where they would be lost forever. “I have explained everything,” she concluded firmly as I stood there, probably looking somewhat bewildered.

My journey back through the maze began. First back to the baggage hall, then to the information desk. I was told I would need to return to Terminal 2 and speak to Malev, but the Malev desk might be closed. That could be a problem. Any way of reaching them if that were the case? The attendant didn’t know, but called to see if they were open. They were, he reported. Back to Terminal 2, where after several queries I tracked down the Malev check-in desk. It was closed. I was directed to the Malev service desk. It was closed. I asked nearby officials when It would be open or how I could reach Malev. No help. “We’re from a different company,”they told me. I located a different information desk and once again explained my dilemma. A kindly man took pity on me and personally escorted me to the lost luggage desk. Progress! There was an attendant on duty; not a Malev staff member, but an employee to whom Malev or the airport had subcontracted the ‘lost luggage’ task At each stop I had to explain that my luggage was not lost; they were correctly tagged; it was only the codes which could not be entered into the Lufthansa computer which would not talk to the Malev computer unless I provided them.

Lost luggage must be the travel services job from hell and the subcontractor’s employee showed the strain. First, she told me that luggage tag receipts were very important documents and should not be lost. By now I needed no convincing of this. Then she explained that she could do nothing because her computer system was down. “How long until it will be fixed?” It might be minutes, hours or days, was the response. Even then, it might not provide the necessary information. “Any other suggestions?.” “No,” was the response, “I have explained everything to you.” Fortunately, there was ample time before my flight. I decided on a strategy that sometimes works with employees of government bureaucracies in developing nations - I sat down to wait in a plainly visible location in front of the lost baggage employee’s counter. Mostly there was only me and the employee in a cavernous, quiet room. It was a good place for a small meditation exercise, which I interrupted by making eye contact with the employee, periodically, despite her attempts to look elsewhere. (In fairness, I should say that I think she was doing her best, within the parameters of her job description and resources.)

An hour elapsed. Good news! The computer systems was up. But bad news. It only provided information on outgoing flights, not incoming flights. The employee would have to telex Malev. Whether they would respond and if so, when, she couldn’t say. Another hour elapsed. I new employee arrived and the one with whom I had been interacting made motions as if she was about to leave. I walked over to the counter to remind her of my presence and problem, also requesting her name. She was calling Malev, she said. Malev responded with the necessary information at once, which, they said, they had also telexed in response to her telex, some minutes before. She had not received it, perhaps because of “problems with the system, she told me.” They process had taken about two hours, but I had the codes that Lufthansa needed. The employee and concluded our business congenially and she left me with the parting reminder that ‘baggage receipts are important documents.”

I threaded my way back from Terminal two to Terminal One passing through passport control and security for at least the third time - I had lost track by now - and presented myself at the business class lounge, a different one - with the vital codes. My triumph was short lived. “We can do nothing with these,” the Lufthansa staff member said. “You will have to present them at the Sri Lanka check in counter.” Leaving the lounge (there would be no lounging today) I reported to the check in counter, which was also staffed by Lufthansa employees. However they had a different protocol. “Yes” the attendant told me, “we do need the codes. Your baggage can now be loaded.”

Will the bags arrive in Colombo? Since I am writing this en-route we will have to await the next installment.

My thanks to all those who helped me during this full morning (and early afternoon) my sympathy to all those whose job descriptions and circumstances of their jobs lead them to believe they could not.

PS: The bags did arrive safely.

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Blogger Tom Fiddaman said...

Amazing! My teeth grind just reading it. Your patience is admirable. Wish I'd been at Balaton (but not Frankfurt). Cheers.

8:57 PM  

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