Ordeal on BWIA Flight 425

by Deochand Narain
Guyana Chronicle
March 26 , 1999

SCHEDULED departure for BWIA's Flight 425 from JFK International Airport is 08:00, Sunday, March 21, 1999.

Check in time is at least two hours before departure. All this information I had long before I arrived at the departure area at 05.45 to join my flight to Guyana.

I considered myself lucky since I did not have to queue up on the sidewalk in the cold as had happened to me on a previous occasion with a different airline. However, and as was to be expected, the departure area was crowded, even though the obviously long line was orderly, but moving painstakingly slow.

A little less than two hours later, it was my turn to approach counter # 18. The attendant was very pleasant even if a bit disorganised and somewhat on the novice side.

As usual, I paid some attention to what she was doing. As she wrote 28A on my ticket stub, I asked her why was she giving me seat # 28A, as I had been pre-assigned seat # 22G which was an aisle seat, my preference.

Allyson, the attendant, tried to convince me that 28A being a window seat was better than 22G, it being somewhere in the middle, she claimed, without any regard for my preference. By this time, some 15 minutes before official takeoff, the line was longer than when I joined at 05:45. The 08:00 departure was all but a dream.

Not wanting to "hold up" the line any further I accepted seat 28A, ensured that my baggage was tagged and proceeded to the departure gate. I cleared security and settled down to enjoy my Sunday papers as so much of the world does. The Sunday NY Times, for those of us who are not that fortunate, weighs about 5 lb, to give you an indication of the size.

About an hour later, a pretty BWIA staffer called all passengers to attention and asked that they check their boarding passes.

"Will the holder of seat 28A please approach," she bellowed. Of course, I didn't have to check my boarding pass to know that I was the holder.

The staffer indicated that I had been cleared in under a different name and apologised for the inconvenience. I returned downstairs to counter #18 where Allyson was again most apologetic.

Dr. Ak Nag, under whose name I was checked in, stood quietly, smiling and not saying a word. Allyson fumbled through the corrections and then informed me that since Dr. Nag was disembarking in Trinidad my baggage was checked to Trinidad and as such had to be rechecked to Guyana. The baggage attendant was asked to retrieve my baggage.

Fortunately or unfortunately, my baggage was already placed on the plane and could not be easily retrieved. Again, not wanting to further frustrate the remaining passengers, I agreed to let Allyson inform Piarco via telex that my baggage was in canister (number given) and should not be removed. I also agreed to take seat 33J and not my original 22G, again a window seat, three rows from the rear. I cleared security once more and boarded the plane immediately as my rows were being boarded.

I settled into 33J and resumed reading my Sunday newspapers. My next-seat neighbour joined me, followed a few moments later by another passenger who laid claim to 33J. Of course she had a boarding pass to substantiate her claim.

This time the flight attendant asked for my boarding stub. It was then that I noticed that Allyson was determined to book me as Dr. Ak Nag as she had again booked me under that name.

The attendant took both boarding stubs and disappeared. Since I had no intention of vacating 33J, I calmly continued to read my newspapers.

Some time later, I heard my name on the PA system asking that I identify myself. This I promptly did. This announcement was followed by a smiling Allyson, who again apologised, enquired whether I still wanted an aisle seat and promised that everything will be fine.

In the meantime, a huge commotion was boiling up in the opposite aisle not far from me. Turned out that a passenger had been incessantly complaining that BWIA was always late so much so that one woman accused him of being abusive and using foul language.

Security had to come to escort the goodly gentleman out of the aircraft. This was immediately followed by a petition-signing exercise by those who did not think that the eviction from the aircraft was warranted.

By this time, the flight was more than two hours late, there was no comment from the captain and a few passengers were forming the opinion that the delay was caused by the petition-signing exercise.

What followed was a mini fish market scene, albeit short-lived.

Seat #33J overlooks the baggage door. I couldn't help but wondering why they were unwilling to remove my baggage for re-tagging but were holding up the aircraft for more than half an hour to remove the baggage of this unfortunate gentleman, who by the way, was going to attend a funeral.

My good friend Allyson paid her last visit to me, took my passport number and date of birth, assured me that I would get my baggage in Guyana and disappeared.

We eventually took off at 10:50 leaving that unfortunate gentleman behind but not the discussion.

During stopover in T&T, analysis of the commotion continued. One passenger who had taken up the cause of the evicted passenger voiced the view that this is a pattern of harassment, a callousness by BWIA as on a previous occasion the entire passenger list was searched cause one woman claimed she had lost her camera.

By the way, no one else claimed to have heard the passenger being abusive or using foul language. There was overwhelming support that the gentleman was merely expressing his disgust at BWIA and the fact it was now a near monopoly in Guyana.

Allyson gave me every assurance that my baggage would reach Guyana on the same flight as I. I nevertheless asked a flight attendant to double check. She assured me that the Captain was aware of my situation and everything will be taken care of.

Imagine how disconcerted I was when told that BWIA might not be able to get my baggage on the aircraft before it departed for Guyana.

The customer service staff at Piarco was not even remotely polite. They arrived some two minutes before departure to enquire about my baggage, even though they should have had a telex some six hours before, and then offered to take me off the aircraft to accompany my baggage on the next flight, without even being certain that it was in fact taken off the aircraft.

As was to be expected my baggage never arrived. It did arrive on the next flight from Trinidad all intact.

I decided to share this experience for two reasons.

Firstly, at every step of the way I had been given assurances that appeared plausible. In reality, they appear to be just that, reassurances to get you out of their hair when in fact no system appears to be in place to give effect to what you are told.

Secondly, I have always heard complaints of the kind of treatment meted out to Guyanese by BWIA. The gentleman evicted was from Guyana. The woman who accused him of abusive language was from Trinidad. No one else supported that woman but the flight attendants acted on that one complaint and had him removed.

Despite the effort of so many others the gentleman was not allowed back on the flight.

The pilot, in an obviously feeble attempt at an excuse, announced that the aircraft was awaiting additional fuel.

As I said, I was sitting just over the door to the baggage hull. As soon as the gentleman's baggage came off, the flight departed.

I travel often and have come to expect certain things.

The pilot will ask flight attendants to do certain things before departure, a certain amount of time will elapse and then the aircraft will back away from the gate for departure.

Whatever his mood was, the pilot made his announcement and immediately started backing the aircraft away, prompting comments to the effect that he was angry.

I view this as a very serious matter because the pilot's behaviour, however fleeting, could not have been any different from that of the gentleman who was evicted for voicing his disgust with BWIA. (Mr. Narain is Director of the Guyana Office for Investment.)