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PIA peacekeepers

May 27, 2013

IF one wants to speculate on what might have been said on PIA’s flight 709 that caused RAF fighter jets to be scrambled on Friday, one has only to think in Punjabi and recall how altercations on the street progress.

It would be unsuitable to repeat, on these august pages, the phrases in which the average son of Punjab’s soil (whether Pakistani or Indian) so succinctly relieves himself of ire; but the use of the word ‘explosion’ in Punjabi can be easily imagined — though in a vastly different context from that in which it was apparently understood by the flight crew.

Regardless, one must reflect on one’s words before uttering them and Pakistan as well as PIA can consider themselves fortunate in the extreme that the reason the plane was diverted did not turn out to be more serious.

The national flag carrier is too often in the news for the worst of reasons. One of the more cringe-worthy instances was PIA crew being accused of petty theft and shoplifting in Manchester.

The picture one got was that as soon as a PIA flight lands in the city, small shopkeepers such as corner and grocery stores (enterprises that can’t afford expensive security measures) and hotels (where the crew are accommodated) start pulling down their shutters to defend themselves against a wave of petty crime that they know will follow: towels, bathrobes, gowns and tea kettles stolen from hotel rooms, packets of crisps, biscuits and similar items from friendly Mr Singh’s little concern.

The matter came to light in April last year because the Greater Manchester Police sent the PIA management a letter. This was so worded that the embarrassment of the author at the preposterous situation he was facing was palpable: here he was, writing to the management of the national flag-carrier of another country, to ask them, please, tell ’em to stop nicking the teabags.

“Often the relatively low value of stolen property, the fact that your crew have openly disclosed that they’re returning to Pakistan the following day and the fact that the store has recovered its property has meant that police arrests have not been sought,” said the letter by Superintendent Stuart Ellison.

“However, given that there may be three PIA crews in the city at one time, the regularity of reports of theft (shoplifting) by PIA crew has increased to a point where positive action has to be taken.”

I don’t know whether anyone was hauled up before the principal, but the matter died out of the news so I suppose one must assume that Manchester’s biscuits and bathrobes stopped disappearing at the earlier pace.

On the other side of the coin, PIA’s ground staff demonstrates a marked skill at resolving situations of potential conflict, indefinitely deferring them to the point of neutralisation. This skill is employed when a flight is delayed, which is a pretty routine occurrence.

There’s a pattern that is followed. You call before leaving for the airport and are told that the flight is on time. By the time you get to the check-in counter, it’s delayed by half an hour. In the waiting lounge, that soon stretches into a longer period.

First, passengers are resigned to the wait, displaying irritation and boredom. Soon enough, though, a stir of unrest ripples through the room. A few men gather at the counter — but the PIA staff is no longer there. (The airport staff can’t, of course, explain the delay.)

Having its staff disappear is the first of the PIA peacekeepers’ tactics to ward off the coming conflict. The men harangue the airport official, and the other passengers’ attention is for a while absorbed in this spectacle. Eventually, the man finally becomes irritated enough to go and fetch a PIA staffer. This buys the airline at least half an hour, usually more.

The PIA staffer fetched will be a newbie (because more experienced employees know better than to present themselves before irate passengers that have been waiting about for a couple of hours), and generally a young woman (because people are less likely to be rude to her).

She looks flustered and doesn’t know why the flight is delayed; she makes a few calls that aren’t answered and goes to find a senior, promising to return soon.

The peacekeepers have just bought their airline another hour. Another young man or woman will appear and disappear; passengers’ growing anger is managed by being indefinitely delayed through providing glimmers of hope but no solid answers.

By now two or three hours have passed and people have got to their feet in irritation; the crowd around the counter has grown and is louder, and the newbie has been backed into a corner.

That’s when the big guns of the PIA peacekeepers are sent out — grounded matriarchs with tightly-coiffed hair stiff with hairspray, no-nonsense expressions and years of dealing with such situations under their belts.

Their job is to remain unmoved by entreaty and demand alike; their hearts are stone against everything from crying children to businessman late for appointments to tourists missing their connections.

Another hour passes and passengers are wondering why, against all odds, no violence has broken out. When the mood starts finally to tip again, the peacekeepers make their final move: the aircraft has arrived, announce the hatchet-faced ladies, fixing their stare on those who wanted their bags back; the plane is being loaded. That buys another hour at least.

When, six hours later, the flight finally leaves, the PIA peacekeepers allow themselves a prim smile of triumph: while violence was always imminent, it never quite crystallised.

Perhaps PIA should consider putting some of its peacekeepers on-board aircraft as well.

The writer is a member of staff.