Sunday, October 18, 2015

Exodus: redux

"Not all leaders occupy leadership positions.  Not all those in leadership positions are true leaders."  TR

For five long years, our cobbled-together tribe has wandered in the desert following the man who joined us, a man who claimed to know the way to an oasis.  Despite the protestation and lament of many among us, his guidance took us in every direction except the right one.  His plan changed periodically. We would chart a new course and revive our hope that tomorrow would be "the day".  But that tomorrow never came.  Hope seemed beyond revival.  

Now, just a few weeks after he left us in disgrace, that man's replacement has rekindled hope. Our new leader has joined us where we live and work, asking our thoughts and listening to our opinions about our progress thusfar.  His manner is reassuring, his approach collegial. He doesn't have all the answers, so he asks many questions. He listens; he hears. He observes; he sees. He seems to understand the practical and emotional obstacles between us and the oasis that we seek.  When a true leader takes the lead, s/he instills confidence and belief and hope and trust. 

Having shared our reality, he smiles sincerely and asks us to join him; no gimmicks, no unsupported promises, no games. 

Our Flight Attendant crew of 11 followed such a leader last night as we boarded our flight from Houston to Sao Paulo.  Who could know that the peace of our 10 hour flight would be repeatedly interrupted by a middle-aged man and his adult son who bore the same name, Greg, Sr. & Greg, Jr.?  They were seated in a centersection row of 3 seats in the D zone of our 30-day old Dreamliner (can you smell it?), along with a third man, unknown to them (34D, E & F)

From the start of the flight (and before boarding according to other customers who reported later), the two men's behaviors were an attention-getting combination of odd and provocative. They spoke to one another as if passing secrets. They continually retrieved and replaced luggage from the overhead bins.   They seemed reluctant to make eye contact. Their movements were staccato and tentative.  Experience told us that they might be altered somehow by alcohol or medication or that their peculiarities were attributable to something pathological. But there was no way to know. 

Just after takeoff, the younger Greg, holding his backpack to his chest, rose and moved quickly, purposefully toward the front of the airplane. He passed through C zone, opened the cabin-separator curtain and traversed B zone before entering the A zone lavatory aft of Door 1R. Two crewmembers saw and moved to stop him but he was locked in the lavatory too quickly. When he emerged, a male F/A intercepted him and escorted him toward his seat (34E). I noticed that our onboard leader, ISM Roxanne, was paralleling their movement aft in the opposite aisle. 

Upon reaching the galley at Doors 3, they stepped inside to speak privately with Greg. The male F/A spoke, both informing and asking simultaneously. From outside the galley, I noticed Roxanne allowing the other F/A to lead while she quietly observed. Young Greg protested that he just wanted to use the restroom (he passed 4 of them on his way to A zone) and was "embarrassed" by our actions.  The male F/A departed to resume his other duties. Roxanne accompanied Greg to his seat and spoke to both he and his father. She did so in such a way that those unaware of events would have had no inclination that the conversation was unusual. 

It was clear that the unrelated man in 34F was uncomfortable. He sat with his back to his seatmates as much as space allowed. Yet young Greg still managed to spill and splatter food on him. After a time, I was able to relocate the man to another seat, an action which seemed to antagonize young Greg. 

He found Roxanne completing her duty free responsibilities in the mid-galley and insisted to her that I disrespected him by assisting the other customer. His tone and posture were threatening. By contrast, Roxane's were set to defuse:  hands behind back, eye contact, serious but relaxed face. "What would you like us to do for you, Greg?", she asked calmly. She did not give him any fuel for escalation. She also strategically used "quiet" to her advantage. Greg felt compelled to speak, to fill the void. 

"You know, I fly you guys all the time.  I know the rules.  I was involved in an assault on Alaska Airlines once and they..."

Involved in an assault?  Was he LOOKING for an escalation?  He felt "embarrassed"?  "Disrespected"?  Those are key words in the "get something for nothing" world of chronic airline complainers (those who seek compensation by alleging maltreatment). 

Roxanne continued her steady, even-handed handling of the situation, notifying and updating our flight crew every step of the way.  All avenues of handling were open.  But we were on the path of peaceful resolution, led by a calm, calming master of the method. 

The night wore on.  Call bells rang.  Several more little "blips" came from 34DE.  Older Greg, "My toe is broken."  "I can't stand the pain." "I need my pain medication."  "Look at my toe."  (Ever had a russet potato disappear in the refrigerator only to be found months later?  Yeah.)  Younger Greg was in a semi-conscious state for much of the night.  Even with three seats available to the two of them, a significant portion of his upper body protruded into the aisle on aircraft right, effectively blocking the pathway.  Each time the crew responded to a call bell, each time we needed to pass for our periodic water/welfare checks, we had to physically move him.

All night long, we responded following Roxanne's lead and, each time, the calm returned.  Even when she was on break, the calm pace and tone that Roxanne had set prevailed.  

Several customers seated nearby complained in Portuguese that the crew wasn't doing anything about the situation.  If they only knew how onerous other potential outcomes might be for everyone, them included, if we followed a different leader, a different path.  

We defused.  We calmed.  We never wavered or took unnecessary risk.  We were ready to do what was required.  Fortunately, what was required did not involve the handcuffs that we had readied, if needed.  It could have.  

The crew worked diligently all night to bring a successful resolution to the situation onboard. Appropriate arrangements were made for our arrival. Onward reservations have been scrutinized. It was a tedious but successful night thanks, in large part, to having the right leader at the right time. 

Five years later, 80,000+ of us are still wandering in the desert, searching for our oasis.  Our new, inspiring leader undoubtedly knows the way but had a personal setback this week. In social media, I noticed a get well wish cast in his direction which said "Got your back friendly".  When a true leader takes the lead, s/he instills confidence and belief and hope and trust. 

The right leader leads even when s/he is absent. 

We've been wandering for a while.  We can wander a week or two longer.  

I think we've found the right leader.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

My "Jenna" Moment

When flying the A zone galley Flight Attendant position on the 787-8, there are few things that can disrupt the great vibe.  You are responsibe for only 12 high-value customers, you have the assistance of a dedicated aisle Flight Attendant, everything you need to provide the high-quality product we all strive to produce is reliably provided, logically placed, easily reached.  The small galley becomes the artist's palette from which to choose just the right tones to achieve just the right result.  Occasionally, an HNP (high-need pilot) will intrude into the idyll.  But the logistics of 21st century commercial flight limit the intrusion measurably.  All is well in paradise!

Until you discover that operations require that Door 1 be used for boarding (rather than the more conventional, rational, workable Door 2).

The tranquil, controlled environment suddenly becomes the meeting place of the world:  airplane Babyl.  Pilots, Flight Attendants, Customer Service Agents, Catering Representatives, Cabin Services Agents, Aircraft Fuelers and the occasional unannounced Flight Deck Jumpseat Rider all converge on your ever-shrinking idyll in a short period of time, rendering it anything BUT idyllic.  Ultimately, passenger boarding begins and the true convergence of anxiety-prone humanity begins in earnest.  On a dual-aisle aircraft, approximately half of our nomadic population will turn right upon entering, bypassing the galley proper, in order to find their way to their allocated cabin and seat.  Of course, that means that the other half MUST traverse Nirvana to access the OTHER aisle in order to reach their cabin and seat.  Sufficient space for the one task is not even close to sufficient for several, being attempted simultaneously.

Knowing ALL THAT ^^ in advance, I took pre-emptive measures and completed the "heavy" part of galley preparation prior to the start of passenger boarding.  Any task that would require me to cross back-and-forth across the path of passenger flow became my highest priority:  transferring service equipment from between the forward and aft galley lobes, loading crockery (plates, bowls and coffee mugs) from their storage carts into the appropriate ovens, shuttling glassware out of the line-of-fire which is the boarding process and setting up a pre-departure station as inocuously as possible.  I was largely successful in avoiding the onrush of the herd.  I was also ahead of the preparation power curve and was available to assist the aisle Flight Attendant with her welcoming duties.

Toward the end of boarding (the flow had reduced to a dribble), a rather large, distraught-looking, youngish couple (man and woman) arrived in my idyll.  I overheard the woman conversing with the door greeter Flight Attendant as they entered, something about having seats that were separated.  I was feeling that I had my primary duties under control, so I ventured, "Step over here into the corner and let me see if I can help you."  (It was a nice thought to think that the 3 of us (I was the smallest and I am NOT small) could fit into the galley corner, out of the way but we tried to do just that.)  Thrusting their 2 boarding passes in my direction, the woman spoke, "We weren't supposed to be on this flight.  Something happened with ours and we were re-routed at the last minute.  We couldn't get seats together."

I had just used my handheld device, LINK, to open my liquor inventory and it lay readily at hand.  I opened the "Customer Info" app and noticed a smattering of available seats in Economy but no two together.  Nor were seats adjacent to those assigned (both middles) showing available.  I showed the couple the seat map when my eye stopped on a potential solution.  "It looks as though 36D is available.  That is our bargaining chip!  Either of you can ask the aisle-seat passenger next to you if they would mind moving to 36D, leaving their seat available.  It isn't a perfect solution but I think it will work."  They seemed dubious (truthfully, so was I) as they left to continue their pursuit.

Fast-forward 10 hours...

In Sao Paulo, we parked as far from the customs hall as is physically possible.  At this airport, that is so far that one might need additional protein intake for the walk!

Toward the end of our trek, just at the top of the escalators down to the Arrivals Hall, I heard, "Isn't that him?'  I turned to see my distraught couple looking back at me, inquisitively.  I moved toward them and took a risk by asking, "Well, how did it work out?"  They were effusive, or as effusive as they could be after flying all night, "Your suggestion worked perfectly!  The lady sitting next to my husband was travelling with a friend in 36E, so she was happy to swap!"  What are the odds?  Less than 50/50, in my experience!  "We didn't have high hopes but we HAD to get here today.  We were resigned to sitting separately and counting our blessings."

I'm a bit of a purpose-seer, to the point that I can often see purpose in events that are basically, pupose-free.  So, I ventured, "You know, for the last 2 to 3 weeks, things have just been going that way around here!  Why don't we ascribe your good fortune to the arrival of a new boss at the airline?"  Of course, they had NO idea what I was talking about (reminder:  I'd been up all night, too!).

"Ever since Mr. Munoz arrived at the CEO's office, things have seemed a little brighter, things just seem to go a little better.  I'm very happy it worked out for you.  I'll forward your thanks to the man who's creating an atmosphere for happy endings.  Thank you for flying UNITED."

Mr. Munoz, this "Jenna" moment is for you!  Godspeed.