Airport Tyrant Syndrome: Power-mad officials who treat ‘powerless’ passengers with contempt

Updated on Nov 27, 2019 10:35 AM IST
You find power-mad people at airports all over the world;I have seen it with Immigration officials, Customs officers and last week, even with Vistara staff.
You find power-mad people at airports all over the world;I have seen it with Immigration officials, Customs officers and last week, even with Vistara staff.(Unsplash)
You find power-mad people at airports all over the world;I have seen it with Immigration officials, Customs officers and last week, even with Vistara staff.(Unsplash)
Hindustan Times, Delhi | By

I have written before about the nervousness most of us feel when we are at airports. The most obvious manifestation of this tension is when we are at Immigration counters. No matter how experienced a traveller you are, there is always at least one moment of doubt when you present your passport to the Immigration officer.

Until he stamps your passport, you are at his mercy. He can refuse you entry. He can demand that you prove that you are never going to abandon your stable life in India to become a waiter in a curry house in Ealing or a drug pusher in Queens. (In India, my fear is more basic: will the officer know how to operate a computer? All too often these days I spend ages at Immigration desks in Delhi – and last fortnight in Trivandrum --- because the officer did not throw how his or her computer worked.)

But what about the other side of the equation? What about the people who work at airports? Do they enjoy the terror they evoke in passengers? Are they just honest souls trying to do their jobs as best as they can? Or are they power-hungry little people who revel in tyranny!

I am never quite sure.

And frankly, it is wrong to generalise. All airports attract all kinds of people. But increasingly, I am coming around to the view that many of them delight in the exercise of their power.

The golden rule at Immigration in most civilised countries is that you should try and be as nice to passengers as possible. That’s what officers are told during training.

London used to be a nightmare. There was a time, in the 1960s when a group of Immigration officers came out in favour of Enoch Powell, the racist, anti-Immigration, right-wing politician. Fortunately, those days seemed to have passed. Sure, arriving in Heathrow can be horrible with long lines at Immigration. But when you do eventually get to a desk, the officers are usually warm and friendly.

In America, experiences are mixed. Many officers still bark at visitors and, if you land at the wrong time, lines can be long. And there are still (in my limited experience) a fair numbers of officers who are into the power thing. The attitude is not ‘Welcome to America’ but “Are you trying to sneak into my country, you grubby little man?” Which kind of officer you get is purely a matter of luck.

Things have improved in India since the local police were evicted from the Immigration Desks. When the Delhi police ran Immigration, it was among the worst in the world. The official attitude was that of the village thanedar interrogating a cattle thief.

Often there would be veiled suggestions that unless some form of gratification was provided they wouldn’t let you board your flight. Poor labourers returning to jobs in the Middle East had no choice but to pay up.

Things have improved since a new Immigration Bureau was set up. The officers are not crooks now. But many are foolish and incompetent. And a fair proportion still talk to passengers rudely, aware of the power they hold over them.

The most positive development has been the handing over of airport security to the CISF. In the days when the local police ran security, I have seen constables of the Calcutta police forcing poor workers to empty their pockets out and helping themselves to their money before letting them through.

At Mumbai airport, I once saw a constable accept money from a passenger to let him take some banned items abroad. When I complained to the inspector, he threatened to make me miss my flight. (The story has a happy ending. I wrote about it. The police immediately held an enquiry and action was taken against the corrupt officers.)

In my experience, customs has improved since the green channel was introduced and officers know they are under scrutiny. You do get the odd power-mad joker but he tends to be the exception rather than the norm.

But there are other people who enjoy terrorising passengers: airline staff, for one. Just stand next to the economy class check in counters for flights to the Gulf; there is something deeply offensive about the way in which traffic assistants talk to passengers. Rude does not even begin to describe it. If passengers have even a kilo of excess package they are made to squirm and beg and are terrorised.

This may be true of airline staff all over the world: they treat the weak and powerless with contempt. Many staff members are stupid and even worse, they are stubborn in their stupidity.

Sadly people of Indian origin working for European airlines are often the worst offenders . I remember being stopped from boarding my flight to London by a very foolish Indian-origin girl in Germany. I had no visa, she claimed.

I explained to her that there was a stamp on my passport that confirmed that I had right of abode in the UK. (I was born in the UK.) “I don’t care. Indian passport,” she barked. Fortunately, a more intelligent (white) Lufthansa official intervened and let me board.

People who pay for Business Class should have it easier. A domestic business class fare is several times the price of an economy fare. (Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi can cost as much as Rs. 75000). So, passengers should get what they have paid for. A good parallel would be a Five Star hotel which recognises that you are paying through your nose and treats you with some care.

Many airlines abroad recognise this. Travelling Emirates out of Dubai, Thai out of Bangkok or Singapore Airlines out of Changi can be fun because the airlines provide excellent Business Class experiences on the ground. In India Jet used to do this and Air-India (out of Delhi) has finally got its act together for premium passengers.

Oddly enough the one exception is Vistara, in most respects, India’s best airline. Check in queues are long, staff are poorly trained, the systems are bad and often they are just arrogant and rude at airports. (They are great once you are on board which is why I have taken five flights on Vistara over the last ten days.)

I have written about Vistara’s ground handling before and to be honest, things are better now. But the old mentality still turns up again and again. Travelling to Calcutta on Monday, I found the Business Class check in lines were the longest and in the lounge, the board showing departures went from Gate Open to Last Call in minutes.

Fortunately, the Vistara gates are near their Delhi lounge so my wife and I hurried to the gate. On our way there we got a call asking where we were. We explained that we would be there in a few minutes. The airline had a legitimate concern and we reassured them that we were nearly there.

Then the phone rang again in a matter of seconds. They were now going to close the counter, we were told rudely. But, we explained, we were only a minute away from the gate and could actually see passengers still boarding.

When I got to the counter, I remonstrated with the lady who checked my boarding card and said that there was no need to keep threatening us. “I can de-board you”, she said sternly, “if you are not there 20 minutes before departure”. This was a joke because boarding had not even been announced in the lounge 20 minutes before departure.

Something inside me snapped. “Okay”, I said. “Off load me, then.”

Of course, she never had any need (or the authority) to do that. It was a question of bullying passengers. (I was not the last passenger to board, anyway.)

So you have got to ask yourself: would a guest at a Tata-run Taj hotel be treated that way? Would Singapore Airlines behave that way? Should Vistara, which embodies the culture of the Tatas and Singapore Airlines, treat passengers with such contempt?

The answer is obvious.

It is something about airports that brings out the petty tyrant in little people. They feel powerful and feel they can throw their weight around .

If the rude lady had been elsewhere —say at reception at a Taj hotel— she would have treated guests very differently.

Blame it on Airport Tyrant syndrome !

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