A Christmas Tale – part 2


Customer service on the British Railways, Western Region Blue Pullman in 1964. How many former connecting lines and sidings you can spot? Film by British Transport Films.

A Christmas Tale – part 1 described an incident when British Airways customer service broke down when a member of its staff had been subject to stress. The recent snow falls and freezing weather in the UK has seen some airports like Gatwick (now no longer part of the Spanish-owned British Airports Authority) coping magnificently and scheduling extra flights while others, like London’s Heathrow Airport, were totally unprepared for the big freeze and had intending passengers camping for days in the terminal buildings. Inevitably in such situations, where staff and passengers alike suffer extraordinary levels of stress, even the best designed systems can break down.

Prezes has e-mailed a story which continues with the theme of delivering customer service when the going gets tough. about how a sharp eyed member of one airline’s ground staff ensured a Happy Christmas for severely disabled man stuck in Heathrow chaos. Arriving to work at 06:00 on 22 a few days ago, Susan (all names changed to avoid embarrassment) was threading her way through the bodies that lay sleeping in the check in area when she saw a man sitting in a wooden chair. Now this struck Susan as strange – such chairs are not used in this part of of Terminal 3. But the most extraordinary part was to follow, the man got up and with great difficulty started to walk towards her. He caught her arm, introduced himself as Peter and slowly explained that he was trying to return home to the USA. He talked the way he walked, with great difficulty. He had been in the Terminal for 4 days.

Alarm bells rang in Susan’s head. When flights are severely rationed, passengers returning home are given priority over passengers flying out from their home country. Disabled passengers should be flown out on the first available flight. Someone like Peter should have been back home days ago, not still sitting and sleeping in a chair for 4 days. Susan rushed upstairs, pausing only to enquire from the manager responsible as to the status of Peter’s case. Oh that’s all right we arranged for him to stay in a hotel, came the breezy reply. Susan took a deep breath, rushed up some more stairs and found herself talking to a senior manager several levels above her rank. You were right to let me know, do whatever you need to do and get him on the next available flight.

Peter had fallen through the system, because although his movements were severely impaired he preferred to walk rather than use a wheelchair. Without a wheelchair staff did not recognize his case as exceptional. They made a reservation for him in a hotel, but expected him to find his own way there. After waiting for over an hour in the freezing cold for a bus that never came, Peter decided that it was warmer and safer back inside the terminal building. Someone had fetched him a comfortable chair and he was left sitting in it for three days.

The story has a happy ending with Peter getting back home for Christams after Susan personally made sure that Peter got onboard the next USA flight. The company she works for – owned by an eccentric millionaire – differs from PKP in one crucial respect. When a catastrophic failure occurs, staff are empowered to think and behave as if the airline belonged to them and to take whatever means seem reasonable to put things right. You may feel that there is less scope for such empowerment on the railways, but this little story published on-line by the BBC, proves that even in the days of British Railways, such little heroic acts of extraordinary customer care did occur.



2 Responses to “A Christmas Tale – part 2”

  1. Robert Hall Says:

    Grand film – example of a much-loved genre. Have seen it a few times in the past; nice to see it again. So very much steam still in regular service in 1962 ! Locations en route: Banbury is easily recognisable, otherwise I’m mostly lost.

    • Dyspozytor Says:

      I first travelled this route (but not in the ‘Blue Pullman’) by myself as a young schoolboy in the severe winter of 1963. This was my longest journey on the ‘GWR’ to date. My only regret was that the train was pulled by a ‘Western’ diesel hydraulic, not a ‘King’ or a ‘Castle’. A few years later, as a volunteer on the Talyllyn, I regularly enjoyed this route courtesy of the ‘Cambrian Coast Express’.

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