“It will take much time and effort to turn SSR into a “magnificent” airport. Apart from inanimate cargo, an airport handles people who have needs and feelings. Cargo can transit through dirty, unkempt premises and be handled by miserable personnel without feeling the least upset. People are made of different stuff. As much as the shine and cleanliness of the place, it is the quality of the welcome and service they receive that determines their opinion of the place…”
Sushil and I had waited for two hours at SSR Airport to greet our friend Keshraj, who was returning from a visit to Madagascar sometime early last year. Served us right to get there too early and not enquiring if there were any delays before leaving home! Still, the long wait gave us a chance to sample Airway Coffee’s croissant and coffee. I was not very impressed with the quality of service or the croissant (as tough as old boots!) at what is ostentatiously called an international airport — especially as we were being charged international tariff.
“Super, magnificent!” exclaimed my friend Keshraj as soon as he got out of the Arrival Gate, “don’t you think?”
“Well, the building seems impressive enough,” I said. “But I reserve my judgment until I have seen the service they provide.” Sushil nodded in agreement.
My chance came late last year. My wife and I were travelling to Shanghai to catch a Costa cruise. As required these days due to the ever-present threat of terrorism, Dan the taxi-man drove us to SSR Airport a full three hours before the flight. After finding a trolley for our luggage, he went off with instructions to collect us upon our return.
Mr Greyface I
As we entered the departure terminal, I was overwhelmed with the amount of depressing grey. Granted modern airport material is mostly grey metal, but the décor could be a little more colourful. (We are, after all a tropical island, for Heaven’s sake; and Vaco is still alive!) Instead, the whole place is full of grey desks, grey-blue chairs and grey partitions. Anybody would think we were in the China of the Mao era when almost everybody and everything seemed to be clad in grey.
But true to form, worse was to come. The people at the check-in counter, though not wearing grey uniforms, might as well have. There was no response to our Bonjour. When I insisted on repeating it, we were treated to what I can only describe as a wry, grey smile.
My misfortune that day I was wearing a cervical collar. The guy at the counter asked if I was unwell, to which my wife replied that it was for a problem with my cervical spine. “Problem with spine, well I could only travel lying flat—and I only had a sitting arrangement,” said Mr Greyface I.
I tried to explain, but he would not listen. Eventually he referred the matter to a senior who, after I explained the reason for the collar, agreed I could travel in the sitting position. What a relief!
Mr Greyface II
The next hurdle of course was Immigration. It seems that our immigration officers have one thing in common with supermarket cashiers; they never really make eye contact, never smile or respond to any kind of greeting. Mr Greyface II flipped through our passports, stamped them and gave them back to us, all without exchanging a single word.
We got past the scanners with relative ease; at least they showed some semblance of civilized behaviour. Why, seeing my cervical collar, one young lady, even reached out to help me collect my handbag, and bits and bobs from the tray! But the feel-good factor was not to last very long.
Mrs Greyface I
In a calculated move to catch the customer’s attention, the duty-free shop is so placed that the passenger has no way of avoiding it as he enters the waiting area. He has to literally walk into the glass cases displaying Channel, Dior, and other famous brands of perfume.
In order to avoid paying the exorbitant price charged in the perfume shops in the shopping malls, my wife had planned to seize the opportunity to buy some Channel Number 5 sometime during the trip. So we stopped to have a look at the price. Mrs Greyface I, overhearing us work out the MUR equivalent of the Euro price tag, decided it was beyond our means. So, unsolicited, she came over and suggested we might care to have a look at some other, less pricey items — all this without any such thing as a Bonjour. The cheek of it, we thought! Anyway, we declined as politely as possible, and saved our Euros for some other duty-free shop.
Whilst waiting for our flight, we decided to have a coffee. Whilst the wife waited at a table, I went to the coffee counter. The waiter was chatting to his colleague, and carried on chatting whilst I waited to be served. Eventually fed up with this, I called out to him. He came over and just waited for my order — but no “hello, sorry to keep you waiting, or even what I would like,” just an upward jerk of the head, as is customary in so many local shops. After I had placed my order, he did me the great favour of just serving it; no eye contact, no “please, no thank you, no good-bye,” just x-rupees.
The flight to Shanghai aboard Emirates A380 was so pleasant; it was worth the detour via Dubai, and the three-hour transit there. There was no question of missing the direct flight offered by MK! After a couple of pleasant days spent in Shanghai, we joined the cruise which went like dream. It was our third trip with Costa, and the service was as good as before. Eventually we got to our final destination in Singapore. There we indulged in a bit of shopping, and what a joy it was, even for someone like me who hates going shopping with women — even my late mother!
In every shop without exception, we received super service from patient, smiling and helpful serving staff; nothing like the Mr/s Greyfaces in the shops back home. Sadly the weeks had flown by and the holidays came to an end. It was time to return to the only Paradise Island where you get a “hell” of a service.
Mrs Greyface II
And so with a heavy heart, we flew back to Plaisance. During our journeys, we had used the port/airport facilities at places as diverse as Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, China and Vietnam — passing through the transit in Dubai. The services varied between efficient officialdom to friendly efficiency. Everywhere we were greeted with a “good …” and invariably with a pleasant smile.
At Plaisance, we had the dubious pleasure of meeting up with the sister of Mrs Greyface I. No greetings, not even a nod, just “have you been to all these places?” after looking at our passports and the disembarkation card. I was just about to give her an appropriate reply when, sensing my annoyance, the wife stepped in front of me and politely said “Yes we have, madam.” Whereupon, Mrs Greyface II made a grunting sound, stamped our passports and handed them to her without so much as an eye contact. I wondered where these people got their training, if any. Indeed where do they receive their socialization process even? Their Sanskaar, as Tulsi of the ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ TV serial would put it.
Well sorry, dear friend. It will take much time and effort to turn SSR into a “magnificent” airport, to borrow your adjective. Apart from inanimate cargo, an airport handles people who have needs and feelings. Cargo can transit through dirty, unkempt premises and be handled by miserable personnel without feeling the least upset. People are made of different stuff. As much as the shine and cleanliness of the place, it is the quality of the welcome and service they receive that determines their opinion of the place.
SSR Plaisance has its work cut out!
* Published in print edition on 20 February 2015