Lessons from the tarmac by Bayo Owolabi


A couple of days ago, I was sitting in a plane for 4 hours on the tarmac of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos waiting for a flight to take off. As were taxiing away, the captain noticed an anomaly with one of the engines and stopped to investigate with the ground crew. So we had to wait, and wait, and wait.

Now this wasn’t an Arik Air flight, neither did the situation degenerate into the kind of melee that happened earlier in the year (Banky W wrote about that here). I found it interesting that in the 4+ hours that we were trapped on the tarmac I didn’t hear one single word of complaint from anyone. That got me thinking about what the lessons were… I came up with a short list.

1. Communicate: I can’t emphasize this enough. Both the captain and the lead host continually explained what was going on, what they were trying, and what the forward plans may be. It’s important to note that in situations like this, the customers really do want you to succeed. You’re in it together. So carry them along. This is something I feel we aren’t particularly great at doing yet in (this part of) Africa. I’m not sure what the origins of our pathological dislike for sharing is – we seemingly believe in shrouding even the most mundane of things with an air of secrecy that do us no favors. I’ve seen this in Nigeria, I’ve seen it in Ghana. I still don’t get it.

2. Empathize: Understandably, you’re under pressure. But guess what? So it the customer – partners to meet, connections to catch, fear of the unknown, etc. It is important to feel some of what the customer is feeling – to put yourself in their proverbial shoes, and then it’s easier to deal with their fears and communicate in a calming, soothing way. As a worker in a service industry I make sure to point out to newer employees to pause and do a little role reversal and think about what they would care about if they were the client and then shape their communications based on that, its worked well for me so far.

3. Don’t compromise: this applies to airplanes, or cars, or whatever. If you need to go up the chain of command multiple times to get a limp acquiescence then it probably was a bad decision to start with. The reality is that machines do break and may need fixing or to put it more frankly sh*t happens. But more often than not the costs of compromise will far outweigh any short term inconvenience. It’s like Russian roulette with a revolver of many chambers, the asymmetry of the outcomes is so large that is definitely a foolish undertaking – unfortunately this is a trap that many guilelessly walk into. Daily. (For more on this, see Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb)

4. Protect your reputation: this follows directly from the point above. I was on a British Airways and they generally aren’t known for putting dodgy planes in the sky. That definitely was a big part of why no one went into a frenzied panic even though the captain indicated there was a problem with an engine. It was clear from the ongoing communication that if there wasn’t absolute confidence that the problem is resolved, the flight will have to be cancelled. For people (including cynics like me) to accept that without much ado is almost entirely due to a strong reputation. This is key. A good name, they say, is better than silver or gold.

5. Put on the bloody air-conditioner! If we were sitting for 4 hours in sweltering heat, cooking slowly in our own juices, I doubt the outcome would have been the same regardless of the four points I mentioned previously. It is important to understand the context in which you function and manage accordingly. Show consideration and it will be reciprocated.

(Originally published on agbolohun.com)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Kola Ajuwon says:

    Nice one bro. Wish the airlines in this country/africa could read this. I was delayed in airport for more than 5 hrs with no communication or empathy from the airline, not twice o. Changing the airline, I found out that most of them are all guilty. My thought ” I’m sure they all rely on corruption to break the biding laws” .

  2. MielP says:

    this is very wise. many times we go through seemingly time wasting and irritating situations disregarding or oblivious to the moral of the experience. Bayo thanks for sharing these thoughts with us.

    and no, you can not exaggerate the importance of “communication” in this context.

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