Around five years ago I spent a difficult and unplanned night in Toronto airport. I didn’t enjoy it but in part survived by using the experience as an opportunity to study crisis management as a sort of amateur in situ ethnographer. You can find the sequence of posts I wrote about the experience starting here.
Now I’ve had delays since, but none as bad, until that is yesterday which was easily the worst ever; as in Toronto I survived by a mixture of patience and keeping myself going by observing the process. In effect I had a chance to experience in part the isolation and stress that is a daily occurrence for refugees and others at airports around the world; I knew it would end, for many it doesn’t. I’m interrupting my sequence of posts on wellbeing to tell the tale.
So to provide the context. I was asked to speak at a major event on Patient Safety, working on our micro-narrative work and elaborating the vector theory of change. The British Foreign Secretary (former Health Minister), Don Berwick (who I have long wanted to meet) and various other members of the great and good in the field were also on the platform so I was looking forward to it. The location was Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and I got online access to a web site to load data. That involved a whole section on travel and another to input data for a visa. I completed that, sent a few chasing emails and a week ago went onto the web site to find two pdf files: one a ticket with Saudia and the other an Arabic text with the name “visa”. Now I haven’t visited Saudi since a brief visit in the 80s when the context meant local arrangements were made so I had no experience. I assumed that the visa file was just that – I was speaking at a government event, the Saudis hosting an international accent and so on. But assumptions are dangerous.
So firstly, the sequence of events.
- Thursday night I was due at the opera (a brilliant performance of The Monstrous Child) which would mean I got home just after midnight. But with the flight to Jeddah leaving at 1230 that was fine. I would have the morning to pack and drive up to the airport at some leisure. Unfortunately, after I had left home an important meeting came up and the only option was 0830 in London on Friday. Had I known two hours earlier I would have booked a hotel but it was too late.Net result a return home midnight 50 as a result of a delayed train and then an hour packing before getting an 0631 train to London so I had four hours sleep.
- The meeting went well and I made the airport with plenty of time and went to the gate early; I’d checked in on-line but played safe. At the gate my boarding pass was not accepted as there was no visa so I stepped to the side and showed another agent the ‘visa’ pdf. She didn’t speak or read Arabic but another passenger said the word visa was by one of the numbers so she typed that into the screen. It came up with some error message (not valid I think but my memory is hazy) but she waved me onto the plane and although I was slightly worried I assumed she knew what she was doing; I know airlines are a bit paranoid as they are fined heavily if they let people fly without proper documentation.
- Aside from being alcohol-free and a slightly tired configuration, business class in Saudia was good, the service was excellent and the food good. I got three hours sleep which helped and left the plane on time at 2115 and headed for immigration. Again the visa question and I handed over the pdf form. Now things started to go wrong; it wasn’t accepted and I was taken to a secondary area. I was joined by there by another speaker who had changed his passport but had a full visa. He was cleared quickly and said he would tell the conference desk I was having problems. Shortly after than I learnt that the document was a letter which I was meant to take to the Saudi Embassy in London to get a visa – something that as far as I know I wasn’t told I needed to do. But OK they were going to see if they could process me. They took fingerprints, got details of occupation and other details and sent to the first of a series of plastic chairs I was about to get familiar with. I emailed my contacts and sort of assumed the conference desk would be taking some action. I was worried I wouldn’t get enough sleep with the delay but I assumed it would work out.
- Approaching midnight a more senior official came over and took me to another area. He said that they would not issue a visa as their superiors had rejected the idea. There was no appeal and I would be put on a plane back to London as soon as possible. I pointed out I was at a government event etc. but he was implacable. I was told to take a seat and wait.
- So I sat, and I sat and I sat. I didn’t want to try and sleep as the area was open and theft a possibility, also I was assuming someone would come and tell me something. There was a toilet (not the best but beggars can’t be choosers) but no refreshments to buy, no water and only those hard plastic chairs. Around 0200 I stood up and found a power socket that I used to recharge the phone while listing to episodes of the Archers (being British was a matter of security now) and a Welsh Rugby Podcast then went to sit down again. By now it was cold and I was increasingly thirsty. Other people came and went to the same area, all had their passports returned and were admitted to the country but no one talked to me and attempts to ask questions were just ignored.
- At 0500 I managed to attract someone in a Saudia uniform as they walked past. He spoke English and knew the case. He told me that he had arranged for me to be on the 1320 flight back Saturday and had printed the boarding past hours before. He rushed off and returned to show it to me. He then said that the Immigration guys would move me to the lounge before then but were waiting for a shift change at 0600. So at least an end was in sight.
- It wasn’t 0600, but at 0700 an immigration officer came to me and escorted me to the lounge. It was all pretty direct and to be honest I felt like a criminal which I think was the intent. My passport and boarding past were retained and I was told I would be collected before the flight. So I had a chance to have a drink, some food and take a cold cure or two (that had been making it worse).
- At 1130 I was collected and again escorted to the gate where I was handed over to Saudia staff with my passport and boarding pass finally returned. Having been marched by the queue of people waiting to board by a gentleman in uniform I was an object of some curiosity but by then I was past caring. We finally got on the plane and I settled down. The staff were very good but obviously knew what had happened, they got me food and generally looked after me. Finally I got some sleep
- When I landed at Heathrow I was called before I left the plane and yet again escorted through to passport control. Nothing like being marked out! I asked why I needed an escort and she said if was a request from the authorities. She had been in charge of the gate when I embarked and wanted to know how I had got on board (she wasn’t the one ). I went through that, left her with the ‘visa’ document for her internal investigations and miracle of miracles the automatic passport gates let me through. Given the fines the airline will have had I suspect there is an investigation ongoing. From there three trains and a short drive and I got home at 2020 in the same clothes I had on when I left at 0600 the previous day.
Now looking back on this there were mutual sins of omission by myself and the conference organisers. They should have made the visa process clear and given me instructions rather than assuming I could read Arabic; I should have realised it might need more than a letter and checked. The sin of commission was by the airline. They should not have allowed me to board. That would have been unfortunate but there was time still to sort a visa or arrange to present online. Also, I would also have been able to make a rugby match at the Arms Park and be online to grab some tickets for the Ring Cycle in Berlin this September – both of which I missed.
But the fact that the main damage to me was loss of sleep, some stress and a cold re-triggered puts this into perspective, as does the fact that I could be worried about rugby and opera. For me the experience was unpleasant but I was pretty sure I would come out of it restored to normal life. For many people this type of experience is ongoing with no prospect of end. Not only that they have to do it while trying to care for children and other dependents. All be it briefly I experienced what it was like to in an ethnic minority, subject to a process I didn’t understand and couldn’t influence. Physically no one cared or was interested. It was summed up a bit by the reason for my not being taken to the lounge until shift change. They wanted one person to be responsible for taking me there and onto the plane so it was a lot easier for them to leave me there, uninformed and unwatered, for eight hours so that the shift change would make things more convenient for them.
But the airline is culpable here as well. Aside from the fact they shouldn’t have let me on, when they knew I was there they could have done something to help but chose not to. But that is just customer care. The real value for me was the learning. Interestingly when my daughter contacted me in the morning after she woke up her first reaction, like mine, was to say study what is happening to you; taking such an act is a matter of giving oneself agency, as is writing this up for the record and to aid reflection.