Kenya Airways Flight 117, 5 July 2013 (Part 3)

Are you sitting comfortably? (I would if I was you, this may be a long one!)

OK, it’s been almost a week since my children departed Schipol airport, 60 hours less since they finally landed and 78 hours less since the other 297 (Remember that number) passengers of flight KQ117 finally arrived in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, 66 hours later than planned. Despite having been promised otherwise I have yet to hear from Kenya Airways Customer Relations team. It’s time to name and shame I think?

Those of you who saw my twitter feed during, or read the first two parts of this blog (Pt 1 is here and 2 is here) will already know what happened, or so you think. A quick search of twitter using the hashtag #KQ117 will expose a far worse picture than Kenya Airways would want you to see, and apparently the saga is still ongoing.

From my point of view there were many players in the weekend; the airline, Kenya Airways* (KQ), the booking agent, Hogg Robinson Group (HRG, and the wonderful staff on their 24 Hr Emergency Desk), the ground handling agent, GoldAir**, the British Embassy in Athens (which I mistakenly referred to as a High Commission in my earlier blogs), the Sofitel at Athens Airport and its staff, the support staff at my work and, of course, my children.

* I include KLM and the overarching partnership Sky Team here.
** I’m unsure if GoldAir are part of the Sky Team partnership or merely the handling agent at the airport who ended up responsible for the aircraft once it had carried out its emergency landing.

I’m going to start with the good here…

HRG. In all truth, a corporate version of Thomas Cook or some other travel agent. My children’s flights were booked through HRG with KLM (and KQ operated the second leg of the flight as part of Sky Team). Can you imagine calling Thomas Cook at 0200hrs and asking for their help with the airline they booked your flight on? Remember, I’m not talking about a holiday rep, I’m talking about an office in the UK. I called them at all times of day and night and never once had to wait to be put through, I was never placed on hold and I was always greeted with a cheery voice. The ladies I dealt with over the 48 hour ordeal were quite wonderful, ever helpful, they always called me back when they said they would, were always forthcoming with as much information as they could discern and, I believe, became personally involved in the unfolding drama. Debby, Tracey and Jenny were texting each other and emailing each other even when off duty to see how the ‘two children’ were getting on. It was through HRG that I heard the information that KQ didn’t want the media or, more importantly, their passengers to hear. They all deserve medals!

Sofitel. A luxury hotel less than 50m from Athens airport (apparently?). The staff in this establishment showed themselves to be truly professional, willing to go the extra mile for their guests and, thankfully, willing to act in loco parentis when KQ, who had a duty of care, decided to neglect their obligations. From the Concierge who sought out an Apple charger for my children’s iPhones to the member of staff who arranged for my children’s clothes to be laundered and returned to them within two hours, their conduct was exemplary. And then there was the Duty Manager. No one person put my mind at ease throughout this whole experience more than he. Frequent calls from him to my children, the odd visit and even more calls to me allowed me to relax on the Sunday more than any other player in this saga. Having never set foot in the Sofitel Athens, or to my recollection, any hotel in their chain, I would wholeheartedly recommend considering this hotel as a base for a visit to their capital.

The not so good…

GoldAir. Now, before I get stuck in here, I need to explain… GoldAir don’t usually deal with KQ. In fact I’m not sure if they usually deal with any Sky Team partners. Nevertheless they were the ground handling agents responsible for flight KQ117 during the whole time they were on the ground. Whether intentional or not they misinformed HRG on more than one occasion and made one or more decisions which I don’t believe they should have. As a redeeming factor, their final decision managed to allow my children to arrive home more than 18 hours before the remaining 297 passengers. (Remember that number.)

The British Embassy, Athens. I have no idea what they did, or what they didn’t do in Greece. I do know that the Defence Attaché called back from his own holiday and arranged for something to happen. I also know that his deputy (I don’t know her real title) provided me with her private mobile number should I need further assistance. I also know that someone from the Embassy contacted either the airline or the hotel and that the performance of all involved made my children’s Sunday afternoon in Athens all the more bearable. And that’s all I could ask.

And the bad…

Kenya Airways. Where do I begin? The 49 passengers who only had single entry visas and were abandoned by KQ in the holding room at Athens airport? The faulty landing gear which was never reported? The paperwork required to fly on the Sunday evening which wasn’t submitted? No. I’ll start with what I consider to be their greatest failing. At least 4 children we flying on KQ117 as Unaccompanied Minors (UNMNR) and were, by all accounts, unceremoniously abandoned by the airline which had agreed to carry these children. Two of them had flown from Edinburgh, the other two had flown even further, from Los Angeles!

An airline agrees to be responsible for a child or children travelling as UNMNR from the point of departure where someone (in our case the Grandparent) ‘signs’ the children over to the airline and is meant to remain in the airport until the aircraft departs, and they are then responsible for the child or children, accompanying them at all times, until such time as they arrive at their destination and are ‘signed’ back to the parents (in our case at least). Sky Team (KLM and Kenya Airways) failed in this obligation, and worse, on several occasions:

1. At the point of departure, flying with KLM, the flight was delayed just over 30 minutes. My Father was not informed of this delay and had, in fact, left the airport well before the aircraft actually departed. Not a good start, and it went downhill from there.

2. An hour before the time they were supposed to land in Nairobi the airline contacted me to advise that the flight had been delayed and would land at 22:55hrs instead of 06:35hrs. The fact that, at this time, the airline knew that the aircraft had executed an emergency landing as a result of a fire alarm in the cargo hold and yet didn’t inform me is, to my mind, a matter of gross misinformation at best and negligence at worst.

3. The crew of KQ117 left my children for periods of up to 7.5 hours at a time on several occasions during their stay at the Sofitel (that’s a whole day at school without a teacher) and provided them with no information as to how to contact the crew if something happened. This is wholely unacceptable and can only be described as negligence, or in my terms dereliction of duty.

4. On several occasions the airline advised either HRG or myself that someone would visit my children, and they didn’t, or that my children were somewhere in particular (on the aircraft, in the departure lounge, in the hotel) when they weren’t. That isn’t negligence, it’s deceit. Lying, plain and simple.***

5. With the exception of the phone call on the Saturday morning to say the aircraft wasn’t landing on time, and the Monday morning when they called to advise me the flight would arrive at 08:35hrs, I received only one call from Kenya Airways in the entire 51 hours I was aware of the situation. That call was from a rude, ungracious and completely inept member of their Customer Service team called Grace. For some reason this woman, apparently a mother herself, couldn’t understand why my wife would be concerned that her children were, to all extents, abandoned in a foreign country with no means of contacting those, supposedly responsible, adults charged with their care.

So far I’ve detailed what happened directly related to me. With children travelling as UNMNR I took it personally. There was so much more that went on during the weekend. Here are some more of Kenya Airways deceits:

6. The aircrew left the 49 passengers without visas in the airport with no way of contacting them. I fully understand why they were held, and I understand that the aircrew had to rest before resuming the flight. The fact they went hours without food or water, some were ill and were offered no assistance, it took hours for them to receive blankets to sleep on/with, and so it went on.

7. The aircrew were accommodated in a separate hotel to the guests (except my children) and, other than the time they took my children for a work, saw little or nothing of the other passengers.

8. The aircraft, despite the fire alarm being identified as a fault and then repaired, was deemed unfit to fly due to a fault with the landing gear. This fact, as far as I am aware, was not made clear. (Thank you GoldAir and HRG.)

9. Despite statements to the contrary, Kenya Airways (and/or the KCAA) did not provide the necessary paperwork for the plane to fly on the Sunday as they state. It may have been submitted, but definitely not in time for the departure window the aircraft was allotted that night.

10. 17 people were not flown on the Sunday’s KQ117 to Nairobi as stated by the airline. There were only 7 seats available on that aircraft and only 4 of those were used. By the four UNMNR passengers mentioned earlier. Remember that number? 297? That’s how many people were left to fly on the Monday (unless some passengers paid for their own onward passage to Nairobi, which I don’t know).

And then there’s the arrival. When I collected my children from Gate 9 in JKIA there was not one word of apology. That shouldn’t have surprised me, no-one had apologised throughout the whole weekend. (Except the staff at HRG and Sofitel who had nothing to apologise for). When I asked the member of the aircrew who finally delivered my children to me to see someone from Customer Services he asked me why? He then asked if I would go to their office rather than them come to me. When the young lady did finally deem it necessary to see me she, at first, refused to provide me with a complaints form. She also advised me that under no circumstances would any compensation be paid:

We don’t pay compensation under these circumstances.

And still she refused to provide me with the necessary forms. I’ll admit here to having raised my voice slightly. Eventually she relented and went to the office to get a complaints form. On her return she advised me that there were none in the office and that she’d have to go up to the main office to get some. (Hoping I’d give in and walk away?) Needless to say, I left JKIA with my children in tow and complaints form in hand.

Since all this I’ve heard nothing from Kenya Airways. I’ve still to hear one word of apology.

I have, however, been contacted by Katie from Sky Team who took my email address and advised me that Kenya Airways would be in touch.

They haven’t.

And I’m not surprised.

I am now beginning what will undoubtedly be a long, drawn out, complaints process. And I am a tenacious, patient and determined little bugger at times. (Just ask my Mum!)

*** I may be wrong here. This may only be a result of the compunction to tell you what you want to hear that I mentioned in Part 1, but then again…

Kenya Airways Flight 117, 5 July 2013 (Part 2)

After a few sporadic hours sleep I was up again at 0600 on 7 Jul 2013, wondering what the day would bring.

As it was a 24 hr service I called the HRG Emergency Desk for some reassurance.

HRG advised me that the airline had advised them that they were still awaiting confirmation that the spare part would be leaving Amsterdam today and wouldn’t know anything until later in the day. Bear in mind that my children were advised by the Captain of KQ117 that they’d be advised by 10:00 what would be happening.

I called Kenya Airways Operations (KQO from here on in as I’m getting lazy!) and they basically confirmed what HRG had told me, with their own little twist; they stated that nothing could be confirmed until after 12:05 as that was the time the KLM flight was to leave Amsterdam.

I had spent a few hours planning an alternative for getting my children home and needed to know before 11:00 if things were going to plan. Looked like I was going to have to wait.

08:00 Called the children at the hotel to see if they’d slept well regardless, and to ask if anyone had visited to check on them since the Captain spoke to them last night. Yes, they’d slept well. No, no-one had come to see them.

08:05 I called my support network at work and set the wheels in motion to put the rocket up someone’s arse in the aircrew.

08:10 I called Sofitel Athens and asked the receptionist to put me through to a member of the aircrew. She wouldn’t (and quite rightly so in hindsight). After a short volley of ever more heated retorts from both of us she advised that the only person who could allow this was the Duty Manager.

I asked to be put through and she acquiesced, obviously explaining the situation before patching me through. I cannot put in to words how much the next few minutes set my mind at ease.

Koromidos (I think?) was polite, courteous, professional and empathised with my situation hugely. He promised that he would personally take over supervision of my children and that were to feel free to contact him at any time, he would ensure they were fed and watered, had access to snacks etc .

In the next 25 minutes I had 3 calls from the Sofitel Duty Manager (I can only bring myself to get his name wrong once!) advising me that the children were safe, that he had gone up to see them, that they were on their way to breakfast etc. That’s more contact in 25 minutes from a man who was going out of his way to help than I had heard in 28 hours from KQO who had a legal obligation to keep me informed.

Oh! I forgot to mention that last night’s Concierge had located an Apple charger to allow my children to charge their iPhones. (More Brownie points for Sofitel!)

12:10 I received a call from HRG confirming that the aircraft had indeed taken off carrying the spare part required for the landing gear. There was still no mention of this further fault from KQO.

12:20 I called the children to ask if they’d had the update from the aircrew. No.

12:28 I received a call from my employer advising me that they had contacted the British High Commission in Athens and gave me a contact number should I need it.

12:35 I called my children and told them what I’d found out.

All we could do now was sit and wait…

14:10 I received a call from the Sofitel Duty Manager asking me if it was okay for the aircrew to take my children for a walk… Of course it was.

14:24 My children called to say they’d been bought ice cream by the aircrew and that they were going out for a walk. I sense something has changed, don’t you?

15:40 My children called to say that, while the aircrew had taken them out for a walk, apparently the crew had been mobbed by passengers from the flight who saw them leave the hotel and, for safety reasons, one of them had returned the children to the hotel. Anyone who has been in Africa and has seen a mob, riot, emotionally charged situation, will know just how sensible a decision this was.

At 15:10, having been advised by the hotel and HRG that everything was looking good for tonight I went down to some friends to watch the Wimbledon Men’s Final.

16:35 HRG called to advise that the part had arrived in Athens and that everything was on schedule.

18:30 HRG called to advise that the aircraft had been repaired and was currently undergoing safety checks, however there was a requirement for some additional paperwork to be sent from Kenya (KQO or KCAA, I’m not sure) and this was being worked on. Once this was received all would be good to go. HRG also advised that the children were to be collected from the hotel in a short time and taken directly to the aircraft, where they would be given VIP treatment and had been upgraded to Business Class.

19:40 HRG called to advise that the airline had stated children were on the aircraft, they’d be waiting about an hour, but would be departing on time.

20:30 HRG called again to advise that the Hellenic Civil Aviation Authority were still waiting on the necessary paperwork for the flight to depart, but the flight had a departure slot at 22:30 and things should be ok.

21:00 My daughter called to see if I knew what was happening as they were still in the departure lounge. At this point I almost explode, as far as the airline had told my booking agent the children were on the aircraft almost 2 hours ago!

21:10 I call HRG and ask them to find out what they can. They’re as confused as I was and promise to call back in a short while.

21:20 HRG call back advising that the children are indeed in the lounge but the intention is that they will board soon, and the aircraft still has a departure window tonight (somewhere before 00:30), but the necessary paperwork still hasn’t been received.

You’ll notice at this point that I have received no phone calls from KQO all day. I’ve called them once or twice but they seem totally unable to provide any information.

23:40 HRG called to advise that the flight had been cancelled. The necessary clearance had not been received for the aircraft to fly over specific airspace (more on this in my notes later) and therefore it had missed it’s departure window. The handling agent had advised that the children would be returned to the hotel where they would receive a late dinner and then sleep and, after breakfast, be returned to departures to be ready should the aircraft be allowed to depart.

23:54 I called my daughter to advise her what was happening, they hadn’t been told anything. While I was on the phone a member of the aircrew made the announcement to the remaining passengers and I heard all hell break loose. My daughter advised that she had to go as it was getting rowdy in the lounge.

00:31 I called my daughter again to make sure that she was ok. A security guard in the lounge had decided that the lounge was too volatile and moved my children and other Unaccompanied Minors to an office upstairs. They were to wait there and a member of the aircrew would come to escort them to the hotel. Yet again, one of the few good decisions made during the whole mess.

01:02 I called HRG to find out what was going on. They had been told the children were in the hotel.

01:10 HRG called to confirm that the handling agent/airline had confirmed that the children were on their way to the hotel.

01:34 I called my daughter to confirm that they were safely in the hotel and find out what room they were in. They were still in the office above the lounge.

01:36 I called HRG to find out what was happening. They had no further information.

01:47 I called my daughter again who advised that a member of the airline had told them they were trying to get them on an alternative flight.

01:54 I called HRG, who had not been advised of any additional flight at all. This could not be done without contacting either myself or the booking agent. They advised they would call back shortly.

02:07 I called my daughter who advised that she was on a bus on the Tarmac heading to another plane with two other Unaccompanied Minors. I asked her to give the phone to the member of aircrew accompanying her. There wasn’t one. I asked her to tell the driver to stop the bus and put him on the phone. The driver explained that tonight’s KQ117 from Amsterdam had diverted to Athens to collect cargo and that the Captain had stated he had sufficient spare seats to carry the Unaccompanied Minors to their final destination. Seeing light at the end of the tunnel I told him to proceed.

02:10 I called HRG who were completely flabbergasted. They accepted my decision and stated they would confirm what was happening.

02:15 HRG called back to confirm that KQ117 had diverted that night’s aircraft from Amsterdam to collect cargo and the Captain offered to carry the Unaccompanied Minors.

02:34 HRG called back to confirm that the aircraft had departed Athens and that they would be landing in Nairobi between 08:30 and 09:00.

And rest… Until 05:38 later this morning at least.

With the exception of the burst of energy in the middle of the day from the aircrew, KQO had again been totally uncommunicative. I received more calls from the hotel’s duty manager in 25 minutes than I did from the airline in 36 hours.

The reason for this apparent recollection that they had a duty of care to my children became clear once I had spoken to my children this morning. The British High Commission had called the hotel and spoken to the staff and the aircrew. The aircrew apparently misconstrued this interest as indication that my children had diplomatic connections (they don’t by the way) and, on next meeting them after lunch, were bowing to them and shaking their hands and saying how nice it was to meet them ;o)

This bit of light humour and enjoyment for my children was the only good news from KQO for the day. There was a spate of incorrect information, misguidance and even, to my mind, more negligence than there was yesterday. What annoys me even more is the fact that they were willing to make changes to their plans without advising their parents or the booking agent, which I’m fairly sure is a breach of several IATA guidelines and any covenant or charter an airline has with it’s customers?

Having lived in Kenya for some time now this shouldn’t surprise me. There is an inherent desire in employees in all Kenyan companies to tell you what they think you want to hear. When they don’t know what that is then they simply don’t tell you anything. That still doesn’t make their behaviour any more acceptable.

The next part of this blog will fill out some of the gaps in info on these first two parts, and detail some more the KQO responses via Twitter and Facebook during this dėbacle, and also what happened when I collected my children from KQO at JKIA later in the morning.

I will also highlight the heroes and villains throughout this whole experience. There are several of each, and the heroes are solely responsible from keeping my wife and I sane throughout this whole time and, with the exception of a 2 minute wobble around 09:00 – 09:30, managed to keep us from descending into blubbering wrecks at the thought of our children alone and unsupported in Athens.

More to follow…