Cattle Herding And The Art of Complaint

Thorne Godinho

A South African blogger, freelance writer, and the founder of The ChirpRoom – a liberal youth blog. He moonlights as a published researcher, interested in public policy and human rights. He serves as an Editor of the Pretoria Student Law Review (PSLR). @ThorneGo

“Sir, you’ve come to this desk three times already. Please go away now.”

There I stood – slightly shell-shocked. The Etihad Airlines assistant at the Abu Dhabi Flight Transfer desk had just snapped at me and was now looking past me to assist another lost traveller. I can’t remember every word she said – and in stressful situations my brain has a tendency to embellish and magnify even the smallest of incidents – but she definitely wanted me to go away.

And now I was stuck in Abu Dhabi for twenty hours because Etihad (and by extension their code-share partner, Air Berlin) refused to assist me or take responsibility for my ticket.

There is nothing quite as frightening as realising that you are nothing but a number – visible on spread sheets but unseen by the corporate bureaucrats adding and subtracting the millions of yous and your euros together.  The realisation that you are unimportant in general is pretty common, but every consumer experiences a rush of anxiety when they realise the big corporates they’re paying don’t really care.

In my case, it was my unintentional devotion to complaining which led to a serious bout of anxiety. To be honest, the (white) suburban experience in South Africa may as well result in a qualification in complaining. Communication expert Sarah Britten has facetiously called the art of complaint (and bonding through collective-complaining) a “vile white practice”.  Alone in Abu Dhabi, I had no one to share my horror stories with, and I was effectively silenced by the people who ought to have been taking my concerns seriously.

I was just a number, and no one else seemed to care.

I had booked an Air Berlin flight from Johannesburg to the German capital, and was looking forward to trying the expanding airline (which Etihad has a 29% stake in). Naively, I assumed that the airline with Berlin as its namesake would somehow represent the great experience I hoped I’d get upon arriving in the city (for the record, the city outdid itself).

I spent twenty long hours in Abu Dhabi, an airport turned social experiment, turning travel into glorified cattle herding. We, the passengers, were herded from the planes into large terminals – one of which was almost entirely windowless (of course I only discovered the spacious terminal with a view on my return transit). We would be expected to wait for our next flight – anxious, hungry, and uncertain as to what a McArabia burger was.

My attempt at breaking free of the stuffy kraal was squashed by Etihad staff whose English skills left much to be desired. Apparently only Air Berlin could transfer me onto an earlier flight – I was told this hours after first enquiring. I’d missed the earlier flights and vowed to complain once in Germany. I received no response, and I’m still waiting for one. And when I tried to obtain an earlier return flight to Johannesburg, Air Berlin spun a similar story about Etihad being in charge of my ticket.

The blaming and apparent non-communication between Air Berlin and their parent company brings into serious question whether the German values of efficiency (even marginal efficiency would have been nice) and responsible action were respected by Air Berlin.

We have Frau Merkel and the German taxpayers sitting with an accidental acquisition of a European empire (and crisis), and Germany has taken responsibility and charge of the situation – pretty gracefully actually.

I’d have loved for Air Berlin to take responsibility for my incident (which was only slightly less important than the Eurozone crisis – of course), and assist in really bringing Berlin to the world. Instead of delivering an off-putting corporate arrogance, where the customer really is but a number paying to keep the big business afloat.