Where there is a will

IT has been seven months since my first meeting with Malaysia Airlines group chief executive officer Peter Bellew. After I was stranded inside the aircraft for one hour in Bangkok, I wrote an open letter to him in this column in February, where I recounted the horrible experience. He responded the following day with an apology and a request to meet to better understand the issues I faced.

At the meeting, he personally apologised again for the lapse in service and listened closely to the difficulties passengers like me have to struggle with when dealing with the airline. In a subsequent internal email to his staff, Bellew laid out an ambitious plan to look into new procedures, processes and facilities in handling disabled passengers from end-to-end.

He identified communication as the biggest challenge followed by a lack of training. Moving forward, he stressed that the Golden Rule for the airline must be to, ‘treat other people as we wish to be treated ourselves’. With that, he got his team to start working towards resolving the issues faced by disabled passengers.

True to his word, the changes he promised are taking shape. First in the list was the establishment of Priority Guest Management. This team is given the resources and authority in handling the needs of passengers who are mobility impaired, blind, deaf, ill, pregnant, and those with a fear of flying, unaccompanied minors, and senior citizens.

I was invited to conduct briefings to the airline’s executive committee and operations management on disability equality and disability awareness in May. This was a preview of the training programme I had proposed. Following that, the airline made a decision to employ a cross-disability approach to the training.

I roped in trainers from United Voice, Malaysia Federation of the Deaf, and National Council for the Blind Malaysia to provide a broader perspective on disability. All of us are working together under the auspices of the Malaysia Confederation of the Disabled (MCD), the umbrella body of national disabled people’s organisations. President of MCD Sazali Shaari subsequently took over the role of liaising with the airline on the training.

We designed and proposed five training modules to equip the airline’s customer-facing staff with skills to assist passengers with various disabilities at all touchpoints. These trainings are not only limited to staff of Malaysia Airlines. Staff from the subsidiaries of Malaysia Aviation Group comprising Firefly, MasWings and AeroDarat Services are included as well to ensure a similar level of service is maintained across the board.

The training sessions are held at Malaysia Airlines Berhad Academy in Kelana Jaya from Mondays to Thursdays every week and are still ongoing. Mock-up seats were installed for role playing in serving deaf and blind passengers, and to practise lifting and transferring passengers with restricted mobility. Other areas of the academy were utilised for practical trainings on handling wheelchairs, guiding blind passengers, and lectures on supporting persons with learning disabilities.

The academy was where I have been spending most of my mornings for the past three weeks. I am responsible for the first two sessions. The first is Disability Equality Training followed by skills in assisting passengers with physical disabilities. Having sat through and observed the sessions of the other trainers, I am happy to note that the staff were eager to learn skills to interact, communicate and assist disabled passengers.

One of the issues I pointed out during that initial meeting was the distance between the special handling check in counter and the wheelchair service counter at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Both were located at opposite ends. They have now been relocated next to each other. This makes it convenient to check in and get wheelchair service at the same place and time.

The team is also looking at improving physical accessibility and inclusiveness at all its premises. The first step was the construction of a kerb ramp, covering of drain grates and allocation of extra accessible parking bays at the academy to ease the mobility of wheelchair users. The door knobs at the training room and accessible toilet were replaced with lever locks to accommodate people with limited hand function. These are small things that make a great difference to us.

There will be further improvements in the coming months as the other plans in the pipeline are operationalised. Truth be told, I had no inkling Bellew would go this far when we arranged to meet. All I had anticipated was an apology and a promise to be better which would then be forgotten a few months down the road. This was what happened to my complaints to the airline many years ago.

On the contrary, his commitment in making Malaysia Aviation Group inclusive has far exceeded my expectations and far exceeded the extent any of the organisations I have engaged with before this was prepared to go. His willingness to go to the ground to listen, learn, work with us and quickly act on recommendations is most remarkable. This proves that where there is a will, there is always a way.

In his email to me, he noted, “Your complaint raises a much broader question. How can Malaysia Airlines survive in the modern airline industry? Our only hope is to offer extraordinarily good customer service. We simply must be the most customer friendly airline in Asia.”

He went on to say, “In 2017 we are starting to switch mindset from pure survival to making the airline the pride of the nation again.”

I cannot but totally agree with him on this. The best equipment and facilities cannot operate without a committed and efficient workforce. The staff are the ones that are going to make all the initiatives fall into place. They are the bridge that makes it possible for disabled passengers to fly with the airline conveniently and safely.

Given what has been accomplished in this short period of time, and if the current trajectory is maintained, there is no doubt it will become the most customer-friendly airline. We have a saying that what is good for disabled people is good for everyone else because entities that have empathy for disabled people generally care for the wellbeing of all customers.

I am eagerly looking forward to the day when Malaysia Airlines truly becomes the airline of choice for all travellers for its impeccable service and facilities on board and on the ground like in its heyday. Bellew and his team must be credited for making the move to regain that position and being inclusive of disabled people in that process.

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