Thursday, August 16, 2007

How to force the swarm to do the “right thing”

Usually I get along really well with the Ghanaians. Most of the time they are friendly people who are helpful and go out of their way to make guests feel at home. Occasionally, however, there seem to be clashes of cultures. I am still trying to make sense out of two tumultuous encounters with Ghanaian authorities where I only got what I needed after serious yelling, screaming, and threat of force. The first one occurred when I was applying for my visa for Ghana, the second one happened when we tried to check in for our flights back from Accra to Zurich.

When I applied in June for a visa for my two children and me with the Ghanaian embassy in Berne, Switzerland, I was expecting a smooth process. After all, I had done the same thing last year, and had gotten back my passport with the visa stamp three days after I had sent it in. This time, however, things were different. I got the first warning, when, ten days after having sent in the passports, I got back a form asking for missing information instead of the passports. I immediately called back and provided the missing information. I also told the consular officer that I would be grateful if he could process my visas in the next few days, because I would be leaving for the US the following Tuesday. When I still had not gotten back my passports on Saturday, I got really nervous. I checked with the Swiss post, and they told me that no registered letter was underway. I then decided to drive to Berne on Monday – my flight from Zurich to Boston was on Tuesday. I was at the Ghanaian embassy when it opened at 9 in the morning. No consular officer was there, but the friendly lady at the reception checked for me on the desk of the consular officer, and told me that our three passports were indeed on the pile of visas to be processed. At 11, the consular officer finally arrived, and I was promised to get my visas signed by the consul first thing in the afternoon. When I came back in the afternoon, there was only the friendly lady informing me that my passport could not be processed. I now freaked out, and yelled at everybody that I would camp out at the reception and only leave the building with my three passports – and indeed, after another 45 minutes, I got my three passports with the visa stamps for Ghana.

After this tumultuous beginning of my second trip to Ghana, things inside Ghana went mostly fine, except for the few glitches described elsewhere in this blog. The flight back from Accra to Zurich, however, was an altogether different story.

At the end of our stay in Ghana, when we tried to check in at the airport in Accra for our Lufthansa flight back to Zurich by way of Lagos, we were expecting smooth check in. But after I had handed over our tickets to the agent at the check in counter, she continued typing at the keyboard and staring at the monitor, looking more and more worried. In the end she asked us to drag our heavy suitcases off the carrier belt, and move to another counter. There, the same process was repeated, and then we were sent to a third counter. There, the agent told us that she could not check us in because we had two bookings, an e-booking and a paper ticket. I told her that we had traveled to Accra with Alitalia without any check in problems – and the only problem, if there even was one, was that each of us had two bookings, an electronic one and a paper ticket. She then tried to call the Lufthansa head office, which told her to go ahead and check us in. The agent, however, still refused to check us in. I then started yelling at her, in turn she generously agreed to check in our baggage for Zurich, and to give us stand-by boarding cards, but only to Frankfurt. Some more yelling on my side brought her to “informally” promise us three seats together, which she would hold for us at the gate, but for now we could only get in with stand-by boarding passes for Frankfurt. She also proclaimed to be unable to check us through to Zurich. As this seemed to be the best deal for us to be obtained for now, the three of us rushed through security and customs, as we had already spent well over an hour fighting with the different Lufthansa check in agents at Accra airport. When we were at the gate, the agent there took away our stand-by boarding passes, and told us to be patient and wait for our boarding passes. After waiting for another half hour, it was now close to scheduled departure time, we still had not gotten any boarding passes. I now exploded, and started screaming for our boarding passes. Only after me having thrown around a few chairs in the check-in area to show that I was serious, another agent came to the gate, and after unsuccessfully trying to print the boarding passes with the electronic check-in system, manually wrote the seat numbers on our boarding passes and allowed us to board the plane.
Needless to say that in Frankfurt we had no problems to get the follow-on boarding passes from Lufthansa for the final leg of our trip to Zurich.

Obviously, in the end in both instances we got what we wanted – and what was due to us. But I am really wondering if we would also have gotten it without all my screaming and yelling in the very last minute. I have to point out that in both instances, for getting back the passports at the embassy, and to get checked in for our return flight, I had waited until the very last minute until I escalated the process and started making troubles.

So my suspicion is that sometimes the swarm only does the right thing if one makes it more trouble for the swarm not to do the right thing.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I just saw your Google presentation on YouTube... very impressive...

    & on the topic of your yelling; it provoked the thought that if you'd just complained quietly, then you'd only have challenged the 'person' on a standalone basis... but when you yell, then you challenge that person's swarm-standing && possibly trigger the formation of a new swarm (the kind that yells) or the precedent for the formation of such...

    I will be reading & trying out your stuff (&, no doubt, telling others about it)...