It was 1999. I had joined KLM Royal Dutch Airlines as a Cargo Planner, but was soon shifted to the IGI airport to learn flight operations. Anyone who has worked in cargo would know that it’s not as simple as throwing boxes into the aircraft. The process of loading, where every shipment, weighing a few grams to several tonnes has to travel many miles, and many a times with multiple stops, required precision, and was tedious. It was our job to ensure that not only was the packaging of superior quality, but also the labelling and inventory. Then came the additional pressure of loading them correctly to make sure that a minimum of 3000 kgs was maintained at the front nose of the aircraft, and the volumes cargo with lesser weights at the latter half. Now, there’s another catch here – too much weight would often lead to the cargo getting offloaded, especially at Delhi, where searing heat can expand fuel or a change in runway due to winds, can lead to a drop of 20 tons in payload. So, these aspects also had to be addressed during the planning and palletisation phase.
In a year of working in Ops, I became quite an expert and was assigned to handle the more complex Boeing 747 combi flights on Tuesday and Thursday from IGI. These 30-43 tonne of payload flights were stressful, as shipments would keep coming in till 8:00 pm for a 2:00 am departure. Sometimes, the process of loading, securing and transporting the cargo, plus an hour to offload and load 12 pallets, could become a nightmarish experience.
On one such flight, we were transporting an AVI (code name for animal), a dog from the US embassy. The dog was handed over to us at 6:00 pm, after the consignee completed all the checks and formalities. With it, there was a note that said that the kennel door had some issue. However due to ‘diplomatic’ pressure, it was accepted. When I logged in during my shift (on Sunday night) it was quite peaceful, as all the loading for Sunday flights usually gets done on Saturday. So, this was one of the easier flights. KL 872 landed on time, the cargo and passenger offloading was smooth, and the cargo loading had no issues (except for a pallet bulge, which we fixed through some shoves and pushes). The dog was transported from the cargo centre to the aircraft, a distance of 1.5 km, on a tractor dolly- for those who don’t know what that is, it is a unit attached to a tractor to carry cargo or suitcases, and has no shock absorbers – so the ride can be a bit rough at times. The dog reached the aircraft 30 mins before departure. The engineering team set the temperature in the bulk, so that the dog could have a comfortable flight, and informed me that it was time to check the kennel and load the dog. I walked over with my team to check the kennel and fill up his water and food bowl, and the most shocking sight greeted me. There was no dog in the kennel! One of the two latches was loose and the dog had managed to free himself and run away – in the dark of the night within the premise of the IGI Airport.
A diplomatic cargo, that too a dog, missing just 20 minutes prior to flight departure – not exactly an ideal situation.
I had no choice but to venture into the monstrous task of finding the dog, because the flight had to leave on time. Multiple airlines and vehicles joined us in the search of the airport premise supported by searchlights, jeeps and search parties. We searched the entire airport complex (except for some out of bound areas near the main runways and the taxi way) – a 5-hour search from 2:00 to 7:00 am yielded no result. The morning shift came in at 9:00 am, and they were already briefed of this incident. By the time they got in, I was exhausted, my uniform dirty and stained, and my eyes filled with anguish and worry, and me being a dog lover, made my suffering worse.
I was pushed out of the office, asked to go home and rest, while the others took over. Good news came in around 10.30 am – a lonely dark-haired dog was seen in a storm drain by some folks from Air India. The team quickly moved in to recover the dog and after some custom formalities, the dog was rushed to a hospital for checks and recuperation. The strong and quick recovery helped him get on the next flight out of India, this time escorted by an airline staff.
I learnt a few things from this encounter:
- Never compromise on laid down regulations, no matter who the person or how senior they may be in the authority chain. If you do deviate, document and share. In the above case no action was taken against the airline as we had documented the faulty kennel.
- You have friends everywhere. When you have a crisis, reach out within your network with an honest and passionate appeal. You will be surprised with the number of people who will jump in to assist.
- First things first – documentation and paper work can wait. Prioritise your most urgent actions, in this case it was finding the dog. My post-flight paperwork was all pending when the morning shift came in, yet they sent me home and completed my paperwork.
- Team Work is all that matters in the end. I believe in a very common saying – ‘Together we rise, divided we fall’ – and that has been the truth across my entire career. Be supportive, back each other up, be willing to take the fall with them and not push them in the well. Being supportive builds a strong character.
- Lastly, do your job well – be passionate at what you do, so that you go home smiling every day, and wake up smiling in anticipation of an excellent day with your colleagues, teams and clients.