The plane is cruising at some 560 miles per hour somewhere over Pakistan. I am flying back to India after a meeting at head office in the Netherlands. I wonder if there are any drones around and subconsciously look outside as if I would be able to spot one in the dark. It amuses me that the military call Unmanned Aerial Vehicles drones as male honey bees don’t sting. The MQ-1 Predator drone, used a lot in Pakistan, flies at a medium altitude of 30,000ft, something I am doing right now. The RQ-4 Global Hawk flies at high altitudes of 60,000ft so at some stage would have to pass me to reach that level. I had been impressed by their use and apparent effectiveness. We all know that a few had hit a wrong target. A few hours earlier I knew that KLM had lost a target by a long shot.

The day before I had done a web check-in at home to reserve a seat up front to ensure a quick get away upon landing. At Schiphol airport I had handed in my suitcase using a brand new machine that does away with the pretty girl at the check-in counter. The new system is meant to handle up to 70MB. Million bags per annum that is. A bar scanner had spotted my boarding pass and printed the luggage tag which the machine instructed me to attach it to my bag. Then the suitcase was carted off towards the basement on part of the 21km conveyor system. But then something went terribly wrong.

Every Sunday morning I try to take my kids cycling in Goa. I had therefore promised and bought them one of those bright orange flags on a long stick for their bike. The kids love the Dutch colour and I like the safety aspect of it. I was referred to the counter for odd-sized items. This made sense as the sticks were probably too long for the plane’s overhead locker or else I am certain the people at the security check would have had a field day educating me of what all could go wrong with a harmless orange flag pole on board a plane. Later their colleagues would frown upon my small tube repair kit but had difficulties being creative and reluctantly let it go.

The off-size item girl told me that I was only allowed one check-in luggage, something which was new to me. Also that that this constituted a second item, a fair assessment. The weight was just a few hundred grams and how else could I take it? I could have glad wrapped it to my suitcase but that was already on its way several floors down below. “A second item costs Euro 75” said the blond girl adding “but are the flags worth it? You are free to leave them behind.” She was young and right in her valuation as I had paid 9.98 for the two flags. I was certain that she didn’t have kids and would therefore not appreciate my predicament as a father. Realising the absurdity of it all she correctly decided to take me to her supervisor.

I wonder how many complaints the supervisor had already heard since the new policy had been implemented. All I knew was the limit of 20 kg, not about it being presented as a single piece. I am a frequent traveller but then I never carry more than one bag, often just a pilot case. It must have something to do with their 70MB milestone rather than the vertebrae of the luggage handlers. The female supervisor wore one of those big black glasses common in nineteen fiftieth. She frowned as if making a mental note of the number of complaints. “Even if I would like to assist”, she said which she clearly did not, “the system won’t accept it “ pointing to the monitor as if I had a way to verify her statement from my side of the counter. This Eva Brown left it at that as ‘Befehl ist Befehl’, orders are orders. Unlike the 1954 Peter Sellers movie with that name there was nothing funny about this.

The action, or rather inaction or inability as the case may be, of the supervisor can lead to a huge loss of brand equity. KLM’s mission statement contains “Offering reliability and a healthy dose of Dutch pragmatism, 32,000 KLM employees work to provide innovative products for our customers and a safe, efficient, service-oriented operation with a proactive focus on sustainability.” The innovation products were clear to see. The Dutch pragmatism and service-oriented part failed its target miserably. “KLM focuses on the individual behind the customer, because KLM understands that every customer is different.” Hello Eva, did you not get to read this part? Rather than applying Lean principles where one only looks at the overall added value, KLM reduced operational cost at the expense of long term profitability. It is a difficult balance for any CEO both from the point of implementation and control.

You can guess with whom I don’t want to fly next as I now associate the blue KLM logo with bright orange flags whose purpose is to warn fellow travellers. With that thought I tried to sleep for the last hour.

cycle flag

The 250g flag

P.S. KLM Customer Care responded very professionally to my complaint. They stressed that the rules were being followed properly by their staff but admitted freely that the amount charged was in no relationship to the little flags. As an one time exception they offered to refund the full amount which I accepted graciously. If only their supervisor or her system had allowed some level of discretion this blog would not have been written. Even though I say it myself, I like the blog so perhaps it wasn’t so bad. I now will be flying with KLM to the States next month dreaming of our wonderful cycle rides.