My crash course in the dark arts of customer service took place over a Saturday night and Sunday morning at Abu Dhabi International Airport.
My father and I were returning from a safari in Kenya's Masai Mara. It had been a wonderful side trip in the middle of his visit to Abu Dhabi.
Before Dad left Canada, I had cautioned him to be sure to obtain a multiple-entry visa for the Emirates. When he went to the UAE Embassy in Ottawa, he recalls being assured that the visa he had been issued would be fine for multiple entries.
Must have been a misunderstanding.
Because after we got off the plane from Nairobi, Dad was stopped at passport control and told he could not re-enter the UAE, as his visa was valid for only one use. The immigration officials sent us to the flight transfer desk of the airline with which we had just flown, and told us to request a 96-hour visa for my father.
Things went south quickly.
And what I was about to learn through experience was that customer service serves the customer in so far as the customer demands it. Indeed, it would probably get everyone in the right mindset from the start if "customer service" went back to its old name of "the complaints department".
The first person who "served" us at the airline's flight transfer desk said he could not help and we had to go back to immigration. I had no interest in going around in circles, so I demanded to speak to someone in charge.
Then came the low point.
Someone In Charge told us that we had to go back to Nairobi and fix the visa problem there.
Fly back to Nairobi.
And somehow sort things out in Nairobi?
My demeanour is normally calm but this I could not abide. It didn't help my patience that I had a fractured ankle and was on a crutch. I barked something like: "I want you to help me. This is not helping me. I'm not leaving here until someone actually helps me."
Dad implored, "What am I supposed to do? Live and die here like Tom Hanks?"
Someone In Charge then suggested that I leave my father, who is 74, in the airport overnight and, in the morning, try to obtain a visa for him at a travel agency. Rightly or wrongly, I calculated that the chance of that plan succeeding was about as high as the top UAE income tax rate. I demanded to speak to Someone More In Charge.
Then things got better.
The terminal manager, who was Someone Very Much In Charge, listened to our problem and pointed the way to a complicated but feasible solution, one that did not involve sorting things out in Nairobi, inshallah.
The plan: have the flight transfer desk sell Dad a one-way ticket to Canada that departed within the 96 hours of the desired visa; during that span, contact the website with which I had originally booked his flight home and move up his departure date so it meshed with the new visa; then, refund the one-way ticket as it would no longer be needed.
Somehow, it all worked out, and Dad got back to Canada and did not have to live the rest of his life in an airport terminal.
And now that my father is back home - timing is everything - the UAE Government has decided that it will no longer require Canadian visitors to have visas, perhaps even before the end of this month. Happy ending.