Red Arrows over-wing pre-flight briefing at Bratislava, September 1992
Once I had accepted on my first day in the job that I had been stitched up on the matter of low flying and noise complaints, I went about the task with good grace, although it always remained one of my less satisfying jobs. Until the Red Arrows moved out of Scampton at the end of 1995, there were two quite separate elements to this part of my work. Firstly, I was expected, quite rightly, to deal with any complaints relating to Red Arrows’ activities wherever those activities took place. Secondly, I was made responsible for dealing with all complaints received at Scampton relating to flying activity anywhere in the country by any type of military aircraft; that was MoD policy to avoid complainants being passed from one station to another.
I tried to avoid taking initial telephone calls from complainants myself, partly because I needed time to brief myself on the activity being complained about and partly because I wanted the complainant to have time to calm down. I much preferred dealing with letters because they gave me time to look into the substance of the complaint instead of having to appease an angry person on the telephone without knowing the background. I never criticised any complainant for being angry; I can get angry myself when someone or something annoys me. I do, however, feel sorry for the rail and airlines customer relations folk who, often literally, have to face the wrath of passengers when their transport is delayed or cancelled. There is no point in taking your anger out on such people: they are not the cause of the delays, they are there to assist you to get over the inconvenience caused by the delay.
With that in mind, after a few weeks at Scampton I arranged that all low flying complainants who identified themselves as such were put through during the airfield operating hours, not to me but to an airman or airwoman in the Station Operations Centre. I briefed the clerks there on how to deal with the calls and stressed that they should always be polite. I made a proforma for the clerks to fill in so that all the important details I would need later were logged. The clerk would tell the caller that I would return their call as soon as I was available. Out of airfield operating hours the complainants were connected with the Station Duty Officer who would take similar action. When someone wanted to lodge a complaint about the Red Arrows, they often did get through to me directly because they had told the PBX operator that they wanted to speak to someone on the Red Arrows without mentioning that they wanted to complain.
It was always very noticeable that people were liable to be ruder and more impatient with airmen and airwomen than they were with officers. That says something about human nature, I suppose. The RAF’s first and most important principle for dealing with complainants was that they should be dealt with courteously and I assume that has not changed since I retired. Personally, I have always taken the view that if a member of the public takes the trouble to contact the RAF, the very least we can do when talking or writing to them is treat their complaint sympathetically.
On my initial telephone call with a complainant I always started off with an apology and then I would make sure the caller knew my name, appointment and my direct telephone number in case we got cut off. That actually rebounded on me from time to time when some complainers got straight through to me on the telephone explaining that they had got my telephone number from someone else who had complained. I always offered to call the person straight back to save their telephone bills but I cannot remember anyone actually accepting that offer.
When I wrote a letter to a complainant, I always started that off with an apology. I did not have to agree with the complaint but I did always investigate it impartially either with the pilot or squadron concerned or with the Team Leader himself. If the complaint did not involve a Scampton-based aircraft, or if I could not satisfy the complainant, I then forwarded all the correspondence to the department of the MoD tasked with dealing with noise complaints.
Rather surprisingly, I found that many complainants did not believe any action would be taken as a result of their complaint; they made the telephone call or wrote a letter in the heat of the moment to get it off their chest and assumed that would be the end of the matter.
"I didn’t expect anyone to write to me," complainants often wrote to me, almost apologetically, after receiving a letter from me. "I really don’t want to make a fuss or cause any trouble for anyone. I complained because I was angry at the time but now you’ve explained what was going on, I’m satisfied." So was I when that happened; I had put myself on the high moral ground and that was a good place to be.