02 Nov 2023

A Day In The Life Of Beryl Opondo - Manager, Passenger Services

The big bird brings with it a mixed bag of chaos. Just before dawn, when the darkness of the night is about to start rising, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)’s Terminal 1A can be so quiet it feels like an apocalypse happened. There are birds in the air approaching the airport in various intervals; KQ 479 from Kigali, KQ 311 from DXB, KQ 117 from AMS, KQ 535 from LOS, KQ 115 from CDG, KQ 509 from ROB. 

Beryl Opondo Manager, Passenger Services

Half an hour before any of these planes touch down, Beryl Opondo is seated in the silence of her car, having just parked. It’s 5:23 a.m. She’s collecting her thoughts, taking small measured breaths. You could say she’s sipping breath. You know, centering her Chi. She’s in red sneakers and a small colourful, trendy jacket. On the passenger seat, sit two mobile phones; her personal one and the work phone that never goes off, no matter what. Even when she’s on leave. Outside the window, the July winter is biting at everything not covered. It’s a kind of grey that looks metallic. She sits for five minutes, then she gathers her things and opens the door. 


Then the dance of the birds begins. 


She takes a narrow lift up to the Operations Office on the second floor. It’s empty, save for Jacob Agengo, the duty service manager of baggage arrivals. Good mornings are exchanged. She fires up her computer while squinting at the work phone. She’s looking at the Mayfly App that shows all arriving and departing KQ flights. The screen is a kaleidoscope of yellows, reds and greens. The greens are good, it means the flights have arrived. The reds are bad, it means delayed flights.


A few minutes to 6 am, she’s up from her desk and gets into the narrow lift. She is nimble and fast. The type you have to trot to catch up when walking with her. “I do over 10,000 steps in a day,” Beryl says. “I’m always walking.” And talking. 


She talks while she places her valuables in the tray as she passes through security, talking to passengers, her staff, and airport authorities. She smiles and is amiable but you can tell it’s deceptive, that a rod of steel runs underneath this demeanor, that she can easily swing to the other spectrum where she’s in your face hissing because you messed up, because your incompetence caused a flight delay that set off a series of costly events for the airline. For now, she smiles and walks swiftly. 


Up past customs, she finds a long slow queue of passengers passing through another round of security. She goes and pushes the line faster, helping with trays, giving instructions, “Please put your shoes here, sir.” “Madam, that goes here.” “Sir, do you have a laptop in that bag?” The queue starts moving fast. Off she goes. “What you don’t want to see in an airport is a queue,” she says over her shoulder, “a long queue means something isn’t working.”


Planes land. Lots of them, in intervals. Thousands of passengers disembark, meeting 50 of her team members at various intervals; the Karibu Team, who ensure that the disembarking is timely and that connecting passengers are headed to the right gates. There are screening agents and baggage agents.


There is no queue at the Customer Care Desk. “That’s a good thing,” she says. “A good thing.” She’s walking fast, waving, talking on her phone, looking at Mayfly with all the reds and greens. 


At Gate 17-18, the Amsterdam Gate, everyone has boarded, save for two passengers. The passengers have been called on the PA system. Nothing. 


She’s on the phone while peering at the computer screen furiously. “Don’t close it. Let’s give them a few minutes,” she instructs the agent. She asks something about their luggage. “Sometimes when people are transiting, they lose track of the change of time. So probably they are in another time zone. Or they are napping on a seat somewhere, or they are shopping.” Suddenly a woman and a child run up to the gate. “You guys are so lucky!” She grabs their passports and scans them. “Close the gate,” she tells the agent and off she goes. 


Beryl calls the planes ‘tails’. “The tails come and we turn them around, and off they go. It's a time-sensitive exercise,” she says. The tails are the registration numbers of the planes normally written on the tail of the aircraft. She will be saying, “Kilo, Zulu Bravo.” 


Not only does she deal with her staff, but also immigration and other airport authorities.  Many balls in the air. 

“I lead a team of 300 staff. All their problems are my problems,” she says, “when they are appraised, they are appraised as individuals, but when I’m appraised my appraisal is based on all their collective productivity.” 
“I also do stakeholder management,” she says.


What’s the worst phone call she has ever received on the work phone? 
“When the airport was burning,” she makes a horrified face. “I had to account for staff on top of making sure that all our passengers were safe. That was a long day.”


It’s barely 9 am but it feels like 2 pm in Beryl’s world. Beryl’s hour contains 120 minutes. It stretches and stretches and sometimes it snaps, and when it does, it's seismic as only the aviation industry can be. 


At the London Gate, she strides past passengers waiting to board and into the “tail” that’s being “turned around.” She disappears inside the belly of the bird for a second and then suddenly you see her out on the runway, running in the cold, her reflector jacket flapping behind her. When she gets back she has a word with the K9 Unit while she strokes the back of Nala’s head. Nala is the Labrador sniffer dog on the leash. Nala is also working. And off she goes again, long strides. 


“If we send someone over without a visa or wrong documentation or someone carrying drugs, we are charged 2,000 pounds in penalty by the British authorities. So mistakes are not only inconveniencing, they are very costly. And if we have to pay that money, guess who will be asked to explain?” Someone with long strides. 


Beryl passes a gate and closes it. An alarm sets off on the door and she struggles to close it again until the alarm goes silent. Then off to the baggage unit to make sure that nobody is screaming about their bags. Conferring with agents. Telling a customer, “don’t worry, we get bags all the time. Sorry about this.”


It’s now coming to 10:30 am, relative calm has descended at the airport. She takes the narrow elevator back to her office where she has tea and rubs her temple. The big second wave will come in the evening, bringing with it more birds. For now, it’s the usual madness that can be handled by her team. At 6:20 pm, after a 12-hour shift, mostly spent on her feet, she will sit in her car in the parking area and take deep breaths. Her two phones will be on the passenger seat. She will drive home towards the setting sun to her two children and her husband who is also in aviation. “It helps that he’s in aviation because he gets the nuances of the job when I tell him about my day,” she says. “He understands the madness of it all.”


But she wouldn’t have it any other way. She revels in the chaos of aviation. She can’t imagine a desk job, sitting in a quiet office. “Silence spooks me.”


When she gets home she’s on what she calls, “E, on Empty, the light on my fuel gauge flashing.” I have just enough to look at my four-year-old’s homework. And talk to my teenage daughter because, well, you have to talk to them or they will talk to someone else.” 


She will then wear her running shoes and step out for a five-kilometre run.  It’s the only time she isn’t with her two phones. When she’s truly alone with herself, when she tries to empty her mind.  “Running is how I remain sane.”

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