The frontline in the battle for sea-borne access to the Hebrides is not at sea…but on the phone-lines and in the ferry port terminals where tempers are fraying and frustrations are showing as would-be customers let fly after they find their journeys disrupted and travel hopes dashed.
Now a heartfelt plea for courtesy and understanding has gone out from CalMac frontline staff, as some customers boil over into verbal abuse and outright anger.
Customer service and call centre staff say they are taking the brunt of widespread public dissatisfaction, as services struggle to match demand and bookings are closed for weeks ahead.
But CalMac staff and management say customers have no need to vent their feelings directly to frontline staff, who are simply trying to do their best in a situation which is frustrating and unsatisfactory for everyone.
In a social media post on Monday (24 May) Stornoway staff member Gemma Fraser described the situation from the point of view of customer services staff, pleading for fair treatment from customers.
She said: “We understand right now that things are difficult getting to and from the islands, with the current disruptions that are taking place, and totally understand that customers are frustrated and upset.
“However, there is no excuse to hurl abuse at people like myself and my colleagues in the call centre or in the ports. We are doing our very best to get through thousands of calls and customers.
“Our job is to help and assist customers, it is not our job to be screamed at, sworn at, threatened and a list of other disgusting behaviours. We are doing everything we can to assist and these disruptions are just as frustrating for us as they are for you.
“Please bear that in mind before taking out your frustrations on the person on the other end of the phone or desk who is just doing their job trying to help you. Thanks.”
Her appeal brought support from many on social media, with people sympathising with the ‘nightmare situation’ and congratulating staff for doing their best at a difficult time.
And her call for good behaviour was echoed by CalMac’s managing director, Robbie Drummond, who said: “I understand that this is a very difficult and frustrating time for customers, but it is absolutely unacceptable that frontline staff, who are trying to help customers, are being treated so appallingly.
“No-one goes to work and deserves to be shouted and sworn at, but this is what is happening at CalMac on a daily basis at the moment. The stress of managing services through the long pandemic and now the extended vessel disruption is taking its toll on our staff, so we are asking people to be kind and considerate.
"We will not tolerate any instances of work-related violence, including verbal abuse, to our staff. All employees have the right to be treated with consideration, dignity and respect.
"We will support any colleague subject to aggressive behaviour and take the appropriate action to the fullest extent legally available."
Customers are increasingly coming up against problems as bookings are suspended on key routes, including to and from Stornoway, Lochboisdale and Castlebay.
Even those travelling as foot passengers may now find that it is impossible to travel on their chosen day, and essential travel for islanders is becoming increasingly problematic as tourism traffic starts to pick up.
Three west coast and islands MSPs today (Tuesday) met with the new transport minister, Graeme Dey, to raise the increasingly pressured topic of ferry disruption across the whole Hebrides and west coast community.
Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan, Argyll and Bute MSP Jenni Minto and Cunninghame North MSP Kenny Gibson (whose constituency includes Arran and Cumbrae) met with the minister to raise the disruptions to island ferry services.
Dr Allan later described the meeting as ‘useful and productive’. He said: “I made it abundantly clear to the minister the strength of feeling that exists across the islands about the current unacceptable situation with regard to ferries.
“The minister confirmed that the Scottish Government is in discussions regarding the leasing of an additional vessel, which I very much welcome.
“The unreliability and unavailability of ferry services is having serious effects on the islands’ economy, construction projects, healthcare provision and food delivery, and island communities are beyond exasperation.
“I will also be raising these issues in the Scottish Parliament when it meets tomorrow afternoon.”
On Monday, CalMac issued a full summary of the plan for the return of MV Loch Seaforth to service which you can read here https://www.welovestornoway.com/index.php/articles-auto-3/20516-on-schedule-calmac-s-ferry-pledge