Spain - Dictatorship and Honour, by Gerry Catling (1960)

I am sure that many of us have encountered the problem overseas of the extent to which one's integrity and honesty are put to the test in achieving the operational and commercial interests of BOAC; trying to obey the law and the generally accepted standards of UK business ethics, while trying also to act within locally accepted standards, and achieving one’s objectives in a sometimes very different environment.

I had already encountered these dilemmas in Asia and Africa in various forms. I arrived in Spain when the Franco dictatorship had passed its zenith and was starting to decay; the strains of the aftermath of the Civil War were still very evident in society. Bureaucratic corruption remained particularly rife in the armed forces, which controlled most aspects of civil aviation. I have to say that in those days you were sometimes left to navigate the local company, political and social minefield without much guidance.

In Spain I soon found out that it was not personal abilities, or lack of them, that determined success or failure in the business environment, but whether you were seen to have both personal honour and prestige; also whether you were seen to abide by the socially accepted code of Spanish tradition (as modified by the modus operandi of the dictatorship). Life was either black or white - if you offended the personal honour of your staff, or worse, a government representative, there was no forgiveness and you could achieve nothing.

When I arrived, I did not know any of this, of course. No one met me as I got of the South America-bound Comet at Madrid Airport on a hot evening in 1960, so I wandered into the airport bar for a reviving gin and Campari, known then as a Fidel Castro. The Spanish bartender was quite generous and half filled a tumbler with gin before adding the Campari.

The bar was almost deserted, except for a short, ill dressed, almost depressed looking Spanish man – he looked something like the Spanish onion sellers on bicycles who used to ride around towns in the UK before the 39/45 war. He was sitting on a bar stool and I went and sat beside him, offered him a drink and had a conversation in my few halting phrases of Spanish and his of English. I told him that I had come to work for BOAC at the airport and he said his name was Señor Brun. He finished his drink, thanked me politely and got up to go, just as a member of our local staff came into the bar looking for me. He appeared very uneasy. “Do you know who you were talking to?” he said. He told me that this insignificant man was the chief of Franco's secret police at the airport. This gave me quite a jolt and brought on the need for another drink.

Subsequently, I was given to understand very obliquely that I had inadvertently passed some kind of test of acceptance with the authorities. If any particular difficulty arose with the air force at the airport, or at the air ministry, I had only to mention it to Señor Brun in casual conversation when I saw him, and matters would be resolved quite quickly. I also had the honour of being invited to the special reviewing stand to witness military parades with Spanish Air force Heinkel 111s and Messerschmidt 109s (provided by the Germans in the 1940s) thundering overhead.

There was an example of the benefits of my encounter very soon. The BOAC airport office, shared with BEA, was an old rustic Spanish peasant cottage beside the taxiway with a hard-packed mud floor. It was very convenient, as well as possessing a certain rural charm. One day a Spanish Air Force officer arrived and told us that we had to vacate within 24 hours, as they were going to demolish it. I protested, and requested another location, but he shrugged his shoulders and went away. The next morning I arrived to find that a bulldozer had knocked down half of the cottage and the BOAC assets (admittedly not many) had been dumped outside the donkey stable.

I went to se the colonel commandant who was polite but unhelpful. He indicated that it could be some months before alternative accommodation would be available. I learned later that this was a normal response in such matters and that a brown envelope containing a spontaneous donation to the Spanish Air Force benevolent fund would have solved most such difficulties. However, I mentioned my problem to Señor Brun over a drink at lunchtime and he was somewhat non-committal. I said that not only had the honour of BOAC been insulted, but also that my personal honour had been affronted by such treatment. Within a couple of hours after siesta time, the Spanish officer turned up with a lorry and said that BA/BEA had been allocated an office in the newly completed administration building, gave me the keys and relocated the BA assets with his lorry and detachment of soldiers. Honour had been satisfied and it had not cost BA a penny, just the casual offer of a drink at the right time..

My ‘honourable’ treatment was in stark contrast with the Portuguese air catering company who had gained permission to build their flight kitchens at the airport by passing the appropriate bulky brown envelope to the colonel airport commandant. Their facilities were already half built. Unfortunately, the colonel was promoted to general, (there were almost as many generals as private soldiers at this time), was posted away and his place was taken by another colonel. The successor commented to the catering company manager that certain irregularities had been discovered in the official licensing documentation to build the kitchens, but these inconveniences could be overcome by the payment of a substantial re-licensing fee. The catering manager was naturally furious, cast aspersions on the veniality of Spanish officers in general and some in particular, refused to pay up and stormed out.

The following morning, a detachment of the air force arrived on the kitchen building site armed with rifles and fixed bayonets and forced the building workers off the airport with instructions not to return, or face jail. The flight kitchens were required to be ready by a certain date to meet airline contracts, so after a few weeks of acrimonious haggling the ‘re-licensing fee’ was paid, amicable relations were restored and building re-commenced.

Nevertheless, the system could have its advantages, if ‘honourable’ procedures were followed. The BEA manager and I wanted to give a Christmas party for all our airport staff, but we had no entertainment budget to assist. The cost to our personal pockets would have been prohibitive. However, the cost of alcohol and other Christmas cheer was cheap - and even cheaper in the Gibraltar Airways staff discount shop where a bottle of whisky could be obtained for 10 shillings (50 pence) in those days.

BEA had a very convenient Viscount service, routed Gibraltar/Madrid/London with plenty of spare hold capacity on the Gibraltar/Madrid sector, which could be utilised for ‘company stores’. Spanish customs duty on imported liquor was very high and personal duty free allowances small, so there was no alternative but to resort to the ‘honour code’. We approached the airport commandant for his advice on what might be permitted to be brought in for the benefit of the airport staff in the spirit of the Christmas season and to foster good Anglo/Spanish relations and would naturally take into consideration any small personal requests that he might wish to make as well.

While we drank coffee in his office he produced his personal list and indicated that he foresaw no difficulties with customs, but we were not to bother with the unloading of our company stores from the flight, as his staff would make any necessary arrangements. I arrived back from Gibraltar with a substantial amount of company stores in the hold and my personal Christmas items, to be met at the foot of the steps by a green uniformed customs officer wearing white gloves, who saluted formally and escorted me directly through the formalities to my car and departed with traditional expressions of Spanish courtesy.

The next morning I found the ‘company stores’ stacked beside my office desk, minus the airport commandant's personal items and our Christmas party was then celebrated with considerable success, honour, much increased company prestige and a noticeable improvement in staff efficiency.

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