Solomon Islands Success Story
What were you doing Friday, December 9, 2022?
Signing a few last holiday cards to get in the mail?
Reviewing 2023 Q1 budgets ahead of the new year?
Toasting friends and colleagues at a celebratory dinner?
For Horizon Air Freight’s Account Specialist Diana Balabanova it was business as usual. Which meant things were about to get a little crazy — at least from the perspective of anyone who isn’t accustomed to going the literal last mile for their customers.
The Initial Request
At 10:00 AM EST on Friday, December 9th, our New York office received an urgent request: a new crankshaft was needed for a cruise ship set to sail from the Solomon Islands on December 17th. Without it, the engine would be unable to power the propeller, leaving it dead in the water if repairs weren’t made before they set sail.
“They needed a big fix,” Diana says simply.
The spare parts this ship required were located in Seattle, WA. But Horizon’s Domestic Manager was already on top of that. He immediately set to work getting them flown to Los Angeles, CA, where they could be then directly flown to the Solomon Islands.
Except for one hitch.
“Because of the holiday,” Diana explains, “there were no direct flight options from LA for cargo. Passenger baggage was being prioritized. Which meant the first available flight for the cargo was December 21st.” This, of course, would be several days too late.
By 2:30 PM EST, Horizon had eyes on the parts from the warehouse and came up with a solution: fly Diana out to Los Angeles to meet the shipment then personally transport them to the Solomon Islands. Because it seemed the parts were small enough, they believed she could get them on board in her own passenger luggage.
“I knew I could do it and they knew I could do it,” Diana says confidently. So she informed her family and got ready to fly. By 4:30 PM EST, she had her tickets to Los Angeles in hand.
Challenge #1: Packing Priorities
Diana arrived in Los Angeles at midnight on December 12th with her laptop and a carryon containing some toiletries and a change of clothes. First thing the next morning, she went directly to the warehouse and opened the boxes the crankshaft parts were packed in. Though irregularly shaped, all together the three parts weighed 150 pounds, and one would fit into a regular suitcase. The second part could be boxed up and strapped to the top of the suitcase, keeping both parts together. The third and final part, however, weighed 15 pounds on its own, would put her checked luggage over the weight limit, and had to be carried on.
Carrying a single part on board wouldn’t have been much of a problem, save for the 15-pound weight limit for carryon items. So Diana was left with a choice: take the part and her laptop (in order to keep working), or take the part and her clothes for the trip. With little hesitation, Diana quickly swapped her personal items with the part, shouldered her laptop in her backpack, and headed to check in.
Challenge #2: Plane Permits
Upon arrival at the ticket counter to check in for her flight, a new problem surfaced.
“You’re going to the Solomon Islands?” the attendant asked. “We’ll need to call our supervisor.”
Confused, Diana complied. When the supervisor arrived, she asked if Diana had a permit.
“Permit? This is the first I’m hearing of a permit,” she told them.
“Yes ma’am,” they said. “To travel to the Solomon Islands you need to secure a travel permit 72 hours in advance.”
For the first time, Diana thought, “I can’t do this.” But Diana was determined. After a moment of panic, she called she called the owners at Flet Technical Logistic and spoke to the manager.
The first thing he said to her was: “I’m so glad they sent you; I can sleep in peace about this now.” When Diana explained the permit problem, he gave her a 24-hour customer number in Solomon Islands.
“Tell them who you are,” he said, “and who you’re with. Give them this reference number. They can give you approval immediately.”
Diana made the call, provided the reference number, answered questions about her COVID vaccination status and purpose for visiting, and five minutes later had the authorization she needed.
The folks at check-in weren’t having it, however. “You have to understand,” the ticket attendant told her, “you can’t fly without authorization. And authorization always takes 24 hours.”
Diana showed them the authorization on her phone. “I have it here.”
Skeptical, the ticket agent insisted on confirming her authorization was correct and legal. But after only a brief exchange on the phone, Diana’s suitcase was checked, and her boarding pass approved. Loaded with nothing but her laptop and a spare part for a cruise ship engine, Diana was on her way.
Challenge #3: Money
At the Los Angeles airport before boarding, Diana went to the exchange office to swap some American dollars for cash she could confidently use in the Solomon Islands. But the office couldn’t make such an exchange. And also informed her she wouldn’t be able to exchange American dollars in the Solomon Islands, either.
For Diana, this was only a mild setback. Her flight had a connection in Fiji before its final destination to the Solomon Islands. So she planned to do the exchange there.
But once in Fiji, however, Diana was again declined.
Declined, perhaps, but not deterred. Thinking quickly, Diana leaned on the foundation of her trusted relationships for help — this time the port agent in the Solomon Islands. Like the vessel agent, he was eager to help, and assured he’d meet her at the airport to handle the money situation.
“No one was going to leave me suffering,” Diana knew. With only seven more hours between herself and the destination, Diana purchased some extra clothes, put them on with what she was wearing, and — after having all of her paperwork and authorization reviewed a final time — boarded the plane.
Challenge #4: Cargo Boarding
Diana knew at this point there was absolutely no room for error. If she made it to the Solomon Islands but the parts didn’t, all would be lost. The flight from Fiji to the Solomon Islands was aboard a small plane, and Diana didn’t want to take a single risk. She asked attendants where she could sit so that she could see the cargo and baggage being loaded.
“My main issue was to know that the baggage was on the plane,” she says. “I was worried about nothing else.”
Directed to sit in the back by the window where she could observe the loading, Diana kept careful watch. First came the courier packages, which Diana was expecting. When the baggage truck finally arrived and started unloading, Diana saw her suitcase and the box. And she didn’t take her eyes off of them until they were both safely loaded on board.
From there, “Everything was butter and honey, which I really appreciated,” she laughs. She arrived at Homara International Airport and was greeted by the port agent, who helped her breeze through customs. All the challenges were behind her. Except for one more.
Challenge #5: Phone Home
Although safe and sound in the Solomon Islands, Diana had no way of letting anyone know she’d arrived. She didn’t have an internet connection yet, and her phone couldn’t make calls over to America on the other side of the world.
“I had to buy a new SIM card,” she explains, “which you have to pre-pay for at purchase. But a credit card purchase required 24 hours for activation for some reason, and I still had no Solomon Islands money. But the client wants to sleep, and they want to sleep in peace. That is our biggest priority. I had to call someone to let them know I was alive and all was well.”
With the port agent’s phone, she took a photo of the cargo and herself in the Solomon Islands, and texted it to the vessel owner, reporting “I’m here.” And then she asked him for a favor.
“Could you please call my family and let them know I’m okay?” she inquired.
He replied, astonished: “You’re calling me before you call your home?!”
“I’m here to do a job,” Diana told him. “To finish something that is important. That will bring happiness to my family. It’s what I’m here for.”
A More Than Happy Ending
The next day, everything went smoothly. Diana got the internet connection for her laptop from the hotel, and learned the owners had pushed the vessel so it could arrive early for maintenance, since the parts had already arrived. The port agent even gave Diana entry before customs cleared the vessel, passengers, or anything else. Within another hour the captain and 2nd captain came to get the cleared materials.
“They didn’t know we had done all this,” Diana says. “They were utterly surprised I had brought the parts myself from New York.”“Because of you our main engine will be back to normal,” they told her.
“The client’s gratitude was incredible,” Diana remembers. “The emails I received from the captain, the ship engineer, the superintendent . . . they were all overjoyed and the gratitude was amazing. Most of the time, these people are just out there on the water alone. We have to support them. We have to give them what they need.
“I see what we can do for the shipowners and the vessel itself,” she says, “how important it is. Sometimes it’s only a very small part, but it’s those small parts that are needed most. You have to be creative and know the best way to move them around. There is no way to say ‘No.’ We have to find the way and the how. Which is what we did.”
How did Diana manage all of this while also keeping her cool in a situation where many others would have meltdowns of a viral social media video level? “I have the background,” she says. “I was in a lot of places in my life when I was young because my father was in the military. You have to respect where you are, have to be who you are no matter where you are. I am Eastern European, which means we have had to live from one system to the other. At the end of the day, you get the best of both. You choose how you treat things. If you bring your personality in the right way, there is no failure.”
Diana says this confidence also comes in part from being a member of the Horizon Air Freight team. “I love my company. I love my accounts. If nobody can do it, Horizon can. To work for Horizon, they give you an open door, but they also need you to do your stuff to bring it home. Because when you gain someone’s trust you have to fight to keep it. And I love it. That experience . . . . If I had to do it again I would do it in one beat. It was an experience of a lifetime.”
Though having the experience of a lifetime that combines the satisfaction of a job well done certainly carries far, you may be wondering, “Did Diana at least take a much-deserved vacation after all this?”
“Well, I did stay two nights extra,” she says, “but I still had my work to do back in New York during that time. Just because one thing’s finished, that doesn’t mean you can ignore the rest.”
“Don’t get me wrong though,” she laughs, “I did get my twelve-pack.”