“Do What You Can Without Messing Up Operations”

Always in a suit and a tie, even when it’s 30°C outside, cheering up his team with jokes that would draw laughter from a stone, we can safely say Gary Denson is British to the bone. But how did a Manchester lad end up in Singapore working for a Dutch airline? 

Singapore Airport Team KLM

Just how English are you?

Very. I served in the Royal Navy as a mine warfare specialist. So there’s this patriotic royalist inside of me. As for the suit, it’s a family thing. My grandfather even wore a suit when he went out to the supermarket. “Always dress like the man you want to be,” he used to say. Then again, I wouldn’t go back to Britain, because I fit in so well here.

How did that happen?

I fell in love with Asia when I was stationed in Shanghai for KLM for more than four years. I just loved the chaos of the city, with its population of 23 million. For my wife, it was overwhelming at times. She would have a “China-moment”, as we called it, and would seek shelter in a Marks & Spencer and then call me to say: “I’m okay now.”

In Asia, there is a “welcoming naturalness” to the land and it is reflected in the people. I consider myself very privileged to be able to experience all these different and diverse cultures. To be honest, I have never felt more at home than in China and now Central South East Asia.

KLM aircraft Singapore station manager

You have two kids aged 8 and 11. What’s it like living with a family in Singapore?

It’s just fantastic. It’s safe, kids can remain kids longer than in Europe, I presume. My son, who is 11, usually plays rugby on a field with a jaw-dropping backdrop. I keep reminding him: “Never take this for granted. We are so lucky to be in this position.”

[tweet text=”I’ve never felt more at home than in Asia”]

How did you start your career?

After several years in the Royal Navy, I stumbled upon aviation and started out as an aircraft dispatcher for a handling agent, working through the ranks to eventually hold the position of operations manager. I joined KLM in 2004 as a regional station manager in the UK, moving to Shanghai in 2010. I was fortunate enough to be appointed regional station manager for Central South East Asia (CSEA) in the summer of 2014.

Gary working at Singapore airport

At Changi Airport Singapore with Boon Chua (left), Gary Denson and Albert Chuang.

What lessons did you learn as a handler working for different airlines?

As a handler in charge of servicing aircraft on the ground, I always had this strange relationship with the existing hierarchy. Talking to the station manager was a big thing. He was a god. Even back then, I knew I never wanted my handlers to think that way. I want to be on the same page with them. They should feel they are just as much part of the airline as I am.

That’s why I always take the time to compliment them or to discuss football or their home life. What I’m looking for is a sense of togetherness that I sorely missed during my time as a handling agent.

When you joined KLM in 2004 as regional manager for the UK, you were in charge of 17 airports and 62 flights a day. On your own. How?

It was quite challenging, actually. I think I drove more than 50 to 60 thousand kilometres a year from airport to airport. Early in the morning, I would call all deputies to check if all flights had departed as planned. Then the rest of the work would start. I think the effort I put into the job created the opportunity to go to Shanghai, for which I am still very grateful.

What does your current job entail?

I’m responsible for our stations and the handling of all KLM and Air France flights in Singapore, Malaysia, Jakarta and Denpasar (Bali) in Indonesia. Flight safety and security are at the top of my list of responsibilities. They go hand-in-hand with customer satisfaction.


How many weekly flights does that entail?

We are currently handling 55 flights a week with 17 full-time Air France-KLM staff, supported by our team of handling agents at each station.

What are your biggest challenges?

The KLM flights in Singapore have one of the shortest turnaround times in the network: just 70 minutes, during which we have to fully disembark an often full flight (meaning 425 passengers) and then clean the cabin (which can be quite a challenge after a 13-hour flight), fully cater, refuel, change crew and unload baggage and cargo. Then we have to load cargo and baggage, and get all the passengers on board, which includes the screening of all hand luggage and the security check. It’s a herculean task to get all this done in 70 minutes.

Short turnaround times

The same goes for Kuala Lumpur and Denpasar. They have short turnaround times as well. Despite all this, we have an excellent success rate for on-time departures, thanks to the dedication of our teams.

Gary at the platform

So the process has to run like clockwork?

Definitely. Little things can make a big difference. We made a stroller drop-off sign, for instance. If you have kids, you can probably relate to this. There’s that moment when you start wondering where you have to leave the stroller behind and worrying that you’ll never see it again. Our sign says: “Don’t worry. This is the place. We will take care of it.” You have to get into the passenger’s head to take the insecurity away and make the experience more pleasant.

KLM staff at Singapore airport

Our team in Singapore.

[tweet text=”Do what you can without messing up operations”]

To be honest, the boarding in Singapore for the Bali flight at 4 p.m. is challenging. More than half of the 425 passengers have already travelled for at least 15 hours, the kids are on meltdown and parents are somewhere between hysteria and burnout. So it’s a huge relief if a KLM employee walks up to you, distracts your children and takes the family to the Sky Priority lane, so they can take a seat and relax. I always say: “Do what you can without messing up operations.”

We have the power to make a flight as pleasurable as possible. If we can touch just one passenger per flight, we’re doing things right.

KLM team Bali Denpasar airport

Our team in Bali with station manager Atiek (left).

We’ve spent a few days with you and your team in Bali. What are the challenges here in Denpasar?

Well, Mount Rinjani and Mount Raung didn’t make life any easier last year. In July and November 2015, we had to cancel flights and even had them turning back halfway Bali, because the airport was closed due to the ash cloud.

[tweet text=”Mount Rinjani and Mount Raung didn’t make life any easier last year”]

What’s the secret to communicating bad news to passengers?

Introduce yourself, take responsibility and show them you are in full control. Give all the information you have, be as transparent as possible, and elaborate on the next steps, as in: “I will tell you what you are going to do next.” If you get the speech right, there won’t be any complaints at the desk.

During the volcanic eruptions, we had around 1,000 passengers stranded in Bali. Atiek, our local station manager in Bali, and her staff worked 20-hour days for two weeks. We really took care of people and they knew we had done our best.

Gary talking to his staff

Briefing at Denpasar/Bali.

During the briefing with the staff and handling team in Bali, you shared this remarkable story about customer intimacy – an example that came from a different airline. Is it important to share such experiences?

Yes, I believe so. I was flying Garuda Airlines, sitting next to this elderly couple. The lady asked the flight attendant for an extra blanket. She came back with the blanket, which was wrapped in plastic, and instead of just giving it to her, she unpacked the blanket, unfolded it and tucked the lady in as if it was her own mother. This really touched me. She was going that extra mile, knowing what this passenger needed.

[tweet text=”She tucked her in as if it was her own mother”]

Before I arrived for this reportage, you already wrote a four-page blog on what you believe should be in the article. Are you a bit of a control freak?

Have you been talking to my wife? Ha-ha. Well, ehm, possibly, just a bit. I think it’s important to keep yourself informed and in control, especially in my job. In the end, I’m responsible for the handling of 55 flights a week. We can’t afford to make mistakes and that’s the ongoing burden of a station manager. I think that’s why I need to be on top of everything that’s happening and anything out of the ordinary.

Gary at the office

Is there any particular passenger you remember?

A few months ago, this young boy flew out alone to visit his grandfather in Bali. However, he’d misplaced his passport during the twelve-hour flight and we only managed to find it after the flight to Bali had departed. So we were faced with a real problem, as this now very anxious boy needed to spend 24 hours in Singapore, alone.

I spoke to his father in France and found out that – incredibly – the boy’s uncle lived in Singapore! I had already asked one of the ladies on my staff to stay with the boy at a hotel, but instead we made arrangements for him to spend those 24 hours with his uncle. They hadn’t seen each other for a long time, so it was a really nice moment when they first met again. They were about to spend some quality time together, including meeting his new nephew for the first time. Sometimes things are just meant to be.

What will be your next stop?

I am perfectly happy here, but that’s up to KLM’s Head Office. I hope to stay in Asia for the foreseeable future, as it is such a complex operational environment. It really pushes your ability and experience to the limit each and every day.

KLM aircraft in Singapore

Things to do in Singapore

Go hiking, Gary says!

Rarely do people consider hiking as a leisure activity in Singapore, mainly because our hot and humid weather is pure madness. However, living in the hubbub of excitement in Singapore, there are times when you want to step back and simply unwind.

I enjoy going up into the hills. My favourite hiking trails include:

  • Fort Canning Hill;
  • Mount Faber;
  • MacRitchie Nature Trail & Reservoir Park;
  • Pulau Ubin’s Puaka Hill.
Posted by:   Bonnie Parren  | 
Join the conversation Show comments




You are perfectly right! He is a good husband+ a good father! And also a good boss!

Iain simpson

Looking forward to kl and Singapore 5 th October from Glasgow


Thanks for such a great story Gary, the passion you have for your job is amazing and I congratulate you for that.

Also, your employees are lucky to have such a good leader such as you. It also goes to say a lot about KLM and it sums up my experience with you guys too.

gary denson gary

Thank you Patrick for the kind words, and a big thanks for being a loyal KLM customer, its because of customers like you we enjoy our job, and go that extra mile to ensure a good experience for all.

Gavin Hay

Gray is a great manager and an asset to KLM. I remember meeting him numerous times when he came upto Edinburgh when I was working as a dispatcher.

Jeffrey Anderson

Quality staff and a Company that nurtures and appreciates them is the key to all successful Businesses.Having this platform to introduce them to us all shows the pride in KLM staff is reflected onto the Airline. A1

willem heitlager

i do not know my father than allways nicely dressed in unform and tie when we lived abroad in karachi and lisbon it is not more than normal to be dressed perfect as you are the face of the best airline in the world


I travel to SIN on BA a lot. They have better aircraft than KLM on this route (A380 with a First Class cabin which KLM sadly doesn’t have) but you are certainly a credit to your airline. I certainly wished you worked for BA!

Cor Vink

Gary really is the man forum this Job. I was very impressed to read that the team is aware of the mindset and condition of their guest having travelled already so many hours.
Keep up the good work!
Cor, Holland.
Hoping to experience nice transfers in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur net November!

Morag Kennedy

Hi From ABZ ops

When I first started working at ABZ, Gary was based in the UK.
We still speak about Gary and how much we enjoyed working for him.
I have Dispatched KLM, AF AND SAS flights for over 12 years in ABZ. Love my job and have enjoyed reading this from Gary.

Morag Kennedy (Lister)

gary denson gary

Hi Morag, all at ABZ ops, thanks for the message and such great memories working in ABZ in that great ops room with you all…

Erik Warners

Wonderful to have such dedicated people working for the KLM, they certainly make all the difference to public face of the company.

Félix Maltchinski

425 passengers on board off KLM Boeing 777-300ER will be soon the past.


All of Shanghai colleagues are missing you!


All of Shanghai colleagues plus GCN colleagues are missing you!


+Who was there

Joseph B. Cassidy, III

I would like to know more about how you can make a complete turnaround in just 70 minutes. That has to be one amazing feat to pull that off, and with complete precision. I wouldn’t mind seeing this all in action. It still seems impossible, despite what you mentioned. I need to be awed. You would have to have nothing less then a fantastic staff to be able to pull a feat like this, off, on a regular basis. Just incredible!

gary denson gary

Indeed Joseph you are right a tough ask each and every day, but with such a dedicated and wonderful team they manage it…BUT we can not afford to lose even one minute, so everything must run to plan..


Most importance is that there is no ATC


All of Shanghai colleagues plus great China colleagues plus ground handling staff are missing you!


Gary,MU Pvg team and Me Veronica we are all missing you, all of us you know well right here waiting for you!Welcome back Shanghai anytime!

gary denson gary

Thanks Veronica, the feeling is mutual, please say hi to all of the MU team for me in Shanghai…


Gary is a great person, it was a big pleasure to work with him!


We are missing you so much! Wish you all the best !

Vince W

I really enjoyed reading this blog. Thank you Gary Denson for the blog, It has totally brought back my childhood memories as my dad was Station Manager for Kenya Airways in EBB for a very long time and do definitely understand the in’s and out’s of the business. Keep up the good work with your team and the rest of KLM.

As a personal remark to KLM thank you for having handled a very sad and somber experience I had in 2005 when my dad passed any time I think of KLM it reminds me of my dad and vice verse from that experience.

Vince, Edmonton Canada.


You are the best station manager and a super boss, always in encouraging and empowering your staff. Working together with you makes me realize what is indeed airline operation in high quality. I really cherish the years working together with you and other station colleagues when you were the station manager there,I will keep those precious memories in my mind forever. In my mind it’s you who reshape the team and lead us to make PVG being one of the safest station of AFKL in the world. All the best to you and your family.

Marie Bailey

Having worked with you during your airline handling agent days (Manchester Handling) I knew you would go a long way you were different than the rest.
You look just as you did then and don’t seem to have aged at all must be the climate. I myself am retired early, thanks to my pension I invested in during those early years at Manky Handling as we called it. I am still in touch with lots of the girls who will be thrilled to know what you are up to.Take care Gary and keep on enjoying life..

Andrew Donegan

Good to see you are doing well over in singers

Ian Hawkridge

Hi Gary. Good on you for doing so well in life, and you don’t really look too much older either. Good days at Manchester in the past, and I’m still enjoying my retirement after 13 years. Cheers. Ian

mark white

Spencey and I taught you well, dear boy !

Frank Trump

Crickey! I always told you that a merchant navy backgound would stand you in good stead but I didn’t think it would take you that far. Nice to see you’re enjoying life to the full.

Hamayoun Choudry

Wow Gary Denson – Gary mentored me a long time ago in a far away land I am so pleased to hear about how his story has unfolded. He was always destined for bigger and better things – hope he remembers the chaotic days in Manchester but also the fun times we had. Some things reminded me of the past -I laughed heartily when it was mentioned that Gary was a control freak – some things never change. Good luck Gary.

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