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The Angel of Jakarta Is Pure Grace Under Fire

Illustration for TIME by Nila Aye

A year ago this month, British Airways' youngest country manager was faced with the toughest decision of her career. Claire Hatton, then 26, began her stint as BA's Indonesia chief in December 1997. The following April, she announced that BA was adding an extra flight to its five Jakarta-London weekly slots--a propitious marketing decision, as it would shortly turn out. Within weeks, the Asian economic crisis and the student-led protests against President Suharto's rule had brought the country to a standstill. Rioting became intense, and BA was soon the only foreign airline still operating in Indonesia. The British embassy was urging Hatton to close her ticket office in Jakarta, as well as operations at the city's airport, and to leave the country before all hell broke loose. She flatly refused.

"My thinking at the time was, I could get out right then and there, but what about my staff?" Hatton says. "They were the ones who would have to stay behind and face the consequences." She told her 40-member team--many of them ethnic Chinese and hence at great risk--that she would stay but they were free to go. Most of them remained, but they brought their spouses and children to BA's city office for safety. She moved many of them to a hotel and assembled a core group to get on with the job of putting people on planes.

"Roads were being torn up, so we had to sleep on the office floor," she recalls. "There was absolute chaos at the airport--I thought the floors would collapse. I slept a total of 19 hours in six days as we worked day and night to get people to safety. Two of our staff members were stoned by rioters as they drove to the airport with more tickets. I learned later that looters had tried to break into my house, but my staff had convinced them to go."

The young manager's parents were frantic, though somewhat reassured by her calm phone calls. Her fiance Chris, a British soldier, was denied permission for safety reasons to join her. The British press dubbed her "the Angel of Jakarta" and kept readers posted on her progress amid the violence that eventually left more than 500 dead. "What kept me going?" Hatton asks. "My staff--their safety was always at the forefront of my mind--and sheer adrenaline." That determination drove her to oversee the addition of extra flights and to coordinate the safe evacuation of at least 2,000 passengers.

Hatton's initiative won her a "People of the Year" award from the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation in November. This year she was given the first Outstanding Service Award for Asia-Pacific at the OAG Airline of the Year awards. Her response? "I was just doing my job."


May 10, 1999

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