Thursday, December 23, 2010

Consumer rant #1: Maharaja moments

Everyone can have a bad day. But can a company in a service-oriented business have a bad day and ignore the very basics of customer service? Can a company that has run up losses of over Rs 5,500 crore and grovels in front of the government for a hand out afford to have bad days anymore? Can Air India continue to ignore the little but crucial aspects of business if it hopes to survive?
A little over a week ago, I flew from Bangalore to Trivandrum on Air India. The flight, IC 909 operates on the Chennai-Bangalore-Trivandrum sector (Yes, the airline still uses the IATA airline designator for Indian Airlines on its domestic flights 3-odd years after the Air India-Indian Airlines merger). By all accounts this flight offers the cheapest fares on this route and is therefore quite popular.
My bouquet of Air India moments began soon after I entered Bangalore’s smart airport. On the day I travelled, the airport’s check-in area was a picture of practised efficiency; except for the Air India’s check-in zone, which was on the verge of chaos.
Four check-in counters seemed to be open, but one was exclusively for executive class passengers and another was for passengers with only carry-on baggage. Nothing wrong with that strategy — all airlines do it. The catch was that Air India chose to operate just two check-in counters to process economy class passengers with check-in baggage. And when I joined the queue, there were about 80 people ahead of me.
In the 42 or so minutes that I spent in the check-in queue, the executive class check-in counter was used just twice. Wasn’t this a total waste of resources, besides being poor queue management? Wouldn’t it have made sense to direct some economy class passengers to check-in at the severely underused executive class counter? Such flexibility would have reduced pressure on the other check-in counters and enhanced the Air India experience.
Most full-service airlines across the world, including other airlines in India, seem to have such responsiveness built into their systems. So why not Air India? Is it that it doesn’t believe in such responsiveness or is it that the airline’s floor managers are not empowered to take such quick decisions? Or is it that the team on duty on that particular day were not very responsive and efficient?
Whatever the reason, this lack of initiative and common sense stood out. And as I finished my 42-minute check-in shuffle and headed for the departure area, there were still about 40-odd people in the queue with not a soul at the executive class counter!
In the departure area I had my second Air India moment — a wait that seemed to go on and on. My flight was scheduled to leave at 10.05 am and the information boards in the departure lounge initially declared that it was on time. A little while later, the board said that the flight would leave at 10.15 am. The departure board stuck very firmly to the 10.15 am departure time right up till 10.45 am, which is when the boarding process finally started.
Delays I can understand if not accept. What I’m neither able to understand nor accept is the total absence of any attempt at communication by the airline. Right through the two-plus hours we waited for the boarding process to begin, there was no announcement or explanation from Air India about the delay. Nor was there an Air India staffer in sight to answer passenger queries.
So finally, at 10.45 am, I board the flight and run smack into my third Air India moment of the day — there’s someone sitting in the seat allotted to me. We do the ‘let’s check boarding passes’ dance and find that we’ve both been allotted the same seat – 14A. Someone sitting nearby then chips in: “It’s free seating sir.” Free seating on an Air India flight? For a moment it brought back memories of Air Deccan!
Looking around, I see lots of other people going through the same ‘I think you’re in my seat’ routine. It is pretty evident that there’s been some screw up — in all probability the flight has been overbooked and everyone has turned up. So I quickly grab the first available seat. Fortunately no one evicts me and the rest of the flight is uneventful!
I know it’s not very fair — and logical, perhaps — to crucify Air India for its appalling performance as a company based on my one experience. As I said in the beginning, it could have just been a bad day for the airline. But then, from what I can gather, the airline seems to be having quite a few bad days.
Which is why I believe that my Air India moments show that the Maharaja is heading down a slippery slope and can’t afford to have any more bad days.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Airport tales

Over the past fortnight I’ve made a couple of trips through two of India’s new-ish airport terminals: Delhi’s cavernous T3 and the Bangalore airport.

Much has been written about both terminals, but I feel an inexplicable compulsion to add my paisa’s worth.

The Bangalore airport experience was pleasant from the moment I arrived till the moment I left. It is compact, warm and welcoming. The toilets were clean and smelt of citrus, there were no acres of carpet to wade through and we got our luggage in about 15 minutes of landing. Overall, the airport created an impression of brisk efficiency.

Delhi’s vaunted T3 though was quite the opposite.

For an airport terminal built in the late 2000s, Delhi’s T3 seems strangely reminiscent of the Soviet-era school of architecture with its vast echoing spaces, the famous tatty carpet, surly staff and faintly work-in-progress feel. Yes, I know it’s been built to handle millions of passengers — perhaps more than the Bangalore airport can handle — but surely today’s airport designers know a few tricks to make even a very large space seem warm and inviting. Delhi’s T3 on the contrary seems crude, cold and chaotic.

Going beyond the atmospherics. On my way into Delhi we had to wait almost 45 minutes for our luggage to turn up, which seems strange for a terminal that is supposedly state-of-the-art. The men’s toilets, both in arrival and in departure, were grubby and swathed in a bracing bouquet with a top note of urine.

And on the way out, it seemed to be a sort of free for all at check-in. Problems at check-in could, quite justifiably, be ascribed to the airline. But on the day I flew out, it seemed pretty chaotic at most airline check-in counters in T3. So, perhaps, it is a more generic issue.

Five-odd months after it opened, Delhi’s T3 — its domestic area at least — seems to have a locker-full of issues to resolve. The question is whether the airport management will get its act together quickly. I won’t hold my breath on that one though.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Facebook future

Softly, softly, Facebook has inveigled its way into our lives. And as this story in the FT explains, Facebook may deftly tighten its grip on our lives. So go read the story to get a feel for what the Facebook future may hold.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Old wine?

A few days ago, Kerala Tourism announced a new venture called SAPARYA. Anchored by Tourism Resorts Kerala Ltd, one of Kerala Tourism’s many satellites, the project is about ‘Synergising Actions through Participatory Approach’. From what I can gather, it seeks to put community involvement at the heart of tourism development in Kerala.
That is a very laudable objective. But most of the literature I’ve read about the venture describes it as “novel”, “pioneering” , “unique”, “the first such project in the world” and so on. These descriptions leave me faintly uncomfortable and quite puzzled.
Uncomfortable because claims about SAPARYA’s uniqueness sound hollow. Community involvement in tourism is an idea that’s been around for quite some time now. So SAPARYA is certainly not the first to venture down that road. It’s also not clear so far how this project is unique or different from similar ventures that have been launched across the world.
And I’m puzzled because I thought Kerala Tourism’s Responsible Tourism initiative that was launched with much fanfare in 2007-2008 is about involving local communities in tourism and ensuring that local communities benefit from tourism. So how does SAPARYA differ from the Responsible Tourism initiative? Or is SAPARYA replacing Kerala Tourism’s Responsible Tourism initiative? And if so, what went wrong with Responsible Tourism in Kerala?
On the whole, the new project raises lots of questions. Now if we could only get some meaningful answers.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


...What the picture above means? To be a little more specific, why are actors Amitabh Bachchan and Mohanlal in the picture and what is it meant to do?
The picture is an ad — that appeared in newspapers on December 1 — for an event called the Grand Kerala Shopping Festival. It’s organised by the Government of Kerala and is intended to turn Kerala into a shoppers paradise that will attract tourists in droves. Launched in 2007, the event is sort of expected to do for tourism and commerce in Kerala what the Dubai Shopping Festival supposedly did for Dubai.
But coming back to the ad. Does it mean that the two actors are going to be shopping in Kerala during the festival? Or are the two characters portrayed by Mohanlal and Bachchan in the film Kandahar involved in promoting the festival? 
Or will Kerala Tourism spring a huge surprise and announce that Bachchan is going to be Kerala Tourism’s brand ambassador.
And then, in today’s papers there’s this ad (the one on the left).
I won’t comment on the grammatical challenges it poses, but it does muddy the waters and raises the question: What is it that these ads are attempting to do?