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.


Seeking Rumi said...

I can assure you that yours was not the exception, nor, alas, are you generalising: I watched the same ridiculous charade play out before my eyes a week and a bit later. Even down to the scene of double booked seats. And the service staff have no sense of embarrassment about it. Or a desire to find solutions. In the last month, I have flown six different airlines, including Biman, and nowhere have I seen such shocking indifference to passenger comfort.

Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@SR:So you've had your Air India moments too!
I'm not too surprised that the service staff don't seem embarrassed by the screw-ups. For one, it must happen so often that they must've been forced to develop thick skins; otherwise they'd probably die of embarrassment several times a day given the way the airline operates. And second, the public sector legacy lingers - therefore the feeling that Air India is doing you a favour by flying you!
And on the issue of embarrassment: the Air India management recently refused to reveal how much they lose on free tickets every year and who gets those free tickets. Apparently if they did reveal that it would affect Air India's 'commerical interests'. And they want us taxpayers to fork out Rs 1,200 crore to bail Air India out of the mess its in!

Mee said...

For all these reasons I stopped flying this airline long ago! Not to say that private airlines are much better. They only put up a charade of 'being better'! Brass tacks - one shows how poor it is rather unambiguously, the others hide their sorry state behind good clothes and make up!!