Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Customer Service - good and bad

I feel like I've spent my life working in Customer Service. Not only when we owned/ran a bar, but my whole life in IT support also qualifies, even if our contact with actual customers is sometimes limited. I very much appreciate our local restaurant culture and cringe both when I see bad customer service as well as when I see shitty customers that demand too much and that treat staff badly.

I had lots of opportunities to see all of that on my trip home from India - good customer service, bad customer service and boorish behavior by my fellow customers.

My itinerary for my return trip was an 8:45pm (IST) Saturday night flight from Chennai to Mumbai on Vistara Airlines (one of two full service airlines in India), a 2.5 hour-ish layover before a 12:55am Delta flight to JFK then a two-hour layover before my Delta flight home to RDU.

I know it takes a long time to get into the airport and I didn't have anything I wanted to try to do Saturday afternoon, so I arrived many hours early (around 3pm), hoping to check my bags, get through security, and then do a little shopping and hang out in the Priority Pass lounge. But Vistara would not let me check in until 6pm, leaving me hanging out in the departures lobby for three hours dragging around three bags. Bad customer service (I'm pretty sure that is not an airport or government regulation as I have checked in way early before on other airlines at the same airport.)

At 6pm IST on the dot, I went back to the counter only to find out the my flight was delayed by 1.5 hours, leaving me very little time to make my connection. The agent suggested that I not check my bags and that I carry them ALL onboard on the slim chance that I could make my flight. He also said he would inform the ground crew in Mumbai that I had a very tight connection and that they would help me get to the Delta gate. If you read my previous post about security, you'd know that even if the plane had been on time, I would have been hard-pressed to make it through, so while I appreciated the helpfulness, they really should have known that there was no chance in hell that I could make that connection.

I did drag all my bags through security and up to the Priority Pass lounge and noted that there was a further delay in the flight from Chennai, leaving me no more than half an hour for the connection, clearly impossible. So I called Delta from the lounge and sat on hold. And sat on hold. And sat on hold. And sat on hold. For 45 minutes. (This after having to search the web for a non-US tollfree number since those don't really work from India.)

When I finally did speak to an agent with Delta, she was actually very helpful. I had done some research while waiting on hold and noted a flight from Mumbai to DeGaulle in Paris with a 3.5 hour layover to the direct Paris flight to RDU. It was leaving Mumbai at 2:05 am (still tight) but maybe possible. So she got me booked on those flights since my next best option was the flight I was scheduled on - but 24 hours later.

So I finally boarded the Vistara flight, found room for three bags in the overheads (making enemies of every other person on board) and we took off close to 10:50 pm IST. We landed around 12:15 am and I grabbed my bag and my other bag and my other other bag and took off for the departures area and the Air France counter as the Paris flight was code-shared with Delta. The only promised help that I got from the Vistara agents in Mumbai was pointing me in the direction for transfers. Not all that helpful. It was probably 12:40pm when I got to the counter and they basically said no. Delta had booked me but not ticketed me (something about having already checked in to the Vistara flight) and while there was room, they determined that it was too late for me to make it (the flight wasn't scheduled to leave for another hour and 15 minutes and I still saw bags tagged for CDG waiting to go on the belt). So boo Air France (although if you read my post on airport security, they were probably right).

So now it's 1am IST, I'm exhausted, my cell phone is down to about 25% and my backup charger is dead and I can't find a fucking outlet anywhere in the airport. I called Delta back
and sat on hold. And sat on hold. And sat on hold. And sat on hold. For another 45 minutes. Finally got another also very nice and very helpful person who confirmed what I suspected - that I was fucked until 22 hours later and the next iteration of that Mumbai -> JFK flight that I'd missed.

So I was booked on those and was able to go to the self-service kiosk and actually print out real honest-to-god boarding passes for both flights, which helped tremendously with the security stuff (see my other post). App-based eboarding passes are still not a thing in India.

I did some looking for hotels (it's getting towards 3am by this time) and found that there is a hotel in the International terminal in Mumbai ("hey, that's where I am!") that had pretty good reviews. I called them, confirmed that they had rooms available, and then set out to find it. That's when I realized that I was not allowed to leave the damn Departures lounge without a hall pass. The first soldier didn't really speak English so I had to wait for the second guy, who sent me back up the escalator to the information desk.

I talked to the nice lady there and found out that someone from the hotel would have to come up and escort me. She called them and a bellman came up a few minutes later. He asked if I had a reservation, which I did not yet. Apparently that was bad, as he was supposed to show a piece of paper with my name on it and a reservation. So he pulled one from someone else out of his pocket, scratched out the other information and put mine in, and away we went. And it worked.

So I checked into the hotel around 3:15am with a checkout at 10pm. Very nice looking place. Also, as you'd expect, quite expensive - ~$150 US (really nice hotel rooms in India are often no more that $70-80 a night). But it was there (no having to deal with transportation) and I was too damn tired to worry about the cost.

So I had a shower, slept for a few hours, had a very decent room-service veg biryani (no beer as the hotel apparently isn't licensed) and hung out in the room as basically there was nowhere I could go without going back past a security checkpoint.

From a customer service perspective, the rest I guess is anti-climactic. I found the service on the Mumbai->JFK flight to be just fine (Delta has become one of the best for service) but the food was mediocre at best (at least compared to my past British Airways flights). For the flight over, I had ordered "vegetarian" meals which might seem superfluous since pretty much every flight into and out of India is going to have a veg option or two. But the problem is that sitting back in steerage, you get served last and choices may have run out. ALWAYS order a special meal, even if you don't have to. You'll never regret it.

So, what are my conclusions? Avoid Vistara, first of all. I had a much better experience with IndiGo (a low-cost local airline) on my flight from Bangalore to Chennai mid-week) than I did with Vistara. Their app didn't work at all, their agents were ill-informed and I think next time if I have to make internal transfers, I'll look for IndiGo.

For Delta, other than the ridiculously long wait times, I was pleased with their service. The agents I talked to were helpful in every case (and they were NICE), their app works better than that of most airlines and their flight attendants are a cut above American and United. And I'm guessing employee satisfaction is pretty high since the company just announced a profit sharing total of the equivalent of 2 months salary for all Delta employees!

Air travel is just not fun. I don't think it has been since the 80s, with deregulation and ever-tightening security and ever-shrinking seats making it an ordeal to be survived rather than a pleasant way to get from point A to point B. Since I've been traveling much more frequently the past three years, I'm looking for every little break I can get, whether it's TSA Precheck and Global Entry (both a huge help) or spending the dough required to get a credit card that has travel perks like airport lounge access (I'll never travel enough miles + segments to qualify for Gold or higher status with any airline). The other thing that makes it tolerable is good customer service - be happy if you find it!


Monday, February 03, 2020

Security Overload

I'm going to write a long post on the air travel experience to India that I just finished but I wanted to give you guys some idea of navigating airports in India, especially when it comes to security.

First of all, never expect security procedures in other countries to be anything like those in the US. Partly because security concerns are different (India has had both internal political violence as well as ongoing disputes with Pakistan, particularly when it comes to Kashmir) and different governments have different ideas for how to address the same problems.

So let me give you an idea of the security checkpoints I went through on the trip home I just completed, with a route of Chennai -> Mumbai -> JFK -> RDU

To get inside the airport in Chennai (or any airport in India), you have to present a boarding pass and ID to military security outside the terminal. But for the most part, eticketing is not a thing in India. So luckily I had printed out my itinerary and presented the officer with the sheets showing my Vistara flight from Chennai to Mumbai and the Delta flights to get me home from there. But... what I showed him didn't include my name. He directed me to the outside Vistara counter (all the airlines have counters that face outward from the terminal, which makes sense given the requirements to get inside). I stepped out and then realized that I needed to pull out the first sheet of the itinerary printout that had my name on it and got back in the mercifully short line and got through.  Passport check #1.

After going through the line at the Vistara desk, I got my boarding pass (but NOT the passes for the two Delta flights) and took my bags through security. The security checks at Indian airports are much different than those in the US. It's a bit of a mob scene, for one, with just a table for bins in each queue that people don't really queue up for all that much. Laptops AND cellphones come out and belts come off, but I was wearing sneakers and did not have to remove them (no sneaker bombers in India, I guess) and nothing about liquids. 

I travel with a CPAP for sleep apnea and left that in my carryon sometimes, took it out others, and it was never questioned. But the young man in front of me at one checkpoint that had unsealed containers of what appeared to be protein powder may still be in the airport. Or disappeared.

Everybody gets wanded and patted down. Everybody. They have metal detectors that look like the ones they installed in US airports in the late 60s after idiots kept hijacking planes to Cuba, but everybody gets a pat-down. So they direct female travelers to separate lines, including splitting families up. Passport and boarding pass check #2.

Passports were checked again at the gate and away I went, but 2 hours delayed with no way to make my connection - more on that later.

Mumbai is where things got even weirder. I had carried on three freaking bags in the vain hope that I'd make my connection so I didn't have to deal with baggage claim. So I hauled all the bags up to Departures, with a military check of passport and boarding pass/printed itinerary to get up there. Check number 1.

Having missed my flight as well as the flight through DeGaulle that Delta had put me on, I ended up booked on the flight to JFK leaving the next day at 1am (my original flight +1 day). I found that there was a hotel inside the Mumbai airport, called to ensure they had room, then went off in search of it. But security stopped me from LEAVING the Departures lounge as I didn't have a reservation. They sent me to the Info deck in Departures, who called the hotel to come up and escort me down. Checkpoint number 2.

Given the restrictions of movement, I spent the next 20 hours in a very nice hotel room in the Mumbai airport, trying to get some rest and eating a pretty decent veg biryani.

I *had* managed to get my Delta boarding passes from the self-service kiosk so I was prepared to get through security to get to Departures. Checkpoint number 3.

While in line at the Delta counter for the bag drop, Delta agents walked through the line, checking passports and asking immigration-type questions (reason for visit , point of entry, places visited, etc), then stickered my passport. Checkpoint number 4.

At the counter of course, I had to produce the passport again. Checkpoint number 5.

Go through security - similar rigamarole to above, maybe a little less chaotic. Checkpoint 6.

The to the very long line at immigration. Checkpoint 7.

Walk through the mall-sized Duty Free shop to get to the gates. I was confused about why the desk agent told me that boarding was going to start at 11pm for a 1am flight and I checked with the gate agent to see if that was right (I really wanted to check out an airport lounge and relax a bit). But no, the 11pm checkin was correct.

Scanned boarding pass at the gate plus passport check. Checkpoint 8.

Found that there was a temporary looking FULL SECURITY CHECK between the gate and the airplane. Take everything out of bags, wanded again, etc. Checkpoint 9.

I *think* that was it. But it wouldn't surprise me if I missed something - unlike previous trips I never got into a good sleep pattern and I was living on 3-4 hours a "night" and was a little punchy. 

I understand a "belts and suspenders" approach to security. But this seemed like a "belts, suspenders, bungee cords, Superglue, staples and duct tape" approach. Even if my Vistara flight had been on time, I would have been hard-pressed to grab luggage off the carousel, go to the Delta desk to drop it off, make it through security and customs and still reach the plane in the two hours that were originally scheduled. All my previous trips to India (all TWO of them, so not that many) were direct flights into Chennai, so this was my first experience with combining domestic flights with international. Lessons learned.

 The other thing that I find very different is that so much of this is handled not by a TSA analog, but by camouflage-uniformed military personnel, including pairs of uniformed soldiers patrolling the Departure area with machine guns at the ready. Takes some getting used to.

Additional security measures vary at hotels and work spaces. This trip, they actually seemed a little less than the trips I took in 2017. Where before the hotel security would run a mirror under any car to check for bombs and baggage had to go through a scanner, that didn't happen this time in either Bangalore or Chennai. Guess it depends on current tensions.

The good news was the Global Entry when I reached JFK was a fucking miracle. No line at the kiosks, 30 seconds for it to take my picture and print out a slip with a grainy photo, no more than 5 minutes in line to present to the Customs officer, and that was it! If you travel internationally, I highly recommend going through the hassle of getting it (it also gets you TSA Precheck, which helps not one whit internationally but is a huge help domestically).

I've never seen anything really describing this whole process. I was lucky I printed out my itinerary as I don't usually for domestic travel. Guess the moral of the story is be flexible, be patient and be as prepared as you can. Now at least you are prepared for your next trip to India!