Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Will Never Fly Air France - Or Will I?

Genre: Travel

Since yesterday, a bunch of people have been sharing this blog post by a disgruntled passenger about his experience with Air France in Paris, with comments like "Never ever fly Air France!" Is it really as terrible as he makes it sound? What should you do if you get stuck in a similar situation?

Short response: As a rule of thumb, never ever fly Air France through Charles De Gaullea living manifestation of hell on Earth. That will drastically reduce the probability of getting into a situation similar to this guy.

But then, what if it still happens? Will you end up with a "horror story" worth the outrage? Not if you do the following-

The guy in that blog was angry that he was informed of his flight's delay by an electronic display board, not a human being. Don't do this. In today's highly automated airline industry, an information screen can be trusted to have more accurate information than random airline employees.

If the airline staff says the aircraft is having technical issues, don't expect they will divulge more details. Either because they themselves don't have more information, or because the extra information is of no use to the passengers. For example- if the airline staff said that the hydraulic pump controlling starboard MLG is malfunctioning, you would be left wondering- what I am supposed to do with this piece of information?

Don't expect that the airline can always arrange an alternate plane to fly you. Flying a plane is not like driving a bus, that if one bus breaks down, bring any other bus and get going. There are fleet restrictions and pilot availability issues. For example, in that Paris incident, more than half of Air France's fleet is narrowbody aircraft that cannot fly from Paris to Mumbai. Then there are a bunch of Airbus A380s that can fly Paris-India, but the Indian government has banned them from operating into India. That leaves you with A330, A340 and B777 planes. Were any of them readily available to fly? Even if you find a plane ready to go, are there pilots and cabin crew available who are on duty and have experience operating a flight to Mumbai?

By all means, request, but don't expect that the airline will always put you on an alternate flight. For instance, for that guy stuck in Paris, are there alternate flights from Paris to Mumbai? No! The only Paris-Mumbai connection is 5 days a week Air France flight. Could they put him on a one-stop flight to Mumbai on some other airline? Maybe they could, but it is not always possible. 

If the airline staff says there is no alternate flight to put you on, do not insist "did you check properly?" They refused you because they probably already know there is no other flight where they can put you and don't need to check. It's their damn daily job. If someone asks you a casual question about your line of work, do you always check monitors or make calls even if you know the answer?

If you don't get a transit visa, don't get angry at the airline. They have no say in it. It's the immigration officers' decision whether to give someone a transit visa or not. Ideally, considering it was a cancelled flight, they should give it, but they are within their rights to refuse a visa

Try asking for access to the airline's lounge, but be prepared that they may refuse since the lounges have limited space and are for paying Business/First class passengers. However, if you really wanted to go to a lounge, you pay for a Day Pass and get access. United Club and American Airlines Admiral's Club at CDG both give access to anyone with a $50 day pass.  

Don't go hungry simply because the airline did not provide you enough free food vouchers. You are in an international airport. If you get hungry, you go and buy your own food. Starving yourself over a delay is not worth it.

Ask for a hotel for overnight stay. But if the airline cannot provide one, be prepared to sleep in the terminal. Most airports have portable beds, bedsheets and blankets for overnight delays. Be happy if you get one. It could have been worse. 

All said and done, that blog wasn't the first time this has happened, won't be the last time. Air travel has its bit of uncertainties. When you travel, be mentally prepared for it. This is what you should do if stuck in a similar situation-
  • Don't shout or overwhelm the gate agents. Many times they really don't much beyond that a flight is delayed, and nobody likes handling 200 shouting passengers. If you approach them politely, they will do everything they can to find an alternative for you.
  • If you are enrolled in a frequent flier program (if not, why are you not? It takes 5 minutes to join and is free! Do it now!) go to that airline or alliance's lounge. They may not give you entry on an Economy Class ticket, but the staff there has same access to the system as the gate agent and are not being overwhelmed by 200 people, so they can check up alternatives for you.
  • Use the meal vouchers provided by the airline to get whatever food you can, and buy more if you need. You can easily spend a few hours at restaurants rather than crowding around the gate. If you have special needs (vegetarian, no-beef etc) always carry your own snacks for emergency. Don't rely on an airport in a foreign country to provide you enough food choices to satisfy your dietary preferences.
  • If you want to relax, have shower, charge your phones, use internet and get some food and drinks, buy a one day pass to an airline lounge. Yes, it costs money, but it will be worth it, see below
  • Once you are back home, contact the airline and ask for refund and compensation. Europe has strict Air Passenger Rights Law that all European airlines have to abide. Quoting from the article- "If you are denied boarding, your flight is cancelled or arrives more than 3 hours late on arrival at the final destination stated on your ticket, you may be entitled to compensation of €250 - 600". For flights over 3,500km, for example Paris-Mumbai like in this case, the airline will have to pay you 600 Euro compensation. This will easily cover all the food and lounge access expenses you had to do at the airport.
  • And lastly, Do not write passive aggressive Open Letters to the CEO. Instead, contact the airline- call them, email them, post on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Believe it or not, engaging the airline directly gives some amazing results.
In conclusion-
What this guy mentioned in his blog is hyperbole and what actually happened could happen on any airline, its not Air France specific.
Air France is not an airline worth flying, but not because THIS incident happened. Even without this, they have a pathetic passenger comfort and safety record. So if you have been flying AF in spite of knowing this, no need to change it because THIS happened.

Bon Voyage!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Conference Rooms

In Office Buildings,

The We-Are-Global Company

The We-Are-Universal Company

The We-Are-Cute Company

The We-Love-Science Company

The We-Are-Cool-Geeks Company


Seriously, who ever thought employees who have a meeting to attend in the middle of a workday would love spending fifteen minutes roaming across the building scratching their heads trying to figure out where the heck is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Conference Room

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Great Airline Showdown

Genre: Travel

Now that I have done trans-continental journeys between India and the United States by five different airlines, one from each of the five different broad categories available for India-US travel i.e. US based airline, India based airline, cheap Gulf based airline, posh Gulf based airline and Europe based airline, it’s time to pitch them against each other in the Great Airline Showdown!

The table above summarizes my experience with each of the airlines for impatient people. If you have the patience, a detailed review follows below. Some disclaimers before we start off-
  • This is purely my personal opinion based on one personal experience on each of the airlines, so don’t come to kill me if you experience something drastically different on your flights from what I mention here.
  • The flights considered for comparison are- Delta’s Mumbai-Atlanta non-stop (no longer in existence), Jet Airways’ Mumbai-Brussels-Newark, Kuwait Airways’ Mumbai-Kuwait-London-New York, Qatar Airways’ Mumbai-Doha-Washington and Lufthansa’s Mumbai-Frankfurt-Dallas.
On ultra-long haul transcontinental flights in Economy class, my biggest concern (and nightmare) is the seat comfort and legroom. This is the single most important thing that can make or ruin (mostly ruin) the 20-odd hour journey. My first experience was on Delta’s Boeing 777 with 3-3-3 seating, and it being my first long haul flight I was distracted by a lot of things but I do remember the legroom was just enough to sit without poking your knees into the seat ahead. Jet Airways Airbus 330 is almost the same when it comes to legroom but I prefer the 2-4-2 layout because now you have to disturb only one person (as opposed to two in B777) every time you want to get up to go to the loo (or to the galley to nick some free chocolates and snacks). Kuwait Airways’ 3-3-3 and the legroom is as good (or bad) as Delta while Lufthansa again scores for the 2-4-2 layout. The clear winner here is Qatar with its generous legroom that makes up for the 3-3-3 layout. This was the only flight on which I could actually comfortably rest without wriggling around like a fish taken out of water.

When it comes to ambience and interiors of the plane, all five airlines more or less represented their origins. Delta has clean and functional but blah interiors showing the typical I-don’t-care American attitude. Same thing for Lufthansa. It has everything that should be there, but don’t expect unnecessary glamour. Typical European. Kuwait Airways is the worst of the lot, what with torn seat covers, dirty toilets and seats that either stay only reclined or not recline at all. On the other hand, Jet Airways has nice LED lighting, moisturizers and deodorants in the washroom.. the little things that make you feel good. And of course, the winner in this category is Qatar with its multi-color mood lighting that simulates time of the day, amenity kits for all passengers including toothpaste, brush etc and nice well-maintained planes.

The female flight attendants on Delta are straight out of old-age home, so aged that I felt bad asking them to bring something for me. Kuwait Airways has a random mix of European, Chinese, Indian flight attendants (surprisingly none Middle-Eastern) and it’s a hit or miss depending on whom you have on your side of the plane. Lufthansa’s all-European cabin crew is charming, smiling but will stick exactly to their prescribed duty schedules. Nothing more, nothing less. Qatar and Jet Airways both score high on friendly, smiling, helpful crew that goes out of their way to make you feel good, whether it is by bringing extra ice cream and chocolates for the kids or chatting and joking with the passengers.

Food! The only thing that I look forward to on long haul flights. The only thing that breaks the monotony of sitting and staring at a screen for hours. I have always ordered Asian Vegetarian Meal on all flights, so that makes the comparison fair. In this department Lufthansa disappoints. Big time. First, their definition of Indian meal is rice and random vegetables in gravy for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Second, someone needs to explain them that Indian gravies have oil.. that seeps.. into other things packed with it. I had the (mis)fortune of eating (or throwing away) puri soaked in oil from veg korma, with salty gaajar ka halwa on one flight, and water soaked roti with rubbery paneer bhurji in another. Now before you jump on me claiming that it was my fault ordering Indian food on non-Indian airline, well, other non-Indian airlines have fared remarkably well in this department. Delta served decent dinner and quite good idli and masala dosa; Kuwait Airways, in spite of being low in other departments, scored a winner here with finger-licking delicious meals, and once again Qatar and Jet Airways won the way to my heart through my stomach! Worth noting here is Jet Airways serving Pav Bhaji (yes, tasty Pav Bhaji!) and Ragda Pattice onboard and also Belgian chocolate ice cream. None of the other airlines had an ice-cream after the meals.

In-seat screens with several dozen movies and TV shows is the norm across airlines these days, so not much to compare here. Just a couple of notable points- some of Lufthansa’s dinosaur era Boeing 747 do not have individual screens and I had to bear one such flight, with only two bulky CRT monitors in the aisle playing random stuff. Kuwait Airways technically has in-seat screens but you have a better chance of winning a lottery than getting a working screen on this plane. In my flights, some screens worked only when you bang them, one screen worked with remote from adjacent seat, and some screens randomly turned black and white from color!

Touch wood, by God’s grace, all my transcontinental flights across airlines have always been more or less right on time at departure and arrival, except two incidents- the Jet Airways plane developed a technical snag at Brussels that delayed it by an hour, but the staff made up for it by promptly distributing vouchers for passengers to go around and buy fine Belgian chocolates! On other occasion the Kuwait Airways plane encountered a problem before takeoff from Kuwait and everyone sat in a stationary plane in the desert for two hours “celebrating” turn of the New Year (00:00 Jan 1st local time!) as apparently “someone had gone to the store to bring the replacement part” according to the pilots. 

Connection Hub
Today, unless you are flying to New Jersey, any journey from Mumbai to United States involves at least one change of flight, so it matters what is the condition of the connecting hub. My Delta flight was non-stop to Atlanta but since I had to take an onward domestic flight I will consider Atlanta as the connecting hub for it. Hartsfield Jackson International is the world’s busiest airport and it shows. The place is huge, and the gates have minimal seating, so the whole place resembles CST railway station with people squatting on the floor. Kuwait Airways is test of endurance as you have to first transit through Kuwait City ST Bus Depot, which for some reason is called Kuwait International Airport, and then through hell-hole of the world- London Heathrow! Qatar’s Doha hub is better than Kuwait but nothing to write home about, unless of course you love taking a long bus ride through desert to reach your plane from the terminal. If you love watching planes and aviation, Lufthansa’s Frankfurt hub is absolute HEAVEN for the sheer quantity and variety of planes on display, but for regular travelers it is laid out in a very confusing manner, and yes, it is no fun to get out in minus 15 degree C to board a bus to take you to the plane. Brrrr! Jet Airways’ Brussels hub is cool- not too confusing, clean and spacious, and all connecting flights arrive and departure from adjacent gates so no walking around.   

On any India-US flight there is a probability approaching one that there will be lots of desi kaka, characterized by asking for alcohol every single time a drinks trolley passes by and standing up in the aisle as soon as the plane has touched down on the runway. On any flight heading to a Middle Eastern country, a good proportion of passengers are workers going there for manual labour, who have obviously got into a plane for the first time in their life, and it shows. On Qatar it was okay, but Kuwait Airlines simulates experience of boarding a train from LTT to Gorakhpur. The most well-behaved and classy crowd is on Lufthansa- I was pleasantly surprised to see not one person standing up from their seats after we touched down in Mumbai, right upto the point where the flight attendants announced that the doors are open. Rare sight!

It is commonly known fact that people buying tickets for India-US journeys look at only three things while making their decision- price, price and price. Nothing wrong it in, especially for people who just want to go from Point A to Point B by hook or by crook, but you need to remember that you get what you paid for. In my comparison, Kuwait Airways fares quite badly per se, but when put in perspective that I paid only $900-odd for the roundtrip compared to $1200-1400 I have had to pay for the other four, it’s not a bad deal.  That being said, it makes sense sometimes to look a little below the first (cheapest) option on the website- the slight extra paid might be well worth the experience. Bon Voyage! 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Ultimate Guide to Indian Train Travel

The Ultimate Guide to Indian Train Travel

Why am I writing this? Because of the hordes of western tourists who decide to travel by choice by unreserved Second Class in an Indian train in spite of seven more comfortable classes available, then go home and write blogs criticizing "how pathetic and dirty all Indian trains are". The next person doing this shall be dragged back to India and locked inside a dirty toilet in a similar unreserved Second Class coach of Kurla-Gorakhpur Express in peak summer. If you ever need to travel by an Indian train, the following guidance will be more than sufficient to have a pleasant trip. Or maybe not. 

In spite of economic progress and India Shining and low cost airlines and multi-axle Volvo buses with leather seats and in-seat TV screens and six lane expressways and swanky cars, chances are if you are in India, at some point your travels will involve taking the Indian Railways. And although the AC coaches are more comfortable and delicate-traveler-friendly, there is no better way to enjoy India and enjoy a journey than the humble Sleeper class coach of an Indian Railways train. The typical Sleeper class journey experience involves the following stages-

1. The Reservation

In the pre-internet days, getting a confirmed sleeper class reservation on any train required an elaborate ritual of heading to the Reservation counter at the local railway station, filling up a detailed form, waiting in a serpentine queue for hours in heat or cold or rain, encountering either a totally disinterested or an overly enthusiastic clerk and praying to your deity of choice to receive a rectangular blue and white dot-matrix printed ticket. When the internet age came along, Indian Railways thought this experience should be recreated online and with this sole purpose in mind was created the great IRCTC website. At 8am every morning, thousands of frustrated Indians religiously use some selective words against imaginary mother and sister of IRCTC website, but after an hour of drama, you will eventually get a confirmed reservation. Except when you don't- in which case you will be pulled into a complicated system of Waitlist and RAC and Tatkal and agents. For the moment lets assume you were spared that experience and you have a confirmed sleeper ticket. On to the next step.

2. The Hope

On the day of travel, once you have negotiated your way through the maze of passengers and their relatives and reached your coach, every male passenger stops outside the door and goes into a dream sequence imagining romance blooming on the train with a pretty female co-passenger like it happened in a couple of  Bollywood movies, then opens his eyes, carefully goes through the Reservation chart pasted outside the coach, expecting some F21, F19 passengers but rather finds all middle aged uncles or families assigned seats around him and makes a slow walk to his berth. If you are traveling by an Indian train for the first time, do not forget this step. It is an essential one.

3. The Adjustment

If you are boarding from the starting station of a train the first thirty minutes after boarding will be spent in The Great Indian Adjustment Game. If boarding from an intermediate station, you have lost the game before having a chance to make your move. Irrespective of what berth you have been assigned, there will  always be some passenger who would want you to exchange it with his/her berth. A six year old brat kid will invariably start Occupy Window Seat movement forcing himself onto your lap or squeezing himself in between you and the window. Families of four with two reserved berths and twelve pieces of luggage will make themselves comfortable on a part of your berth after shovelling their bags in every inch of available space below the seats. Do not get scared by this experience. This is the best ice-breaker ever. Once you have successfully adjusted yourself to everyone's satisfaction, you will reap the benefits of it in the next step.

4. The Food

Depending on your luck, your train may or may not have a Pantry Car. If it has one, you will get to see the ultimate example of standardization in the world- every single meal item sold on every train will look and taste exactly the same. One one journey from Mumbai to Jammu, I was served exact same gravy, but called Aloo Mutter at lunch, Chana Masala at dinner and Chhole at the second day's lunch. This is the time to reap benefits of the previous step. Tha families around you will always have enough food to feed a small African country for a week and they will happily share it with you. Try everything. It is the most fun part of a train journey, but do not overeat, because then you will have to use the toilet, which takes us to the next step.

5. La Loo

Sleeper class coaches on Indian trains have Western and Indian style toilets but there is no guarantee that there will be posterior-cleaning supplies available, neither western nor Indian. The trick is to observe around the coach carefully to see if people walking up and down the aisle are carrying empty water bottles or not. If they are, you should also carry one to the loo. Trust me, you will not regret this. Once inside, you will experience cool breeze hitting your posterior. Look down and you will witness a facility unique to Indian Railways- a loo with a view. You have not experienced a train journey unless you have seen the tracks below while answering nature's call!

6. The Sleeper

A majority of passengers take the term "Sleeper Class" too literally. They will want to sleep as soon as the sun goes down, and sometimes even when the sun is high up in the sky. Invariably the person having the middle berth will have the maximum enthusiasm to get the berth down and sleep, thereby forcing the lower berth occupying passenger to crouch and Upper Berth passenger to climb up to his little abode. Try to delay the inevitable and they will argue- "But I paid for my Sleeper reservation. I don't want to waste it!". You have no option but to give in, but here comes the next, and best step.

7. The Door

This is something you cannot do on a plane or a luxury bus but can do in an Indian Railways Sleeper coach. Stand at the open door and enjoy the breeze! When you think you have had enough of conversations with co-passengers on everything from current affairs to sports to origin of universe and that your body has made sufficient use of the berth to get above the threshold of "wasting sleeper reservation", head out to the door and stand or sit at the footstep enjoying the view outside. Some like to have music in their ears while doing this, but if you ask me, the rythmic sound of metal wheels against the metal rail is the best melody ever. 

Happy Journey! 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

One More Thing...

I am not an Apple fanboy. I do not own a single Apple product. But still, the news of demise of Steve Jobs has saddened me. On my way back from work I had picked up my favorite food that I was craving to have since a long time and was cheerful about it, but now that's the last thing on my mind. Why? Why has the death of a man who is in no way related to me affected me so much? Because this man was a genius, and losing him is a loss to everyone. And when I say this, I am neither being overly emotional nor exxaggerating. Saying that Steve Jobs revolutionized the way the world communicates today is not an understatement. It is a fact.  

I have, on several occasions, expressed my displasure and criticized various Apple products- from the MacBook Air to the iPhone 4S that was released just yesterday, so you may be wondering why this sudden love for Steve Jobs? First of all, it is not sudden. I have always admired this guy. It is because he was a unique man who could accomplish this feat of garnering respect from even the people who disliked the products his company made. Why? Because he was more than just another CEO of just another big company. He was a man who knew what the world wants. He was a man who knew to read the world's heart. I have a Master's degree in Wireless Communications and work at one of the world's leading telecom company, so it is natural that I feel the desire to scrutinize every device Apple has launched in the past few years and ended up finding some or the other minor technical shortcoming in it that took away my interest from buying it, but that's because I am a self-confessed geek who thinks too much, but the world is not like that. The world wants things that make their life simpler, are easy to use, and look nice. Steve Jobs knew this perfectly well. And he designed his products for the world. He developed products that gave access to technology to the people who were previously deprived of it because it was too complicated. He made products that made technology simple. From the big heavy Personal Computers to small designer Mac. From awkward Walkman requiring cassettes to play to the iPod that made listening to music simple. From bulky ugly looking Nokia and Motorola phones of the early 2000s to the sleek iPhone that simplified the smartphone experience. The iPad that gave access to technology to millions of people who found it too complex to use a full fledged computer. And while fiercely protecting his products and innovations, he knowingly or unknowingly opened up a huge market with competition that drives even more innovation. It wouldn't be wrong to say that it was his iOS that led to the growth of Android and thousands of developers across the world innovating daily to be at the top of the race. It was his iPad that led to fierce competition for tablets and the research and innovation that is going into making all of those. It was his imagination and products that moved technology from being the playground of geeks to being a part of mainstream life of people across the world. This is by no means a small achievement. 

And, wait! There is one more thing... 
He made black turtlenecks popular. 

Rest in Peace Steve Jobs. iRespect.

And one more thing...
I am going to enjoy that food I brought on the way home, not mourn, following advice of Steve Jobs himself- "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." 
Creative Commons License
My World...My Views by The Blue Indian is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.