Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Jet Blues

Dear Jet Airways

There are some things you just don't do. Such as telling a passenger who has shown up with a confirmed ticket, three whole hours ahead of an international flight, that the flight is overbooked.

If a flight is overbooked, it is your problem. You are in a fix and you must extricate yourself painfully, expensively. You don't get away with it by saying: “This is the norm. All flights on all airlines are routinely ten percent overbooked.”

I don't know of if airlines are 'routinely' turning away passengers with a confirmed ticket, bought weeks in advance, by citing IATA rules (which passengers are not expected to be familiar with. I don't even believe that those are the rules.)

But what really, really upset me was not the nonsense about being overbooked as much as the lack of integrity I was subjected to.

On the morning of October 26th, 2013, I showed up at the international airport in Mumbai. The lady manning your check-in counter took a look at my printed ticket and said, “Madam, please wait. I will call you soon.”

This was unusual but I shrugged. I waited. She told me to sit down because it might be more than a few minutes. I sat down, began to read. This lady did not call me, did not even look at me, for over half an hour. Then, worried, I went up to the counter again, and this time, she informed me that the flight was overbooked and that I could not fly today. That I would have to wait one day.

A whole day! Not an hour, but a whole day!

I had never heard of such a thing, so I told her this was ridiculous.

She began to say 'routine' 'regulation' 'mentioned on website' etc. I told her that 'Overbooking' cannot possibly be the norm. You're supposed to place people on stand-by in case of cancellations. That is the norm. And I was not a stand-by passenger. How could the airline refuse to take me?

So this lady told me to go talk to her supervisor.

I said, “No. YOU talk to your supervisor. This is your problem. This is not my problem. I should not have to go running about the terminal, luggage in tow, looking for your supervisor.”

There was another gentleman passenger at the next counter, similarly perplexed. He too had been told that he could not fly. He said he could not possibly wait because he had already made group bookings for a hotel in Kathmandu. He would lose that money. Who'd compensate him?

It turned out that the airline was actually offering him a compensation of rupees four thousand. I, of course, had not been offered any compensation at all so far. But still. I wanted to laugh. Could an international airline seriously expect to get away with this sort of mess by tossing out Rs 4000? What kind of hotel does one get around the Mumbai airport for that amount?

The expectation, I suppose, was that passengers will grumble and sulk but will not put up a fight. Quote any random regulations and they will not challenge you. But I was furious. Furious, not only at the prospect of missing a flight, being inconvenienced for two whole days, having to cancel proffessional commitments etc, but also at being treated shabbily.

So I said that I would not tolerate being treated like s**t and if this flight left without me, there'd be hell to pay.

Finally, a supervisor showed up. She tried to placate the other gentleman with the same spiel about IATA rules and how he'd come too late. People were being checked in on “a first come-first served basis”, she claimed.

I said that I was there a whole hour ago. How come I wasn't checked in? At least half a dozen passengers approached the check-in counters and were given boarding passes though they arrived after me.

She kept repeating that she could do nothing, the airline could do nothing etc etc. So I began to shout.

I HATE shouting and it was one of the first few times in my life that I deliberately raised my voice. I said that I would sue the airline. Your supervisor said I could go ahead.

So I said, “Great. Would you please give that to me in writing? That I am welcome to sue Jet, and that the management is okay with that?”

She sort of humphed, and left. I was still shouting at nobody in particular. I found myself saying things like I've been on enough international flights to know that this is not how things are done. They cannot possibly tell me to turn around and go home and come back the next day.

I shouted until I was in tears. At this point, the lady at the counter told me that it's okay. Could she have my passport?

She was checking me in. I was feeling mainly relief, so I mumbled about how nothing ever gets done without shouting and screaming, and quickly collected my boarding pass.

If that had been all, Dear Jet, I would not have posted this note publicly. As it is, I have waited two weeks because I wanted to think this over carefully. I was upset, but I was also willing to forgive and forget. After all, mistakes happen.


At the departure gates, I expected to find a big crowd. Now, the flight was overbooked. Right? I was given to understand that I was being turned away because I was one of the last to check in. “First come, first served”, that's what I was told.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that the waiting area was half empty. Imagine further my surprise to see that I was one of the first few to board the plane. I also could not help noticing that several of those who came in much later were caucasian passengers.

Imagine, Dear Jet, what this looks like to me.

I'm not making any allegations yet. It is possible those passengers had checked first. It is possible they were in the loo, or cafe, or the shops. Maybe they were driven by early morning shopping impulses.

Still. I'm asking you to imagine what it looks like to someone who was told she could not board this “overbooked” flight. It feels like a social push-around. I found myself brooding on my appearance, my accent, trying to compare it to those who were waved in without any fuss. Was it my desi get-up? Shiny jootis, red-silver imamzabind, inexpensive luggage, non-NRI accent? What?

I finally came to the conclusion that I must have looked powerless. After all, I did sit down and wait submissively for half an hour, just because your counter staff told me to. If I had been less educated or less observant, I'd have waited indefinitely.

And what then, Jet? You'd have sent me home and never compensated me for lost time, stress, the nuisance value and wasted work opprtunity, nor the good people who had already spent money for bringing me to Kathmandu.

So, I decided that you need to be told this, and you need to be told publicly. I don't want you to punish any particular member of your staff, but I do want you to think about how you treat passengers.

Let me tell you what else I saw.

I noticed a passenger, someone who struggled with Hindi, asking a question. One of your staff at the departure gate did not answer; he was bruque to the point of being dismissive. He was polite with me. He wished me a good morning, but he did not wish the Nepali passenger right behind me, someone who was wearing inexpensive clothes and did not speak much Hindi.

I also noticed that although you're doing this international flight, your flight attendants did not seem to speak much Nepali. This is perhaps not a legal requirement, but it ought to be. It is vital that you have one person on board who is able to communicate safety instructions. The person sitting near the emergency exit did not speak English or Hindi too well, and your attendant was neither able to explain to him what would be required nor made any attempt to get him to exchange seats with a passenger with whom they could communicate better.

I'm not saying that you're the only airline with a problem. But you're the airline I've flown with, and I don't want to have to stop flying with you.

So treat this as well-meant advice. Deal with us as paying customers upon whom your livelihood depends. Shiny jooti-wearing women. Tired non-English speaking mothers dragging bawling kids. Greying men with un-branded baggage. Men in dirty synthetic fleece jackets and cheap baseball caps. All of us.

We pay your bills. Don't lie to us. Don't mistreat us. And don't make us scream and shout to claim a service we've already paid for.



dipti said...

Over booking and then ditching passengers under the pretext that they were "late" is a practice wth jet airways. Have experienced it. Glad you made this public. It once happened to a guest of ours who happens to be a Nobel laureate. After much polite debate he pulled out his Nobel badge from his jacket pocket, flashed it before the check in person and asked if this was how their airline treats passengers . He was instantly checked in after that. But imagine the fate of regular joes like us who get dumped for no fault of ours.

??! said...

This is the third ridiculous-rule story about airlines I've read in the last month. All of which included idiotic ground staff.

Did you ever write to them officially? And if so, did they even bother getting back to you?

Annie Zaidi said...

Yes, I sent this letter to Jet. they did reply, and vaguely apologized for perceived problem etc. Repeated the same spiel about marginal overbooking. i let it go at it.

Tweets by @anniezaidi