Close the Loop

Some events can be a teaching moment or a learning moment.

My experience last Thursday was one such, for me.

I had an international business trip booked on a Jet Airways PNR that included two segments on a Skyteam partner airline of theirs.

My flight back home included one segment on this partner airline followed by a 3 hour 40 minute layover at Hong Kong.

Like most travellers I’m not a fan of layovers but it’s prudent to have a couple of hours or so between international flights.

For reasons that were never divulged, my flight was delayed severely but it still landed in Hong Kong about 40 minutes prior to the connecting Jet flight to Mumbai.

As we got out of the gate, an airline/airport rep was waiting and said that Jet had declined to wait for us to make the flight. Apparently they needed a clear hour at the very least to ensure passengers could pass security and for bags to move from one aircraft to another.

What started out as resignation turned to annoyance and stress over five hours.

The rep told us Jet had closed their booking office for the day and only the next morning would we learn if we would be rebooked on the following day’s flight. She said if our tickets were booked through an agent, then the agent could rebook but at the airport, only a Jet reservation staffer could do this and no one else.

Raise your hands if you use a travel agent to book air tickets anymore. No, scrap that. I am certainly not going to diss the option the next time I undertake a multi segment trip.

Its Diwali. All flights to and from India can hardly not be full. Who wants the uncertainty of 15 hours ?

We were 15 of us. Mostly traders from Surat and elsewhere and some of them couldn’t speak English. The ones who could, tried to explain to the rep, that they needed confirmation they’d be on the next day’s flight and they also needed a room for the night.

Lets just say communication is the first casualty of a crisis. Okay crisis is too strong a word. So, let’s say it was a difficult situation.

With them getting nowhere, I decided to intervene. The lady listened patiently to my two requests :

a. A rebooking confirmation because the flight could be full owing to the holiday crowd and

b. A room for the night.

All flights to India had left for the day and we were looking at a 24 hour wait.

She told me the same thing :

No idea till the next morning if we could get a confirmed seat .

And this : there were major trade events happening in Hong Kong and no hotels were available.

She added that checked in bags that had been tagged to BOM were presently on the conveyor belt in Hong Kong .

Lovely.

No seat. No hotel. No bags till we clear immigration.

I then reminded her that Jet staffers would be at the airport as the plane had just departed ( by now it was a shade after 8 pm), could she have one of them come and meet us and at least tell us the seat position for the next day?

What she then told me is when I got irked. Jet staffers would not come to meet us because the delay was on account of the partner airline and they had nothing to do with it. But what of the duty manager? Surely he could drop by ? No, she said. He will not.

To the folks at HK airport who provide free wifi with excellent speed, thank you. Seriously.

Because then I started tweeting. And searching for a hotel room online.

About 45 minutes later, another official from the partner airline came by, repeated the same things to a by now fully agitated group. He said neither the Jet duty manager nor his colleagues were available and most probably had left for the day. He claimed not to have their phone numbers either.

I just could not understand this.

Jet Airways knew a full two and half hours in advance (when their reservation office was still open) that they wouldn’t be accepting passengers from my flight. Why didn’t they simply hand over boarding passes for the next day to the partner airline rep who met us at the arrival gate ?

When airlines allow web check-ins over 24 hours in advance this was surely not a problem?

Asia’s largest apparel and sourcing event was underway in HKG along with a host of other conferences etc. Every single travel site showed full hotels. My hotel search was in vain. Not a single room to be found. Unless I wanted to park myself in Shenzhen , China for the night.

The airline rep was right after all. I informed this to the agitated men and they calmed down.

That there were no rooms to be had would also most likely have been known to Jet. Or they were overbooked and had found the perfect way to offload some passengers. Was that why their team at the airport was unwilling to meet us? Not a conspiracy theorist but these thoughts did cross my mind.

I thought of Plan B, all the while tweeting away hoping those in charge of the handle would be able to nudge at least one missing staffer from HKG airport to show up.

Plan B was to get to the lounge. But its in Departures. After immigration and security.

I had to clear immigration, collect my bag, then find my way to the departure terminal . But , without a boarding pass, I wouldn’t be able to check in the bag nor clear immigration nor use the lounge.

Plan B was actually no plan at all.

Close to four hours now since this started. In the meantime we’d been given dinner coupons but no one wanted to eat till the rebooking issue was resolved.

The Jet app didn’t accept my PNR to “manage bookings” because, technically I was to have been half way to Mumbai by that time. Remember, I had a mobile boarding pass for the HKG-BOM flight.

Stuck.

Anyway the tweeting seemed to have worked. An Assistant Manager, Guest Experience called me . I’d direct messaged my mobile number and PNR to the Jet handle much earlier.

He confirmed that seats had been blocked for all of us for the same flight the next day and we had to reach the Jet reservation counter the next evening to collect the boarding passes.

I conveyed this to the very anxious group of men and everyone let out a deep sigh of some relief. We were satisfied enough to head for dinner at close to midnight. The group had made their peace with spending 24 hours on chairs at an airport now that they knew they’d board the flight the next day.

My first learning moment.

Customers don’t always want a full thali. Sometimes basic dal-chawal will do.

I made a request to the GuestEx manager nevertheless– how about some arrangements to rest for the next 18 odd hours ? Long conversation. Multiple conversations. I dread my international roaming telephone bill this month.

To his credit he tried and I appreciated the effort. Got someone to speak to someone in the partner airline who said let the passengers meet us and we’ll see what we can do. That he managed even this much was a wonder frankly, with every single local colleague MIA. Anyway it didn’t work as the reps from the partner airline too went missing.

That’s when two “almost strangers” did something wonderful. To them : thank you very very much.

I went to clear immigration .

It was the next learning moment

Don’t complain of CSIA’s long queues. Busy airports with lots of visitors have longer waits.

I collected my bag and then headed for a taxi. The airport express had ended service for the day. It was now close to 1 am. I’d had a very long week, an early start to a very long day and I was drained.

The next evening, before boarding my flight I asked to speak with the duty manager from the previous night. I met the gentleman.

I told him I was planning to document my experience and thought he should know so he wouldn’t feel he’d been blindsided by a nasty passenger.

He confirmed he’d heard about our problem the previous day. He claimed his team had informed the partner airline that we would be definitely rebooked the next day and he said he was surprised why this hadn’t been conveyed to us. Per the information I gathered, neither airline had any obligation or liability to providing accommodation per the fine print airlines operate by. They search for accommodation more as a goodwill gesture.

He then said “well, we didn’t take passengers coming in from airline ABC either and they didn’t have any problems ”.

Erm. Maybe. But *I* had a problem see ?

Why did no one from Jet come to meet the passengers? After all some of us held valid boarding passes didn’t we ? Why not simply hand over boarding passes for the next day’s flight? The partner airline can hardly do that can they?

Apparently, the agreement between Jet and its partner airlines has clear red lines. Jet bears no responsibility towards passengers in our kind of situation and its for the partner airline to handle as they see fit. Even if our bookings are on a Jet issued PNR. Even if we are holding boarding passes for an onward flight on Jet.

He was telling me his team had done the job they needed to do. I was hearing “woh mera kaam nahin hai”.

I still cannot fathom why Jet staffers refused to meet us or even talk to one of us on the telephone. I travel enough to know neither Jet nor their partner airline could’ve offered accommodation that night. But they could have had our boarding passes ready for the next flight.

I’ve no reason to doubt the duty manager. He assumed passengers would be informed of their rebookings. Maybe this was an instance of a communication gap between the two airlines that may not have happened in the past. I’m willing to grant the benefit of doubt. This isn’t about an individual employee. Or a specific airline either.

What might be a routine occurrence or at least not an unusual one for a business may not be so for their customer. To me, this is more about response patterns and how customers perceive those responses.

Not everyone has a twitter account. Not everyone can speak good English. Not everyone has international roaming on their cellphones. Not everyone has sufficient cash in their bank account to make emergency withdrawals in a foreign country.

And this was my next learning moment.

Close the loop. Always.

Customer service, user experience are nice buzzwords. But they boil down to an ability to resolve difficulties when they arise , not when all is smooth going.

Avoiding personal interaction sends a message about transparency and competency. It’s better to tell a customer what your constraints in a particular situation are. Most may grumble about it, some might be boorish about it but all of them would rather not have uncertainty around it .

‘Woh mera kaam nahin hai’ is an attitude that will hold us back from a seat at the global business heads table. Assuming some of us want to be there that is.

Close the loop.

PS: Next post on CSIA Mumbai and the style over substance debate.

Update : February 3, 2016

Got an email from a nodal officer after following up .

Key sentence : “ our Hong Kong team did extend a courtesy and goodwill gesture to you by re-booking on the next flight without any charges”

This is customer service for you.

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