Monday, August 15, 2011

Morons. I've got morons on my team.

Warning: expletives contained herein.

Fuck ASky. (It’s a subsidiary of Ethiopian Air.) First, my flight leaves late from Lagos. They don’t inform us that it will be late, however. At least in the US, there’s that little info window that says “DELAYED.” In Lagos, there is no one standing around to keep you apprised of flight information. You’re expected to just sit there and wait until someone shows up.

The flight was delayed by an hour, which concerned me because I had about an hour-long layover in Lome, Togo. Not to worry, they assured me, the flight out of Lome will be held until you can board.

My flight to Brazzaville did, in fact, wait around until after I landed. It did not, however, allow me to board. “Overbooked,” they told me, waving me aside. Oh, right, of course. Overbooked.

Welcome to Africa.

They don’t go around looking for volunteers to give up their seat; instead, they just decide that I’m the unfortunate one to not get to arrive in Brazzaville on time. Nothing can be done. Don’t complain, you’ll just slow the process down further. They usher me to a side room and tell me to wait with a handful of other passengers stranded for the ineptitude of ASky.

Of course, the flight stuck around long enough for my bag to board. I pleaded with them to retrieve my bag, my only source of fresh clothes. This did not achieve any results.

People seem really good at taking important documents from you (without much explanation), walking away, and then returning after an indeterminate time with no improvement in the situation. It’s stressful, giving up critical documents such as your baggage claim ticket, not sure if they will return. It’s also upsetting to try to keep track of all your important documents that are floating around in the bureaucratic ether.

I had to fight for every little accommodation, often to no avail. Want to call my friend that was kind enough to pick me up from the Brazza airport? That’s your own problem, bucko – buy a Togo SIM card and credit. Want a bottle of water because you’re thirsty? Pay for it. Need deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste? Go buy it yourself.

They were quick to ship us off to a hotel, where we were cloistered overnight. The lack of a contact number was infuriating. There I was, stuck in a bizarrely upscale hotel, pacing back and forth in my room fuming. Outside, Afro-pop blared over massive amps at a nearby corner store, mixed with the steady roar of motorbikes streaming by. I couldn’t call anyone, wouldn’t know who to call if I could, and didn’t know when I’d even find out about my replacement flight.

The worst, however, is dealing with bureaucracy in a place where you don’t speak their language. It’s a fucking nightmare. When shit goes wrong and you’re facing injustice, it’s bloody enraging to not be able to express yourself. It makes you want to resort to more primitive – physical – means to communicate when verbal means break down. You want to grab a person by the arms and shake them violently to get them to appreciate your plight.

I received a call later that evening, telling me that there was no flight to Brazzaville the next day (Monday). The earliest flight was Tuesday. I said how upset I was, that I would not tolerate this, that I demanded compensation. The guy said he could not do anything about it. I asked for his boss. He said his boss was away at a meeting in Washington. What was his number? Didn’t leave one. When will he be back? Don’t know.

Fuck. The “let me talk to your boss” stratagem was deflected with ease.

It struck me: this is why you always pack clean underwear in your carry-on. You never know when they will royally screw you and leave you without a clear pair for several days.

When this happens, you immediately run through the list of items packed in your checked bag. Books? Damn. Shampoo/soap? Damn. Cell phone charger? Double-damn. Socks, boxers, a new shirt? Damn. More batteries for my water purifier? Damn. Damn. Damn.

It’s a good thing I took my laptop as a carryon. (I’ve never actually packed my laptop in checked bag, but I still appreciated this fact.) Otherwise, I’d be bored out of my skull, sitting around all day waiting for something to happen.

Not surprisingly, all the business about the boss was a lie. I went to the airport this (Monday) morning and spoke with the terminal director. Gave him a piece of my mind. Expressed my rage and indignation. This was more than inconvenient – this was unacceptable suppressive treatment. He was sympathetic, which I appreciated. He got confirmation that my bag was safe in Brazza. Then I heard his side of the story, which shocked me even more.

It would have been easy for me to catch the flight to Brazza. In fact, the booking coordinator had been instructed to boot anyone that could be more easily re-routed. He did this to accommodate several other Brazza-bound passengers on the same flight as me, yet did not do it for me. Maybe because I’m American. Maybe because I didn’t scream loud enough. (It’s difficult when you know they don’t understand you.)

The event amounts to more than an inconvenience, a couple lost days spent in dirty, smelly clothes. It signifies an unacceptable level of unprofessionalism. It signifies a failure to uphold their part of a contract, a contract I bought for $1,700 fucking dollars to get around Africa in a reliable manner. It signifies a blundering company that doesn’t know how to efficiently handle complications.

Perhaps the worst: it amounts to a lost cultural moment: today (Aug 15) marks the Independence Day for Congo. I chose to travel to Brazza during this time window so I could experience this special event. Opportunities like this generally do not align so perfectly during travel. And now that opportunity was blown.

I’m going for blood. I was shaking with frustration last night. I have a strong case for how this was a major breach of contract, a failure on their part to adequately handle the situation, a loss of value to my trip, and poor treatment on my part as a customer. Additionally, ASky is a fledgling operation of only two years, so they are likely concerned about consumer relations. I hope so, anyway, because my treatment thus far indicates otherwise. They are new company contracted with Ethiopian Air, which does have a positive reputation; this treatment would tarnish the image they’re trying to set. I bought my ticket with Ethiopian Air, so I should get the same quality of service.

I demanded that they refund flight and pay $500/day for expenses and lost time. It’s two days off my itinerary, seven hours (and counting) spent waiting around for ASky to get their act together, and untold stress to fight for my right as a paying customer. Otherwise I will sing up such a shitstorm on their heads and push for as much bad publicity as possible.

The manager wasn’t able to acquiesce to these demands, citing a lack of authority. He did promise to write up a report and submit it to his higher-up. He suggested I do the same, and offered his contact information. I am skeptical this will go far, so tomorrow I will return to the office and demand he write the report before I leave. Otherwise I could very well be SOL – once they get me out of Lome, I won’t be their problem anymore. But if I have a letter from the manager, things change: I have documentation from within their organization that they screwed up. Fortunately, my flight to Brazza leaves at 1pm tomorrow, so I’ll go in early and kick up more dust.

It’s a fine line to walk between causing a stir and being patient. I recognize there is a limit on authority of managers. I understand there are procedures that must be followed. I am better off with a sympathetic manager on my side to support my case than a begrudging one. I also understand that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, that they will try to brush me off or say they can’t do anything. I also understand that I’m in a foreign country, which puts me at a disadvantage.

I think I’ve handled myself quite well. Acted respectfully when needed, raised my voice sometimes, and relentlessly demanded documentation. Today I received written confirmation that they screwed up the baggage and flight situation. (Plus $125 in incidental expenses, which is a drop in the bucket compared to what I want from them.) I’m keeping receipts of all my purchases. My travel insurance should also help out.

I’m on the warpath. We’ll see how far I get. I really want to gut these fuckers. Planning to do more research tonight about consumer rights and options for litigation.

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