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Wanna change money? Buy a suzani?

I walk to work in the center of Dushanbe every day, and, along the way, I pass dozens of places to change money.  Most of them have signs identical to the one pictured above giving the exchange office’s buy (ХАРИД) and sell rates (ФУРЎШ) for the day on a variety of currencies against the Tajik somoni.  Invariably, the US dollar is one of the currencies listed.

Last week, the dollar took a real dive against the somoni.  Now, I don’t get paid in somoni (or dollars for that matter) and I make enough that most currency fluctuations won’t hit me too hard.  That said, it was a bit odd to see the somoni go from approximately 4.88 to the dollar on last Thursday, down to about 4.60 to the dollar by last Sunday.  I wasn’t aware of any macroeconomic event causing the shift, and I didn’t even hear anyone comment on the change.  Just — poof! — and almost 6% of the value of the dollar disappeared in a few days for no apparent reason.

The only thing I can figure is that the streetside exchange offices like the one above offer a market rate for money exchange that is often fairly different from the rate set by the National Bank of Tajikistan.  I know this because our contractors at work often whine that they are getting less than than expected when they get paid according to the National Bank rate rather than the market rate for contracts denominated in dollars.  Hell, I whine about that too when I get my dollar-paid reimbursements back in somoni.  So, I wonder if someone from the National Bank, or elsewhere in the government, leaned on the money changers for having a better exchange rate, which then caused the exchange offices to overcompensate with a rate worse than the National Bank rate.

Just conjuncture, who knows?  All I know is that this morning on my walk to work, I spied the market rate above, 4.81 somoni to the dollar.  Not exactly back to where we started, but it is quite a two-day rally for the dollar against the somoni.  Maybe it’s time to short the somoni, if you could do such a thing.

Yep, this is as good as it gets at DYU.

I’ve decided to do a new feature here at Friejose in TJ & Zimbabwe, Friejose’s Duty Free Review.  I fly enough now that I see plenty of duty free stores, so why not share my impressions with all of you?  (That’s a rhetorical question.)  The idea is to post a photo or two of the various duty free stores I see while traveling back and forth to Tajikistan and share a few thoughts about them as well.  Preferably, these thoughts will be cutting and funny, but one shouldn’t hope for too much.

But before I start with the inaugural post of Friejose’s Duty Free Review, let me say a few words for our readers who don’t travel much internationally or, conversely, happen not to live in a place with shitty alcohol options.  You folks may wonder: who cares about duty free stores?  When I lived in the U.S., I often had this thought — namely, what the hell? — whenever I saw people salivating over dusty bottles of Glenfiddich or ogling cartons of Kents in duty free shops.  Let me tell you, when your best wine options are the choice between terrible Moldovan or awful Georgian wine (which is doubly depressing because wines from both countries have the potential to be quite good), you start to appreciate duty free shops and their delectable variety and surprisingly reasonable prices.  And there’s Toblerone!

At the end, I’ll give a letter grade for the duty free options in the airport in question, based on the American school grading system.

So, without further ado, my review of the duty free shop at the Dushanbe International Airport (DYU).

Number of Options:  One.  You see it pictured above, and it’s located in the sole departure hall at DYU.

Quality: Sad.  International options for alcohol, candy, and the like are very sparse and that isn’t even alleviated by a good selection of local products.

Prices: Pointlessly high.  I mean, what is the point of a duty free stores that has significantly higher prices than the shops in town?  I suppose there’s less of a chance of the customs guys hassling you for having alcohol in your checked luggage, which has happened to me several times, if you buy at the duty free post-customs check.  Which raises a more important question: why in heaven’s name do the customs guys care how many bottles of terrible, $5 Tajik vodka you’re taking out of the country?  Yeah, I know, it’s an easy way to shakedown foreigners taking home silly gifts for their lush friends at home, but it is also profoundly uncool.

Convenience:  Very low.  Dushanbe’s duty free is often closed when flights are departing at night or in early morning, and since that’s when the vast majority of flights leave, it means that the duty free is pretty much worthless.  An added bonus is that since the one duty free shop is located in the departures hall, arriving passengers have no access to it at all.  So there’s that.

Overall Grade:  D-.  At least it exists, stocks some products, and is occasionally open; that counts for something in my book, but not much.

From Qatar Airways with love

Not exactly.  I received a response from Qatar Airways following my complaint letter that I published here a few weeks ago.  I found it unsatisfactory.  Here is the letter from Qatar Airways:

Date: 18 August 2011

This has reference to your email dated 15 August 2011 with regard to the problems you encountered at Johannesburg
airport.

We appreciate this opportunity to address your concerns rose in your letter.

Qatar Airways has not published the overweight fees  on their websites as there is a variance of calculation from one sector to another. Passengers are requested to call the local Qatar Airways office to find the applicable rates.

For further details about the checked in  baggage allowance you may visit our web-site
http://www.qatarairways.com/global/en/baggage.html

Baggage in excess of the free allowance is charged according to the rates listed in the traffic covering the specific journey based on ‘weight’ and ‘ piece ‘ concept depending from which destinations the passenger travels. The excess baggage rates were rightly collected from you.

With regard to the upgrading of your ticket, the staff member had advised you that even after upgrading the ticket you would still need to pay the excess baggage charges.

Rudeness is definitely not something that we condone and we view this as a serious lapse in service standards. A great
deal of emphasis is placed on training our staff but obviously in this case we apologize that our delivery did not provide you the right experience with Qatar Airways

Since you have reported that the telephone lines in Johannesburg were unattended and a piece concept rate was provided to you from America, kindly advise us the time you had called in Johannesburg along with the phone number and the staff whom you communicated in America to enable us to investigate further.

We are very pleased to receive your comments about the excellent service you received from our crew members. Your
satisfaction is certainly worth all our best efforts.

On behalf of Qatar Airways, please accept our appreciation of your feedback and sincerest apologies for any inconvenience caused. We are ready to be of service to you as always.

We thank you for taking the time to write to us and look forward to your support and patronage of Qatar Airways.

Sincerely yours

Queenie Dantas
Officer Customer Care

I also received a brief e-mail from Qatar Airways’s US office, so I responded to both Ms. Dantas and Ms. Costeira from the US office in the following e-mail that I sent today, we’ll see where it gets me:

Dear Ms. Dantas and Ms. Costeira:

I apologize for my delay in responding.  As I said in my previous correspondence to Ms. Dantas on 27 August 2011, I have been traveling for work and I have been unable to respond in the fashion I would like to before now.  Let me start by thanking both of you for responding on behalf of Qatar Airways.  After my difficult and disheartening experience flying with Qatar Airways from Johannesburg to Doha on 13 and 14 August 2011, I appreciate that you both responded in a timely fashion to my letter of complaint.

I would like to answer the questions Ms. Dantas posed to me in her previous e-mail of 18 August 2011.  She asked in particular when I called Qatar Airways in Johannesburg and in New York.  I called Johannesburg on 12 August at 16.35 local time to the number +27 11 267 7700.  As I said in my original letter, I did not speak to anyone in the Johannesburg office because no one answered my call.  I called New York on 12 August at 17.38 Zimbabwe time (or approximately 11.38 EDT) to the number +1 877 777 2827.  I spoke to a gentleman at the office in New York, but I do not recall his name and I did not write it down.  I hope this answers your questions fully and please do not hesitate to ask for more information if needed.

Ms. Dantas also made several statements in her prior e-mail that I found unsatisfactory, and that I wish to contest.  I will quote her statements below in purple text and then respond after them:

“Qatar Airways has not published the overweight fees  on their websites as there is a variance of calculation from one sector to another. Passengers are requested to call the local Qatar Airways office to find the applicable rates.”

I understand that this is Qatar Airways’s policy, but this is inexplicable to me.  The rates should be easily ascertainable in advance to enable customers to determine what their potential overweight luggage costs will be.  In this age of detailed and frequently updated airline websites, I cannot understand why Qatar Airways would force a customer to make a phone call to get a piece of information that is important and could result and significant charges.  Indeed, most companies actively request that customers get their information from the website.  Even with the number of routes flown by Qatar Airways, it should be possible with the computing power available currently to calculate overweight luggage fees online.  Might I suggest that if Qatar Airways’s fee system is so complex that it cannot be displayed in real-time on its website, then perhaps the system is too complex.  Most airlines have consistent luggage fees for all or most of their routes, and I fail to see why Qatar Airways cannot as well.

“The excess baggage rates were rightly collected from you.”

It depends what you mean by “rightly”.  If you mean according to the rates charged by Menzies, Qatar Airways’s agent in Johannesburg, then yes, Menzies charged me the rates they charge everyone.  If, however, you mean “fairly” by using “rightly”, then I would say that is not true.  I was charged $41 USD per kilo of overweight luggage.  This is more than the $38 USD IATA general rate for overweight luggage and far more than the $50 USD per overweight piece that Qatar Airways itself charges on US departing flights.  $41 per kilo is not a fair rate, it is especially unfair when it is not published on the website.  Ms. Dantas’s e-mail did provide any financial justification for such an exorbitant rate for the Johannesburg to Doha route, so I can only assume that the high rate for overweight luggage is simply a way to gouge customers already at the airport with overweight luggage and without other options.  That may seems an unfair thing to say, but I have not been shown why such a rate is necessary or proper.  It may be “rightful” in the sense that this is the rate that is typically charged but is a very long way from “right”.

“Rudeness is definitely not something that we condone and we view this as a serious lapse in service standards. A great deal of emphasis is placed on training our staff but obviously in this case we apologize that our delivery did not provide you the right experience with Qatar Airways[.]”

Thank you for this acknowledgment that I was treated poorly.  Unfortunately, nowhere did Ms. Dantas’s e-mail state what corrective steps will be taken as a result of this serious lapse in service standards.  I requested in my initial letter to Qatar Airways that the employee involved be officially reprimanded and forced to undergo additional customer service training.  I reiterate this request and I ask that I be provided with information regarding what Qatar Airways will do, or has done, to address this inappropriate behavior by members of its staff.

In sum, I thank you both for your correspondence, but I hope that the e-mails are just the beginning of a conversation and not the end of one.  I look forward to your further responses to this e-mail of mine.

image

So the transition back to Tajikistan has been strangely easy, what with the great friends who are still in town and that work is busy and interesting. Plus, I know my wife is on her way soon.

But looking at houses has been pretty intense. I’ve seen 20+ places in three days, and I’m getting a bit burnt out. Bedrooms who’s only window faces a hallway? Always a bad idea, self-evidently so, one would think. But I’ve seen it in almost every house here. And some of the wallpaper is beyond garish. That’s just the cute bad stuff too; it leaves out the very questionable wiring and weirdly nosy landlords living next door.

I think I found a cool place, nevertheless. Hopefully they’ll come down off their excessive price (which would be sadly reasonable in Harare). Pix of that place soon … if we get it.

Posted from WordPress for Android

So, I heard something from Qatar Airways.  Certainly nothing definitive, but at least a start:

CC Ref: US________

Date: 18August  2011

This is to acknowledge with thanks the receipt of your queries rose in your email dated 15 August 2011.

Kindly be rest assured that we will thoroughly investigate the issues rose in your email and will revert to you with our findings in due course.

Thank you for your understanding and continued patience.

Sincerely yours,

Queenie Dantas
Customer Care Officer

I’ll keep everyone informed as to their continuing response, but I’m heartened that at least I got an acknowledgement relatively quickly from them.

And yes, I promise something about coming back to Dushanbe soon.

My trip back to Dushanbe was by-and-large uneventful and not too bad.  There was one big exception, which is described below, at length, in the letter I sent to Qatar Airways today.  Let’s see if they respond to this (and if they do, I will provide updates and Qatar Airways’s response(s) verbatim here):

Via Web Form and U.S. Mail

15 August 2011

Qatar Airways
Qatar Airways Tower
(Next to Al Manna Building)
Airport Road
Doha, Qatar

To Whom It May Concern:

I write in great disappointment and distress following my wholly unsatisfactory experience with Qatar Airways.  After seeing so many television commercials proclaiming Qatar Airways to be the “World’s 5-Star Airline” and then reading in the Oryx in-flight magazine that Qatar Airways describes itself as the “World’s Best Airline”, I am frankly stunned that an airlines that sees itself that way would treat me, as a paying customer, so poorly.

I have three complaints with Qatar Airways arising out of my trip with the airline on 13 and 14 August 2011 from Johannesburg to Istanbul via Doha on ticket number XXXXXXX: (1) the opacity of the Qatar Airways website regarding overweight baggage charges, (2) the extortionate rate charged in Johannesburg for overweight baggage, and (3) the surly and rude behavior of Qatar Airways staff and agents at check-in in Johannesburg.

First, Qatar Airways’s website is mostly silent on the cost of checking-in overweight baggage.  As you may be aware, the website lists no prices, or even price ranges, but instead states that different charges will be levied for overweight baggage depending on the route traveled and that a customer has to check with the local Qatar Airways office.  A key word search of the website revealed some prices for overweight baggage for some routes, but was silent regarding routes originating in South Africa.  Knowing that I would like to bring overweight baggage as I was flying to take a new job in a new city, I tried calling the Johannesburg ticket office for Qatar Airways and I was placed on hold for a lengthy period and my call was never answered.  As I could not reach anyone in Johannesburg, I called the Qatar Airways ticket office in New York, as I am an American.  After I told the agent in New York my flight routing (Johannesburg-Doha-Istanbul), he indicated that excess baggage over 23 kg up to 32 kg was charged at a flat rate of $50 USD.  Relieved at that price, I brought two bags, one weighing 17 kg and my overweight bag, which weighed 30.5 kg, to Johannesburg.

Unfortunately for me, I subsequently learned that the $50 flat rate only applies to flights originating in the United States.  Instead of a $50 flat rate, Qatar Airways’s agents in Johannesburg, Menzies, charged me 290 South African rand (approximately $41 USD) per extra kilogram for overweight baggage.  Since I had two bags that cumulatively weighted 48 kg, which was 23 kg over my apparent 25 kg allowance, I was charged a total of 6,670 rand (or about $953 USD) to check my overweight baggage in Johannesburg (23 kg x 290 rand = 6,670).  Because I had flown to Johannesburg that day from Harare, Zimbabwe to connect to my Qatar Airways flight on a separate ticket, and as I was flying alone, I had no option but to pay that exorbitant fee or leave 23 kg of my belongings on the floor of Terminal A in Johannesburg.

I understand that Qatar Airways has chosen to charge for overweight baggage and I am happy to take responsibility for paying if I have overweight baggage.  What I find utterly unfair is for Qatar Airways to make it difficult or impossible for me to determine what rate I will have to pay for overweight baggage on my flight and then to charge a preposterously high amount for overweight baggage.  It is mind-boggling that Qatar Airways charges a $50 flat rate for overweight baggage in the United States, but that it is almost the same amount of money to bring just one extra kilogram in Johannesburg.  It is my understanding that the rate I was charged in Johannesburg is even more expensive than the very high rack rate set by IATA for overweight baggage charges on separately ticketed flights on non-aligned carriers, which is about $38 USD per extra kilogram.  What makes this discrepancy in overweight baggage pricing worse is that Qatar Airways does not have the courage or the decency to honestly list its overweight baggage charges on its website and that its telephone agents are either unreachable or ignorant.  I can think of no legitimate business reason for Qatar Airways to charge this much for overweight baggage in Johannesburg other than greed, and to compound this avarice with hiding the true price of checking-in overweight baggage is simply a form of extortion, putting Qatar Airways customers in the unenviable position of either paying a rate 20 times more than it should be or discarding their possessions at an airport far from home.

What added salt to this wound was the mean-spirited and uncooperative behavior of Qatar Airways’s staff member supervising the check-in counter in Johannesburg and of the representative of Menzies, Qatar Airways’s agent, to whom I had to pay my overweight baggage fees.  When I queried the Qatar Airways manager at check-in about my options since I had overweight baggage, she was extremely rude and dismissive.  She stated to me numerous times that she could make no exceptions regarding overweight baggage because the flight to Doha was full.  Upon boarding that flight (QR583) later, I learned that she had lied to me, as the flight had several empty seats, including one next to me (I was sitting in 31H).  It is clear that she lied simply to keep me quiet and make me go away.  When I tried to ask if it was possible to ship my overweight baggage by freight, upgrade my ticket to business, or if there was a post office in the airport that I could use to mail my excess weight, the Qatar Airways manager did not assist me, turned on her heel, and walked away.  At the gate later, I saw this same woman denigrating other passengers to the flight crew and complaining about her job.  She was the only Qatar Airways representative dressed as a flight attendant and acting in a supervisory role at the check-in in Terminal A for the flight to Doha on 13 August, so she should be easy to identify.

Again, I understand that being a check-in agent is a difficult job, but I did not deserve to be treated with the scorn I received from Qatar Airways in Johannesburg.  At all times, I tried to keep a calm and respectful demeanor, and I used no inappropriate language or gestures, despite being faced with a difficult situation.  Nevertheless, I received no help from Qatar Airways, all I received was a brusque brush-off.  This woman is obviously overwhelmed in her job and has lost any sense of her customer service role, if she ever felt it.  In my opinion, she should be reprimanded and sent for retraining in putting the customer first.  I would expect no less from the alleged “World’s 5-Star Airline”.

While the Menzies representative was somewhat more appropriate in her manner, she also failed to provide me with any options other than discarding my belongings or paying almost $1,000 USD, even upon repeated request.  She also had no explanation for the reasoning behind the high rate for overweight baggage and could not explain why the rate was so much higher than what I had been told on the phone by the agent in the United States.  Furthermore, when I asked how I could complain about the poor service I had received and if she had a complaint book, she told me that she had no way for me to register a complaint and curtly informed me that I could look for that on the Qatar Airways website.  To me, it is completely unacceptable that a representative of Qatar Airways cannot even provide me with the means to express my disappointment, but again simply tried to get rid of me and my problems as quickly as possible.  This is not the type of customer service I was expecting on Qatar Airways to say the least.

Even the excellent service that was provided by the flight attendants and the easy connection in Doha cannot salvage this trip on Qatar Airways for me.  I had been very much looking forward to taking my first flight with Qatar Airways as I had heard positive reviews from friends and colleagues who had flown with Qatar in the past.  The scales, however, fallen from my eyes about Qatar Airways.  If Qatar Airways will hide the truth about overweight baggage fees and their agent will lie to my face about a flight being full, what else will they do?

I have been flying regularly since I became an adult, and my work in international development means that I fly even more frequently now, and I am sad to say that the terrible experience I had on Qatar Airways this August is one of the worst I have encountered in 20 years of flying commercially.  As of now, I would rather fly to Dubai on a competitor and hitch-hike across the desert to Doha rather than ever fly Qatar Airways again.  I am not sure what Qatar Airways can do to make this right, but at a minimum, I hope that it posts true and accurate rates for overweight baggage for all its routes on the Qatar Airways website as soon as possible and that the staff members in Johannesburg receive the customer service training they so desperately need.  I also hope that a representative of Qatar Airways customer service contacts me at his or her earliest convenience to discuss this matter further.

cc:     Akbar Al Baker, Chief Executive Officer, Qatar Airways / via U.S. Mail
Qatar Airways, New York Office / via Facsimile +1 212 588 1273

Oops, It’s August…

…and I’m back in Istanbul airport waiting for my Turkish Airlines connection to Dushanbe.  Sounds like déjà vu, feels like déjà vu, must be déjà vu, right?

Anyway, I spent 14 months in Africa, and you got, like, three posts.  One of which was an apology for not posting.  Poor.  I do have some more in the hopper, I promise, and hopefully, my flights back-and-forth to Europe next week will give me time to pound out some more posts on Zimbabwe and my Southern African experience generally.

In the meantime, here’s the brief version of what’s the what:

  • Moving back to Tajikistan for work;
  • Hopefully will be there a while;
  • Had precious little paid work in Zimbabwe;
  • Got married in December;
  • And again in June (to the same wonderful woman, for legal reasons); and
  • Expecting a baby in January.

So, it’s been an eventful 14 months that I’ve been essentially silent on this blog.  I’m going to see that the eventful next months aren’t so quiet here.