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Archive for September, 2011

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.

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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.

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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.

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