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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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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

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Bastard machine

It seemed like such a good idea at the time.  Get some Turkish lira and avoid the crappy rate the stores in the airport give you if you pay in dollars.  Seemed even better since I was waiting for friends to get their boarding passes and their line was moving slowly, so some time to kill.  Best of all, I could see an AKBank ATM not too far away.

When I was in Istanbul previously I had used ATM’s from AKBank without incident, so I had no reason to worry, right?  In honor of Robbie Burns (who’s 250th birthday we had recently celebrated at the Dushanbe Hyatt), I think it’s fair to quote him here:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Rhyme it brother man, ’cause that’s what happened to me.

It started innocuously enough: I inserted my card, I punched in my PIN, and the language selection page popped up.  That’s when things went tits up, as the Brits say.  I pressed the button for “English,” natch.  No reaction from the machine.  Okaaaay, I hit the button again, this time a bit harder.  Still nothing.  Third time’s the charm?  Uh, not so much.

Alright, I though, my language skills are that hot, but this was an ATM transaction not a conversation about geopolitics, so I figured I could muddle through in another language.  Français?  Non.  Deutsche?  Nein.  по-русски?  нет.  Okay, now I was getting desperate: Türkçe?  Unfortunately: Hayır.

My language gambit having failed, I resorted to pressing every button I could.  Enter, cancel, numbers, nothing worked.  I fell back on pounding the buttons — all of them, repeatedly — and when that too came to nought, I started kicking the machine.  Unsurprisingly, that too did not work.

Although I was loath to leave the ATM with my card still in it, and with the code already entered no less, I felt I had little choice.  The visa consular office-cum-counter was next to the ATM, but that best they could do was direct me to the border control agency.  They didn’t seem too militaristic, so I went over to them, and they offered to call AKBank.  They did, apparently, but whatever conversation they had was inconclusive (or at least, that’s what I got out of our pidgin English discussion about it).

At that point, the guy who had issued me my boarding passes noticed that I was wandering around, sweating, and looking somewhat panicked.  “What are you doing all the way over here in this part of the terminal?”  When I explained, he motioned for me to follow him, “I’ll help you.”  And he tried, yes, he tried, but the AKBank branch office in the airport refused to answer the phone multiple times over the course of 20 minutes.  When I mentioned to him that the ATM had said to call the customer service number, 444 2525 (yes, I remember it), he pointed me to the pay phone nearby as he only could call internally on his phone.

Ultimately, this call was both unsatisfactory and somewhat relieving.  AKBank had an English language option and I got a rep that spoke some English, and she told me that the card was gone.  Foreign bank cards taken by AKBank ATM’s are “extinguished” and I had to call my bank to “end” the card.  When I asked if someone could come and open the ATM up and give me back my card, she said that “for your security, this is not possible” even though I had ID.

That was it.  That was as far as I could take it.  Wicked bummer.

I blame NCR for making such a shit ATM, and I blame AKBank for seeming less than enthused to help me.  In fact, please feel free to give AKBank a piece of your mind on my behalf: AKBank Complaint Procedure page.

Oh well, at least I’m on vacation.

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I’m on my way and the first leg to London was easy with the lone issue being some minor security irritations at Logan.  The American Airlines 767 was pretty empty and I was able to spread out onto three seats to sleep for the entire flight.

Now at the lounge of Terminal 3 at Heathrow, checking e-mail and updating the blog, natch.  I’m paying 2.99 GBP for 30 minutes of web access, so I hope you all enjoy the post!

Off to Istanbul shortly . . .

[UPDATED] Listening to the dulcet sounds of what could be a Turkish version of merengue, sipping an Efes, and watching the Russian prostitutes promenade through Duty Free at Istanbul’s airport — this is living!  Oh, and free internet.  My flight to Dushanbe isn’t for a few more hours, so now I actually have a bit of time to learn how to say a couple things in Tajik.  I’m going to focus on “hello,” “thank you,” and “toilet” for now, which should be enough for me to get around for a few days.

Once I get my bearings, I plan to post a few pix from my moving extravaganza.  I feel like I was packing forever and every time I figured I had just about cleaned out everything, I’d turn a corner or open a door, and there’d be more shit to pack or chuck.  In the end, when time had run out, I unwittingly left some nice housewarming presents for my tenants in the form of leftovers in the fridge and several gratis pieces of furniture.  Oh well.

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. . . has involved taking three depos, a bankruptcy court hearing, a clerk magistrate’s hearing at the BMC, numerous meetings, and skipping lunch today.  I would say that “a good time was had by all,” but I don’t like to lie.

T minus 51 hours and counting.

In more exciting, TJ-related news, my ticket to Dushanbe was purchased to today.  Twenty-five hours of travel time from Boston to Dushanbe with layovers in Frankfurt and Istanbul.  I may have just enough time on my first layover to pop into the center of Frankfurt and quaff some of the city’s lovely apfelwein, but I don’t think I’ll be able to get into Istanbul as the time between planes is only about 4 hours.  That’s all right though, I’ll probably be pretty tired by that point.

Actually, I’m pretty tired now and I think I’m going to stop blogging and go home.

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Like $50 cab ride far.

And I didn’t see any damn cherry blossoms either.

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