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 Tower
(Next to Al Manna Building)
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.