Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Travail of Air Travels

I have now been traveling regularly by air for nearly 30 years and internationally for 23 years and things were reasonably good, comfortable and hassle free. Since last couple of years there has been a turn around and almost every trip, especially international has not been without some adventure.

Until last year, the only adverse experience I encountered was baggage arrival delays. In the last 3 or 4 years the frequency increased as it happened 5 times, every second or third trip. Prior to that I had never experienced any significant problems with air travel, except occasional delays but mainly on the domestic sectors in India. Infact the days in which there was no electronic ticketing, online check-ins or other digital marvels, flights were on time, baggage arrived securely, inter airline connectivity was smooth, if you missed the flight for whatever reason you would be accommodated on another airline, hotel accommodation was provided without a fuss, meals were provided at airports when there were delays, refunds were given promptly etc.

In the last couple of years things have changed for the worse. All that can go wrong goes wrong as my experience shows. One of my worst baggage delays I experienced flying Air Malaysia was my trip to Hanoi. I had a six day training program to conduct and was in Vietnam for eight days and my bags never arrived. On my return journey at Kuala Lumpur airport I went to the lost baggage section and personally located my bag on which baggage tags were missing. I had to prove to them that these bags belonged to me by listing what was in the bags and having some id proof in the bags. By chance my International Youth Hostels id card was in one of the bags and they allowed me to collect the bags. The compensation given was $45 for 8 days of waiting for the baggage being without any change of clothes or other accessories. I ended up buying clothes, accessories and a bag worth $350 (had to shop in international branded dept. stores because locally made stuff would not fit me as the average Vietnamese size is much smaller). Well, being a Sikh one accessory I needed and could not get in Vietnam was a turban and had to make do with the single turban I was wearing for the entire trip. I had an extensive exchange of emails and phone calls over 4 months with Air Malaysia and they raised the compensation by $55 saying that that was the maximum they paid to business class and extended me that courtesy even though I was in Economy class. The travel insurance I had with New India Assurance Company was rendered useless as I could not produce all the bills for the claims I had put in even though they would anyway reimburse only $100. They did not reimburse a penny. I did not renew my policy with them.

Another recent incident was early this year. I was traveling to Bandung on Jet Airways with an onward connection from Singapore with Air Asia. I arrived at Mumbai airport and they checked me in. While I was waiting in the immigration queue their supervisor came running and escorted me back to the counter and canceled my booking saying that Jet Airways did not interline with Air Asia and hence they were off-loading me since I would have to exit immigration in Singapore to access my baggage and I did not have a Singapore visa. I went to the Singapore Airlines counter to check if that was true. They advised me that if I had no checked in luggage then there should be no problem as I would not have to exit immigration. Very rational and logical indeed. I went back to Jet Airways and told them that since I had a small strolley bag I would carry it as hand baggage. They did not buy this argument saying that Air Asia did not have a transfer desk in the transfer area and hence I would have to exit the immigration. I rechecked with Singapore Airlines and they again told me that Air Asia had a transfer desk. Jet Airways was adamant and refused to take me. I was also told that there would be no refund of the ticket and I would only get the tax amount back. Air Asia did not refund even the tax amount. I had to go to Bandung for an important meeting and began to look at other options. Singapore Airlines was willing but they were asking for a fare of Rs. 96000 for a route which should normally cost about Rs. 35000 for the return fare. It was at that moment that our much cursed national carrier Air India came to my rescue. They gave me a booking for Rs. 36,000 with a comfortable exit row seat concerned that I was wearing knee braces. I vowed there and then that for domestic and international travels I would henceforth boycott Jet Airways and by choice prefer Air India which I have done more or less over the years. After 3 months of email exchanges with guest relations of Jet Airways nothing has come out and I am looking at the possibility of consumer action.

And now as I sit and write this at JFK airport waiting for my Emirates flight to Mumbai via Dubai I have witnessed another travel travail. I had a booking by a Delta flight from Washington DC DCA to New York JFK.  Flight DL 4217 was to depart at 6:35 pm on 16th April 2011 but the weather was bad and they kept announcing delays. By 7 pm they had cancelled the flight and when I asked them what about my onward international connection at 11 pm from JFK they said they could do nothing about that because that booking was a different one, having a separate PNR number. I requested them to contact Emirates and get me rebooked for the next day. They refused out right – this was an uncolored woman behind the desk (was it racism?). They in turn had booked me without consulting me for my JFK flight next morning at 10:55 am. Next I asked them if I would get hotel accommodation since the flight was canceled and I was directed to another desk. A non-colored man was at the desk and he said we don’t do hotels for weather cancellations. I walked away.

I went on the net and located the Emirates toll free number (what a relief that something like toll free exits!). I called Emirates and as one would expect it went to a call centre somewhere in India. Chrysil was on line and she said that their systems were down and she could not do anything. I apprised her of my dire situation but it fell on deaf ears. She said I should call back after an hour or so. By this time my bladder was bursting at its seams and I rushed to the restroom. I got back to the phone and dialed Emirates again and this time I got Dipti. I explained my situation and after half an hour of consultation she said that yes they would rebook me but first they wanted to speak to someone from Delta airlines to confirm that my flight was cancelled. I asked her why could she not check online the flight number to check its status. She said that for the record they needed a Delta staff to confirm that. Thank goodness I was at the airport otherwise where would I get a Delta staff, for instance if I was in a hotel room. I requested her to wait and ran to the Delta counter some distance away and requested one of the staff to help me with this. They outright refused, again a non-colored woman.

I came back to Dipti and told her that they were refusing to come on the phone and Dipti insisted that she could not take the process ahead without getting a confirmation from a Delta staff. Another half hour of pleading and non-responsiveness went on and I was about to hang up when I saw a colored staff member of Delta close by and requested Dipti to hold on. I told him my predicament and he went to the nearest counter to confirm that flight DL 4217 was cancelled and spoke to Dipti and assured her about the canceled flight. I thanked profusely Bernard the colored man. That done Dipti transferred the call to the amendment person Prasanna and he helped me with the rebooking and I expressed a sigh of relief. This toll free call lasted for nearly two hours – isn’t it amazing! Just imagine if I had to use my mobile, which fortunately did not work in the US, and talk that long.

I went back at the Delta desk to confirm my next days booking and to find out how I would get back my checked in baggage and I was told what I needed to do. Just as a chance I again checked about accommodation at the hotel and the friendly person across the counter smiled and said ofcourse and took my boarding card and got me a hotel voucher as well as meal vouchers. This jovial person behind the counter was a colored man! Too many coincidences to believe that it was not racism.

The story did not end there. I was allotted Holiday Inn but when I was getting into the hotel shuttle the driver said that there was no room at the hotel. He called again to reconfirm and the hotel said that they were overbooked. Back to the Delta desk and the same jovial colored man was there. I told him the situation and he apologized and called Holiday Inn to check with them. Bad luck! He tried other hotels and finally got the Courtyard Marriot in Alexandria and confirmed it for me. It was already 10:30 pm and I had been at the airport for 7 hours. He kindly offered to get me a voucher for the cab as he said that I had already waited too long.  I gave him a huge hug. His name was Alex.

Well the story goes on… I reached the Marriot and I was told that I had a booking but they would not accept the voucher and I would have to pay direct and claim a refund from Delta. It was 11 pm and I was exhausted not having eaten since 1 pm. I agreed and paid using my card. Well it was a five star hotel but their kitchen had closed at 10 pm so there was no food. I discovered that in my hand bag I had an apple so that was it.

Next morning back at the airport in DC I enquired about the refund for my hotel payment and I was sent from one person to another, given different numbers which I called and nothing happened. No one could guide me. I gave up and waited for my JFK flight. I arrived in JFK and took another chance at the customer services desk of Delta and here again I found a colored man named Michael. He listened patiently my story and took my documents and said he would go and meet some managerial staff. After half hour he got back and explained to me what I had to do and gave me another number to call. I was fed up by now but after lunch I gave the number a try and the voice on the other end Tracy, seemed experienced with such cases and she said that all I had to do was to mail the unused voucher and the receipt of payment at the Atlanta address of Delta and they would do the needful. I don’t know if Tracy was colored or non-colored but I guess she gave me some hope. Next stop a snail mail to Atlanta and soon another trip and another travel travail?
17th April, JFK - NYC

Monday, April 26, 2010

FIR Police and Post Offices

Recently I misplaced some important documents which included passbooks of various post office accounts. I inquired with the post office how I could get duplicate passbooks and I was told that I will have to file a FIR at the police station and obtain a NC from the police station. There was no other option I was told. When earlier I had misplaced my bank passbook, I just informed them and they gave me a new one and levied a small charge for that.

So I went to the police station to file a FIR and was told that I needed to go to a lawyer and get an affidavit on Rs. 100 non-judicial stamp paper which would have to be notarised. I went to a lawyer suggested by the constable and he charged me Rs. 300 to do the needful. I submitted the affidavit at the police station and they entered the complaint in their register and gave me a copy of the affidavit and asked me to go to one of their police chowkies to get the NC certificate. They refused to record the passbook for which I did not remember the account number and this became a problem for me. Anyway I went to the police chowky four times over two weeks and the concerned person was never found. I went back to the police station and they changed the name of the person I should contact. Two more trips and still I could not locate the appropriate person at the police chowky.

Frustrated I went back to the post office. At one post office the person handling the MIS accounts was considerate and agreed to issue the passbook against a copy of the affidavit, even though he made me make three trips to finally get it . They charged a fee of Rs. 10 for it. The other post office just refused outright until I produced the NC certificate. So I am still struggling with it.

This FIR and NC system is sheer harassment. The post office has all the id proof so why this harassing process. This needs to be changed. Where the police station is concerned people say that they will not give it till you grease palms. My contention is that if I make any payment I should receive a receipt. So this is a situation without a resolution. My next stop will have to be the highest authorities in the police hierarchy. Because our public systems work only by either bribing or using influence.

PS: Today I went back to the police station and met the inspector and told him point blank that it is one month and I have still not received the NC and inquired who was the next higher up I needed to talk to about this. He quickly ordered the sub-inpector to issue the NC immediately. So, another half hour wait and I got the document I needed. I thanked the sub-inspector who had an expectant look on his face while handing over the document. I took the document and waved it to the inspector and thanked him and walked out of  the police station.

Under the Knife and the Insurance Fraud

On April 1, 2010 I underwent surgery for my haemorrhoids, a long standing problem which now required radical treatment. In the past I used all pathies but things did not work out so excision was the only option. The uncomfortable part, apart from the post-op pains encountered in the loo, was that I was forced to resort to private care because the public health facilities in Mumbai are in real bad shape. When government employess and politicians dont have faith in them it was difficult for me to  take the risk. So I went to Jaslok Hopsital where a surgeon friend was attached and since I had insurance cover from my employment I thought the cashless policy would make life simple. But let me tell you the experience with both the hospital and the insurance company and their TPA is a nightmare. The cashless policy is certainly not cashless. The hospital does not trust the insurance company and they insist on a security deposit. So I had to pay a deposit of Rs. 10000 upfront on admission.

The surgery went off fine but the nursing care at Jaslok hospital was atrocious. The nurses are ill trained. They may be nice persons but their nursing skills are very poor. The first day after surgery I was on a drip and each time a new drip was attached, I would notice bubbles and had to stop  the drip myself until the nurse came back after I paged her. This was repeated and thus shows sheer callousness, besides risking the life of the patient. We cant blame the nurses fully because hospitals pay them miserably and hence the good nurses fly off at the first opportunity. On the flip side the food was good! Not much else to say about the quality and efficiency of the hospital. Even things like lifts take ages to come and patients have to wait endlessly and often in pain. Even though Jaslok is a Trust hospital its charges are phenomenal. And without informing you they even change charges. Completely non-transparent. My surgery cost me Rs. 60000, that is a whopping unit cost of Rs. 20000 for each haemorrhoid excised!! And this was supposed to be a minor surgery.

The insurance business let me tell you is a complete fraud. They say cashless but you end up paying a substantial amount because they dont sanction the full amount and dont assign any reason. And then you have to struggle with them to get them to pay as much of the bill as possible. In my case they made a final sanction of only half the amount and hence on discharge I had to pay half the bill, apart from the security deposit which I will be refunded when the insurance company pays the hospital the promised amount. And I was told this could take upto 2 months. Now that I have started a process of questioning the TPA and the insurance company this could even get prolonged.

Over two decades I have paid health insurance premiums totaling Rs. 3 lakhs. If I had put the premiums I was paying annually in a recurring deposit account the value today would have been over Rs. 10 lakhs. The capital would have been mine and this I could use when  needed for any such healthcare. No wonder the Singapore government does not trust insurance and instead opted for precisely this concept which they called medical savings accounts. So like PF you save a proportion of your income with a similar contribution from the employer and draw on that when you need it. I think thats a better option if healthcare has to remain an individual responsibility. Ofcourse the ideal would be to have a universal access healthcare system like Canada or UK or something similar to what Thailand has achieved recently.

So my suggestion is please dump health insurance as it is not worth it. In the absence of universal access it is wiser to save money which we would pay as premium in a separate account so we have control over the capital. To cover larger risks, life insurance with a critical care rider is a better option because the capital we invest remains in our name and a small mortality charge covers us for risk of the big diseases like cancers, dialysis, cardiac surgeries etc..

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mumbai University

The other day I was trying to locate my university degrees and transcripts and I realised that it was not in the box marked as important papers. Perhaps since no one ever asked for them in the last 25 years they are probably packed along with other papers in one of the large cartons, about 60 of them which contain books, folder boxes, papers etc.. Since I have only unpacked afew of them it is going to be a huge task hunting them.

So I thought why not try the University of Mumbai from where I have graduated. I thought it should be simple - give them the year I passed out and with my name they could trace my records and issue the duplicate certificates. Well I did go to he university. I spoke to some friends who are faculty there and they warned me that it would not be easy and that I should be ready to grease palms to get things moving - as a human rights activist something very difficult for me to do! Nevertheless I went to the Examination Building and after afew pillar to post searching reached the correct desk officer and was told - do I have a FIR from the police station, have I made an affidavit on a Rs. 50 non-judicial stamp paper? Well ofcourse I had not done that. And if I had done that then how long would it take? Well pop came up another question? Do you remember your exam seat number? They must be kidding - 1978 BA and 1980 MA and they wanted me to recall my seat number. I am no Shakuntala devi!

They suggested that I should contact the college and department to get that number and only then would it be possible and in case I was able to do that then it could take 3 to 6 months to process my application - I think it would be easier doing another MA to get the degree and marksheets! OOps I forgot I dont have my BA degree too so I would not be admitted to MA.

Well this is the state of the oldest and the most well known university of India - excellent place for historical research I guess! Anyway I think I have a greater chance of getting my certificates by unpacking the boxes and this time I will scan them and store them digitally.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pictures of the Leopard sighted near Sillari

Here are the pictures which Lubna has extracted from the video I took on the mobile - the only evidence we have of our meeting with the Leopard....

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Amazing Events.....

Today was indeed an amazing day. Well it was cloudy and cool weather with every possibility of rain and we decided to go out for a drive towards the Pench forest (Sillary side). Though the forest reserve area is closed  during the monsoon we nevertheless decided to go as the drive itself is through fairly thick forest even outside the reserve area. On the way, on the Nagpur-Jabalpur highway itself we saw a man who had parked his vehicle taking pictures and we slowed down to see what it was he was happily clicking away and we found a herd of deers rejoicing in the rain, literally jumping around in someones paddy field. The farmer was chasing them out. We tried to click pictures from our mobile but the distance was too great to capture a decent picture. This was indeed extraordinary and refreshing sight.

We next went to Sillari where there is a MTDC resort and restaurant and had pakodas and tea and later walked around in the forest near the entrance of the reserve. The sun had now set and it was getting dark and we decided to drive back home. Well here comes the real excitement.

Within two kilometers drive from the resort our vehicle lights found some shining eyes of a large animal. On first thoughts it appeared to be a cow but as we slowed down and came nearer we were in for a surprize of a lifetime. It was a LEOPARD. Unbelievable but true. We stopped the vehicle and in the head lights of the car we tried to snap pictures on our mobile phones. My brother in law had a camera but as it happens at such sudden moments it malfucntioned and did not work. In the headlight of the vehicle we could clearly see the leopard but because all our windows were shut the flash from the mobile phones were ineffectve and created a reflection from the glass of the windshield. So the photos were a flop. But our eyes and brains recorded one of the most amazing sights for over 15 minutes as we kept tracking the movement of the leopard with the car's lights. I tried the video mode of the mobile and we did finally capture some blurred images which we will try and edit and post it in a couple of days.

This was once in a lifetime kind of event and reminded me of two other similar experiences I had many years back. Once on a college study tour to the Tadoba Tiger reserve late eveninng as we landed in the forest, right at the entrance of the Tiger reserve, all of us in a bus, we sighted a tiger for half a minute or so as though he was there on the reception committee waiting to welcome us. Those days (1976) there were no mobiles and our khatak cameras were in our bags, so no photos. Then over the next two days in the forest we never saw our friend again. 

Then again in 1997 on a visit to some partner organisation in Raigad district (was working in Swissaid then) we were driving back to our hotel in the nearby town from a village visit and what we see on the bends of the ghat we were on a leopard climbinng down the hill towards the road we were on. The driver suddenly applied brakes and the leopard sped like lightning.

These sudden sightings are really breathtaking and become pleasant memories and against these my recent tiger sighting in June when we visited Kanha reserve where we were directed to a site on elephant back where a tiger had been cornered by a 3 elephants for tourists to come and view this, the excitement wasnt as great because somewhere it gave a feeling of stage management by the forest staff to please tourists so that they can spread the message that we had spotted a tiger at Kanha which would lead to more tourists going there and help the business of tourism. Do await photos in the next couple of days.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

e-Corner for random thoughts...

So many people I know have got into blogging so why not me.  So on this long Independence Day weekend the bug caught me and I ended up creating two blogs. The present one which would have personal and general thoughts and another one which would contain stuff on the issue of right to healthcare.

The good news I want to share is (actually I dont know if it is good or bad or otherwise) that I am back in Mumbai from September 2009. Have just bought a place at Mira Road and would be busy setting up things in this cosy 3BHK aprtment. Satjot too will be back in Mumbai after her many experiments at working from Bangkok to Ghassu ka Bas in Laxmangarh of Sikar district (the sasural of President partibha Patil). Since I left CEHAT in the X'Mas week of 2005 I have somewhere got grooved into doing a lot of work on budgets, governance and accountability, mainly capacity building across 12 countries in Asia from Afghanistan to China. For two years I did this with Action Aid International and since last year for the International Budget Partnership (IBP). From October this year I would be working for IBP on a fulltime basis out of Mumbai. So I am whole hog into budget and accountability for the next couple of years, this would ofcourse include the health sector as I have  helped IBP develop a Health and Budgets Training module which we piloted in July 2009 at Kumarakkom in Kerala with 30 trainees from 12 countries across the world.

Ofcourse I do continue to be associated with broad health issues, especially right to healthcare, health systems reform and financing, regulation and the private health sector etc..

So do keep peeping into this blog site for my random thoughts if they interest you....