Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Reached San Francisco – but my baggage didn’t!

Well, I finally made it to the west coast of the US. Such a long flight, but fortunately, I wasn’t feeling tired at all. If anything, I was wide-awake, fresh, and raring to go!

After deplaning, I realized that my checked-in baggage hadn’t arrived from JFK airport. The airline had checked my baggage right through till San Francisco, from Chennai. But looks like it got lost in the big JFK airport! Anyway, true to the American customer service tradition, the airline officials jotted down the details, and even tracked my suitcase down electronically. They even showed me the photograph of the type of suitcase that I was talking about, from a slew of designs of suitcases!

I exited the terminal in the knowledge that my baggage would reach me at the hotel the next day. And outside the terminal, I had my first glimpse into how infrastructure, and support services in and around an international airport can make life for a foreigner so much easier. I am talking about a shuttle service to the hotel that I was to be housed in. There was a Hotel Shuttle Bus Stop and scores of vans and shuttles from different hotels flocked in one after the other to pick up people from the airport to their hotels. It was such a brilliant way to accommodate customer needs right from the minute that they decided to book their rooms in these hotels. While I initially didn’t know that these shuttles operate in blocks of half hour (one trip to the airport every 30 minutes), I noticed a public phone booth with extension numbers to these hotels. I called up the hotel that I was supposed to go to and in a matter of 3 minutes, the hotel shuttle turned up. Impressive! Its just amazing how customer service is so brilliantly done in this part of the world. Its just amazing. While these things may be a given for the average westerner, for somebody used to “negotiating with” with local cabs and auto rickshaws back home, these sorts of experiences are in a different league altogether! And it makes one learn so much more and become richer by the experience.

For the rest of the trip, I used this shuttle service from the hotel to the airport, and from thereon, the local train to scout the city of San Francisco, and indeed a lot of California. The public utilities and transport systems were just outstanding! I had absolutely no problem in figuring out my ways around this big city; the maps were accurate to the T; the routes to be taken to reach different places were accurate; the schedules of inter-city trains were on the dot each and every time; the schedules of connecting buses were hassle-free; most of all, there was complete ease of travel, lack of pressure, systematic, regulated and highly efficient transport systems, which made my stay so memorable. I didn’t even have to look at the clock and wonder if I am going to be charged double the rate like all of us are charged, back home after 10 p.m!These systems here operate at the same level of efficiency, are free of human interaction and are available at standard tariffs 24 hours a day. Nobody to cheat you, nobody to fleece you, and nobody to misdirect you.

Anyway, got to my hotel, to experience yet another great service experience. Complimentary high speed internet! That helps!

JFK Airport & New York City

I am back in the big city after exactly one year. And the exhilarating feeling that buoyed me in 2005 has resurfaced. While I am not about to exit the terminal, as I have only 2 hours, the sheer pulse of the city is visible right at this incredibly busy JFK international airport. The fact that New York city is the world’s melting pot is epitomised by its airports and the sea of humanity that converges there. Multiple dialects, multiple currencies, multiple cultures, multiple views, opinions and feelings are all available in one place. It just amazes me no end as to how this city has the power to integrate, digest and absorb such diversity into its fold every day of its life. Incredible!

I have been running from gate to gate, as the terminal from which my plane was scheduled to take off has been changed to some other terminal. And the airline officials at the new terminal are waiting for me with a smile (unlike the usual grumpiness that lateness is normally associated with!). One of the highlights of seeing what customer experience is all about, was when I boarded the flight to San Francisco at the JFK airport. The captain of the plane walked down the length of the aircraft, greeting everyone in the plane with a beaming smile, talking to them about the weather in Sfrisco, how the day was and what plans he has for the flight. Simple, yet an incredible lesson of how customer service can be replicated in the manner we do it at home i.e. if someone visits us, we spend the first few minutes greeting them, smiling at them and talking of general things. That’s exactly what the captain did, a la customer service style. Every time I come to the US, and every time I fly these airlines in this country, the quality of customer service just keeps getting better. You may recall the amazing experience I had with a delayed flight last July at Memphis airport (again on a flight out of New York City!).

As for JFK airport, well, I guess I have this to say. Based on what I had heard from my dad all these years, that there is a flight departing or arriving at the JFK airport every two minutes, I can only say that it’s the reality of the day. Two minutes is a long time at JFK airport. The various management lessons I learnt of scheduling, operational efficiency in providing better service, speed of delivery, were all visible to me at the JFK airport. Lines of aircraft stood one behind another waiting patiently to take off, one after the other. No blaring of horns that I am accustomed to back home!

Next to me is an old lady, who is alternating between sleeping and reading a Spanish book! Am off to sleep now. Should be reaching San Francisco by 10.30 p.m.

Day 1 – Chennai to Paris

I am writing this as I am sitting in Paris airport. It was a long flight from Chennai to Paris and I slept through most of it. I thought I’d have an interesting neighbour, but ended up with an Indian national settled in Paris and he was old hat! And a touch serious! So, I thought I may as well catch up on my lost sleep, considering that I was beating a deadline through the week, having sleepless nights getting approvals, travel documents, print outs of every discernible document that I needed (two copies each, lest one of my baggages doesn’t turn up when I land in the US). So, I slept through the flight.

We reached Paris an hour ago and as soon as we got into the bus, the modernity, technology, systematic approach to life in the wild west hit me rightaway. There was this bus that we had to board and reach the transit terminal to catch the connecting flight to New York. The manner in which the documents were checked, the way the bus was structured, the procedures followed to help the old people into the bus with specialized systems was just a glimpse of the attention to detail that westerner adhere to.

I got to the terminal, and after the security check and then baggage check (for a second time) by a hot French blonde, I entered the waiting area in the terminal. Clear-cut messages of the schedules of various airlines to various destinations in the world were the first thing that hit me inside the terminal. For the first time in my life, I noticed a public phone where I could use my own credit card and call anywhere in the world (I had heard of call collect and the usual ISD or IP phone, but this was different. telephonic model!)

I then scouted around the airport terminal across various duty free shop which were replete with the best booze possible (even a teetotaler like me could appreciate the variety on display!), scores of porn magazines, foreign exchange counters, a café that had the typical French toast, croissant and butter! Not to miss, the terminal was of course full of very good-looking women(charms of travelling!).

Well, as I am typing this sitting in this Paris airport, two Indian girls sitting next to me are speaking aloud about life in the US, life back in India, the learning experience, college education etc. While I am never one to eavesdrop, the volume of the voices of these two girls is so high that even if one doesn’t want to hear them, it comes and hits the ear straight!

Well, its another two hours for my flight. Let me scout this terminal a bit more and add to my international exposure?!!:)