Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Open Letter to Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises, he is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Dear Mr. Walsh,

I felt compelled to write to you one last time as I believe there is a dire need to remind you of your words from British Airways 2009 Annual Report, as your airline’s customer service continues to sink to new and hitherto unimaginable lows. “We will not let this crisis compromise our long-term goal – to create a world-leading global premium airline with a reputation for being the very best at meeting its customers’ needs.” Everybody makes mistakes but your staff’s attitude and lack of care, concern and pure arrogance after the poor experience we had is abhorrent and led me to make the decision never to fly BA again. However, BA again started courting me for my business a few months ago through numerous emails, letters and offers promising a new and vastly improved customer service and experience. It was this promise to woo back the countless customers’ it has no doubt lost over the last few years that prompted me to make one last effort to resolve the matter.

Once again I have had no joy from your Customer Service department. I corresponded via your website’s customer complaint mechanism, and initially Mr. B, from BA Customer Relations (as in 2006) sent me a response and then again there was complete silence when it came to actually resolving my issues. And this upon my supplying both clarification of the facts, and the supporting documents he requested; boarding cards and credit card statement, with e-ticket#, as proof of purchase (Fax dated: 2/2/2010).

In short, I never received what Mr. B himself promised me by way of apology in 2006, mileage credit to my wife’s account, nor did I get the refund/partial credit owed me from travel completed in 2005.

In summary our experience in 2005 is as follows: my wife and I were travelling New York-London-Dubai-London-New York with one full fare Business Class and one Premium Economy ticket. BA messed up our reservations causing us to miss our flight out of NY, then promised to upgrade my wife from London to Dubai, as there was no extra seat available in Business on the next flight, nor was my pre-booked aisle seat that I had on the original flight; so I too downgraded to economy from NY-London (and was promised a refund of the fare difference, which I was told would be automatically credited to my credit card within 60-90 days). Then your staff in London refused to honour the upgrade promise made to us by your staff in New York. Upon my seeking assistance from your London staff and getting the run around, frustrated, I finally asked who I needed to speak with in BA to help me, I was told, and I quote: “there is nobody in this airline that can help you.”

Sadly and truthfully, my expectation for resolution at this stage is virtually zero from both you and your airline, but I feel that in the end it is unhappy customers like me remaining silent that allow companies like British Airways to continue charging high premiums, while delivering subpar quality and service. Most importantly, our silence allows you to continue to treat your customers like cattle and take our business for granted. So consider this my way to stop turning my head and looking the other way, allowing companies like yours to continue the pursuit of profits at the expense of customers and everything else that matters. With this open letter, I am going to make every effort to ensure that the world is made aware of our less than poor experience and encouraged to do the same, through my personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter and all the various public and travel forums and discussions I actively participate in.

In my opinion British Airways, over the last decade has squandered its well earned reputation as “The World’s Favourite Airline” and become the “World’s Worst Airline,” and this from a customer who for years remained steadfastly loyal to your airline in the face of increased and better competitive options becoming available.


Sincerely,

Mr. Vaish

NOTE posted on 4th December 2010: I got a response from BA one month after sending this letter, and responded (http://bit.ly/cUp7HA) and of course have heard nothing back.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Up In Smoke

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Winston Churchill

There are things that are really and truly hard to give up, and then there is quitting smoking. Without a doubt the hardest thing I have done in my life. This post chronicles my journey and offers to serve as a pat on my back. I feel I deserve one, for kicking a habit that experts say is harder to kick than heroin addiction. That, in my book, deserves a self-congratulatory blog post. That said, this post is also dedicated to all those people who are trying, have tried or want to try to quit smoking. And before you get any ideas, I want to be clear at the outset that my intention is not to encourage anyone to quit smoking. I am not one of those irritating born again ex-smoker zealots who goes around preaching the health benefits of being smoke free. Or, worse yet, someone who feels compelled to shove down your throat the ills of smoking, at every opportunity they get. For those people who have absolutely no desire to kick the habit, I say, “smoke on, and let the nicotine flow!” However, to those who have not yet tried it, I will say don’t ever – the early joys are not worth the price you pay later in life, and I have witnessed this first hand.

I started smoking when I was fifteen years old for two simple reasons. First, it made my Bacardi and coke taste better and second, all the girls in school that I wanted to hang out with liked to hang out with boys who smoked. Of course, it helped that in those days you could smoke on the London Underground platform (no joke), buses, movie theaters and pretty much anywhere you could find a light. And more than anything else I actually enjoyed every drag of my cigarette, to the point that after the first month I no longer cared about looking cool anymore. I guess I was hooked to the physical addiction and this went far beyond the social ritual that came along with the cigarettes. For the next twenty-one years I enjoyed every moment of it, so much so, that people routinely told me that I looked like I was born to smoke because I appeared so happy and natural doing it. I realise this should not make me feel proud, but I did. I was never one of those people who ever wanted to or tried to quit smoking. Actually, I read somewhere in my teens that if you quit around the age of thirty-five, you can stop, and sometimes even reverse, the damage to your lungs. Whether it was true or not did not really matter, it was good enough for me. Besides at the age of sixteen, the word thirty not only felt like a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away, but also a few lifetimes away. So my decision was made; I would live life to the fullest, smoking, drinking and doing everything else my heart desired until my mid-thirties.

There was one time in college that I did quit smoking. It was based on a challenge issued by someone who did not believe my little theory, and more importantly found totally incredulous the fact that I believed I would simply be able to drop such a powerful addiction at a time of my choosing. Now, you should also know that I was no longer a causal smoker by this stage (Mom, please don’t read the rest of this paragraph.). I was smoking more than one pack a day at the time. Crazy, I know, but easy to do when you are partying 24 hours a day, and living on 1-2 hours sleep a night. Not being one to back down from a good challenge, especially one that entailed testing my will power; I not only offered to quit smoking for two months but also threw in the added difficulty of doing it during the most stressful time known to a student – end of semester exams. That same day I finished my open pack and started my two-month long tribulation against all the odds. I will not say it was easy but luckily for me I had a few things working in my favour. I am a Leo, love winning, and had been smoking for a short five years. I even carried my trusty Zippo around with me for the entire time, lighting everyone else’s cigarette and anything else I could find. The two months passed and I had won with relative ease, much to the chagrin of my challenger and the delight of my friends. As I celebrated my victory by getting ready to sample the pleasures of my first post challenge cigarette, my girlfriend at the time asked me the most ludicrous question – “Since you quit for two months, and at a time you most needed your addiction, why not just stop smoking altogether?” Women.

Fast forward to August 2006, I had been smoking for a grand total of twenty-one years (with only that two month break), and found myself suddenly staring my thirty-sixth birthday in the face, and showing little sign of being able to quit. My wife was one of the people who was in on my little plan of quitting ‘around the age of thirty-five’ and was also beginning to doubt I ever would be able to kick this habit. Turns out she was not the only one; my Doctor, my mother and my entire trusty friend circle seemed to have serious doubts, I realised, when they all began to suggest taking a new miracle drug called Chantix to fulfill my self professed promise. As much as I hate getting help from anyone, I am even more skeptical of brain altering drugs. I believe that if you want to do something, you have to make up your mind and just do it. For me this is the only real and lasting way and failure is also not an option for a Leo. So I decided to move to plan B. I knew I wanted to and had even made up my mind to do it, so the only thing that remained was finding a way to wean my body off the physical nicotine addiction, without the aid of drugs or patches. So I turned it into a challenge to myself and decided to find out what the most basic amount of nicotine my body needed to survive was. I started by cutting down the number of daily cigarettes, from 20 to 10 over a period of three months. At 10 I was doing perfectly fine with no crazy cravings. So I moved it to the next level and decided to smoke only when I was really, really dying to have one. As it turns out, my cravings that I could not live without were satisfied by 4 cigarettes a day; two in the morning, one after lunch and one after dinner. That was it. Just 4 measly cigarettes a day; I knew I could beat my addiction and have been completely (not even a drag) smoke free since 7th June 2007.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

When I grow up I want to be politician


"Crime does not pay…as well as politics.”
Alfred E. Newman

I want to do this because it seems to be the coolest job in the world. You get to travel, see the world, get your personal needs taken care of and have a group of “hangers on” doing your every bidding. You also have corporations and businesses courting you and paying for your family vacations and in many instances also paying to re-do or repair you home. I don’t think any other job in the world can compare. You also get a gold plated healthcare plan, which you can keep for life after working for a mere four years; you will not find this perk within any other corporation or company in the world. As if all this is not enough, it is also the only job in the world that has no retirement age…most often the older you are the better chance you have of getting the job in the first place. In fact, one could even create a persuasive argument to support the fact that this is the quite possibly the only job where senility can be a huge asset. Especially when it comes time to be questioned by your voters about how well you dispensed your job duties, and why you made some of the decisions you did. So why would I ever want to do anything else?

Granted, there is a small amount of work I would need to do, but that mainly entails traveling around the country, talking to people and pressing palms while allowing them to believe I am listening to their worries and concerns, but mostly just enjoying the sound of my own voice. The other aspect involves arguing with my colleagues about absolutely every topic, and then publicly disagreeing with anything the opposing party says. All the while deftly ensuring that the voting public is aware that I am always on their side, on every issue under the sun. I would also not be expected at the office while I am on the road. Be it to far-flung exotic destinations on critically important “research trips” that will help me make the lives of my constituents better. I might need to travel to the Polynesian Islands to witness first-hand the impact of local drug trafficking on the economy and how it might undermine the fundamentals of democracy. Or I might embark, at great inconvenience to myself, using a combination of military and commercial jets, to Copenhagen to protest the high levels of CO2 that are emitted into the atmosphere through our over reliance on jets. Of course, it would only be fair to take my family and friends along with me since my job demands being on the road so much that I rarely get to see them. And just because I care so much about the future generations, I might even bring along a group of young and impressionable school children to learn this valuable lesson on climate change, and perhaps awaken the same instinct within them to selflessly serve their country. To think that taxpayers grumble about these sacrifices and investments in future generations our politicians make. After having had a more sufficient view into and understanding of the personal sacrifices and grueling schedules these public servants keep, I am sure you are all empathetic enough to see why they deserve 16 weeks of vacation in a normal year. In 2008, one of the toughest years economically in the world, and since the Great Depression in America, they only worked a combined total of 103 days. I am sure they must have also quietly taken pay cuts along with their reduced workdays and workload for the year. To think that they did not even make a fuss or let us know about it…does this selflessness have no end I ask? So why would I want to grow up to be anything else?

I hear that the levels of stress can be very high in political life. The pressure of constantly being in the public eye and needing to have an understanding and expertise in a wide range of topics, from military defense systems to wild Iguana lizard co-habitation patterns, must take its toll on the poor little human brain. So, it’s not surprising that these noble people need to take a break sometimes, to get away from under our microscopes and maybe take a secret hike along the Appalachian Trail. Is that so wrong?

This pressure can also manifest itself in other ways from what I have seen. I, for one, cannot imagine being away from my wife and family for prolonged periods of time. We all say that long distance relationships are doomed to fail, so how do we expect these poor men and women to make them succeed? And this with the added pressure of having to juggle and solve not just multiple problems, but find solutions that will keep their corporate donors, special interest groups, lobbyists and, oh yeah, their constituents all happy at the same time. So I do not understand why we refuse to cut them some slack when they end up having sexual relations with staff members. Yes they are not their spouses, but are at close quarters 24x7 with them, helping them solve the biggest problems that face not just our country but also the world today. Especially when they more often than not try to quietly and privately sort out these types of problems, generously I might add, by paying for their lovers’ mortgages or by giving their lover’s parents a gift from their own hard earned money. Frankly, if their spouses don’t mind and will stand behind and beside them after the fact, then who are we to judge them or meddle in their personal affairs?

Politics is also the only profession in the world where candidates do not need any specific qualifications or prior work experience to get the job. Once elected the progression from this state of knowing little to nothing about anything, to becoming an expert on all things, concerning all people, is another fascinating aspect to which I'd like to be privy. My thirst for knowledge is great and I don’t see any other job in the world offering it in such a massive, rapid and wide-ranging way. The other aspect that has always fascinated me is that even if I accomplish nothing more than getting nominated by my party to a position that propels me into the national spotlight, and I never offer a coherent or substantive point of view on anything, or even finish my term of elected office – I can easily quit, write a book about having accomplished nothing and about being a quitter, get paid six figures to do speaking engagements on the subject of failure, and retire in two short years. Now, if that does not sound like an exciting job opportunity then I am not sure what will.

So, I want to be a politician someday because I know I too can make a tremendous contribution to society doing all the many wonderful things I just talked about, making all the mistakes I wanted, never having to apologise or resign. But the number one reason is that I can do all of these things, and you the taxpayers would be paying for it all – every paisa, penny and dime.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cause Célèbre

"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.”
Andy Warhol

Little did Mr. Warhol know how prophetic his words would be, and more importantly that he would be turning in his grave about how pathetic our definition of celebrity has come to be. Celebrity as defined in the Oxford English dictionary is: a famous person. The state of being well known. So while one can argue that the definition of celebrity has not changed, the respectability and synonyms that used to be associated with it have changed rather dramatically; namely, hero, luminary, notable, and personage. One used to associate celebrity with the heroes of science, theatrical luminaries, big names in sports, a notable of the concert stage or even a personage in the field of philosophy. And I seem to remember that talent also seemed to be an implicit part of the requisite. Clearly, these associations no longer apply or have been broadened pretty dramatically, to the point where they become completely meaningless, in my mind, when they include today’s’ reality TV stars. I admit that I feel ashamed and embarrassed to live in a society that not only lauds the likes of Charlie, Sheen, Tia Tequila and Omarosa but also consider them celebrities. If anyone among my reader population has been worried about 2012 being the end of the world, fear not because the apocalypse has been upon us for roughly a decade now, in the form of reality TV.


The sad truth of our more modern and civilised world seems to be that anyone who is willing to stand in front of a camera and rant or embarrass themselves in some way has become entitled to their 15 minutes by simply uploading it onto YouTube. The content and substance seem to mean nothing anymore, in fact a quick search of the most popular videos of the day will reveal that the most inane, asinine and meaningless ones are the most popular, by far. Anyone who has something useful or meaningful to contribute is lost in a sea of mediocrity and mirth. This sad realisation becomes even more depressing when one begins to realize that these mostly transient and meaningless bits of content are also being praised for the talent that produced them. While the digital world seems to be hastening this deterioration of cerebral pursuits, it is hard to ignore the fact that even among the ranks of the more bona fide luminaries today, there is a lot left to be desired both in terms of their lack of respectability and their contributions to society. The allure and mystique of the movie star and the stoic character of world leaders and politicians seem to be fading faster than we can type 140 characters.

As much as I love the ability for real-time updates and sharing that services like Twitter and Facebook have ushered in, I also believe that personal boundaries are still absolutely necessary. In fact, they are needed now more than ever before. So while I enjoy hearing about my friends’ latest escapades in a weekly or monthly dose, I equally have zero interest in knowing about the personal weekend antics of my Congressman from the 15th district of New York. 20% of politicians, who use Twitter, update their streams with personal information. Transparency in politics is great, but I am pretty sure this is not what America’s forefathers had in mind. Granted there is much greater access to personal information today. The glare of the media spotlight is much stronger and the newsmen might be less disciplined than they used to be. Still, people have the ability to control and limit what they do and say both in public, and in response to vapid accusations, salacious rumors and torrid gossip in the press. Take Denzel Washington, for example. I applaud his decision to keep his private life private. Being such a huge star, if he can obsessively limit the amount of personal information that trickles into a morbidly curious world, then I have to believe so too can others to a greater degree than they tend do today. Sadly, discretion no longer seems to be the better part of valour, today.

Another concern is our increasing tolerance for what is deemed acceptable and responsible in our society. The level to which our standards have diminished to an alarming degree is obvious when we laugh, sigh and simply turn the page at Madonna’s latest hobby, that of adopting (buying) children from different parts of the world. Or when we seem perfectly content to move on with a minor slap on A-Rod’s wrist for what amounts to cheating by taking steroids, albeit earlier in his career. And that it took the reckless and criminal endangerment of a child, in the Balloon boy saga, to finally create some semblance of public outcry. The lengths people are willing to go to gain their 15 minutes of fame is a sad testament to the state of our society today. Even crashing the White House’s first State Dinner seems only to be shocking because it might have endangered the President and Indian Prime Minister (who is no. 1 on most terrorist’s hit lists). And perhaps this is in part because the lines have become blurred between reality, and politics. For one it seems that good, bad or ugly the type of publicity does not seem to matter; reality TV aspirants just want their payday and politicians their name in the headlines. From Sarah Palin’s mudslinging family feud, to Governor Mark Sanford’s tell-all affair, or Tom Delay’s turn as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, to a stand-up comic being elected to the US Senate from Minnesota. One wonders when these two worlds will collide or worse yet that they already have and we are just too jaded to have noticed. In fact, I just heard that two former Real World contestants, Sean Duffy from Real World Boston and Kevin Powell from Real World New York show, are considering runs for Congress. As I ponder this, I realise that my initial shock and outrage has begun to fade, and acceptance fills this space. I cannot help but wonder if they might actually do a better job than our politicians in either party have been able to do.

Friday, November 13, 2009

To Close or Not to Close…

"They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.”
Benjamin Franklin

The word Guantanamo has become synonymous not with America’s War on Terror or her defense of the ideals of freedom but with un-democratic prison camps. A place where enemy combatants are held indefinitely, without charge and even denied Geneva Convention rights as well as access to and representation from council. They are in a state of limbo. In fact, Guantanamo Bay is not even located on American soil, so it is fair to say that they are also in a place of limbo, where the long arm of US Federal law and the greatness of her democratic principles do not apply. There is little argument today that while Guantanamo served to hold men with no status and no criminal charges, it has served greater purpose in damaging America’s moral standing in the world and sullied her reputation as a great democracy. It’s difficult for the US government to tell other nations to free prisoners who are being held for “treason” against their government when the US herself holds men with no status, even if they are not American citizens or political prisoners. I am sure there are those among you who feel it is a small price to pay, to keep America safe from men who seek to harm her and inflict untold damage to her property and people. But to my mind the argument for closing Guantanamo needs to go far beyond a debate simply between liberal or conservative ideologies and their corresponding positions on national security. To my mind the discussion around closing Guantanamo should focus on one thing – and that is whether its continued existence will erode the very heart of the democratic ideals on which this country has been built, and the reason why it remains the most democratic superpower even today.

At first blush my statement might seem ridiculous, to suggest that the fundamentals of American democracy might one day suffer based on the existence of a prison camp on some forty-five square miles of land and water. But a look back at recent history will tell us that these types of actions in a democracy, which may seem small or inconsequential at the time, have a tendency to grow and expand over time and power always gets abused by people. So even the most well-intentioned laws created to protect national security or citizens from evils the world faces cannot be allowed to exist outside the existing framework of the laws of the land. They should be contained and able to operate within the confines of existing laws, even if there is a need for enhancements or amendments based on the realities of the dangers we face today. The moment a nation feels compelled to go beyond the existing legal framework and begin to create a separate one, and most often one that is also shrouded in secrecy, we begin the slippery slide into a murky world where the blindness and impartiality of justice can never prevail. Simply because there is no transparency and because government lawmakers become the sole indictors, enforcers, judge and jury. A true democracy holds itself to higher ideals. A great democracy does not need to operate in the shadows.

One argument that was been forwarded by the US government, for opening Guantanamo Bay, was that these modern day terrorists are more evil than the evilest of men. Suggesting that these men are somehow more evil and more bent on destruction than evil men in generations’ prior, so the need arises for another system of incarceration. Well, I for one have still not witnessed greater evil than Adolf Hitler. The fact that he managed to seduce an entire nation into his sickness and delusion, got them to look the other way and many to actively participate in his cold blooded murder is more than Osama Bin Laden has come close to doing in attracting a handful of illiterate, misguided and poverty-stricken youth. The terrorists of today don’t even come close to the sheer lunacy, audacity and barbaric nature of Hitler’s Germany and their plans to systematically and methodically wipe out an entire race of people. The point is that given the heinous nature of Germany’s crimes, as atrocious and inhuman as they were, it elicited a response from the world where those individuals held responsible were tracked down, arrested, charged and then punished in a court of law. A court that operated within the confines of a democratic process, before the public eye where justice meted out and served in broad daylight. The other important point about the Nuremberg trials is that the legal framework for prosecution of the War Crimes came about after discussion, debate and finally agreement between all the Allies. It was not a unilateral decision or one led and defined by a single country or government. Sure WW II was global and involved most every large nation but is this not even truer of the war against terrorism? These terrorists recognise no geographical boundaries; they represent no state or flag and care not what colour, race or religion they kill. Surely, America does not believe that she alone faces this nameless, faceless and stateless enemy?

In fact, America, unlike a host of other nations has not faced terror on her soil for very long. Mainly, because of her geographical location, which makes it hard for would-be terrorists to penetrate her borders with weapons and because of her population, which makes it harder for these men to blend in and disappear. Consider for a moment the list of countries that have had to deal with and even today live with terrorism on a daily basis, largely because of the geography that surrounds them and the history that transpired before them. This list includes India, Israel, Russia and China, and what I find interesting is the way each country has chosen to deal with the problem. Both India and Israel have dealt with homegrown and external terrorism since their independence, some 60+ years ago. Both have borders that are easy to penetrate and hard to police. Both have complex multi-denominational populations and thousands of years of history behind them. Both are democracies and proudly uphold and cherish their democratic freedoms and ideals. And both have lost untold life to terrorism over dozens of years. Yet both these countries continue to use the existing legal system to try, prosecute and convict terrorists, successfully. Sure, there are often issues of national security involved in these proceedings and they are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Exceptions are made as needed but they never deviate or feel compelled to set up a parallel system of justice purely to try or incarcerate these terrorists. They convict them in a court of law based on the evidence against them, give them due process and a chance to defend themselves, just like the Nazis had and for the same reason – because this is what fundamentally differentiates us from them. Now, consider on the other hand the China’s and Russia’s of the world, both countries that consider themselves democratic, in some form or another, albeit the term is considered used loosely in the eyes of the rest of the world. Both face similar problems with internal and external terrorism, yet the manner in which they deal with them is completely different from India and Israel. It involves subterfuge, secret courts and trial proceedings, media blackouts, no access to council and mostly all of it conducted deep in the shadows of their so-called democratic processes and far away from public eyes. There is a reason people do not cite Russia or China as examples when they talk about democracy and democratic principles, but instead talk of their shady human rights record. A state that has a transparent legal system for one type of criminal offences and a second, hidden and shadowy system for other types of offences can never be considered democratic because there can only be one set of rules and interpretation of them for everyone, the law of the land. Justice must always be blind. The moment one feels the need to take off or slightly open the blindfold, even just a little bit, one begins to compromise this basic principle. And it is this principle that separates true democracy from the pretenders of Russia, Iran, China, Egypt and so on. So the US decision to leave open or close Guantanamo Bay’s prison camps will determine which type of democracy she chooses to be associated with in the future.