Air India at JFK: A customer-service disaster

Friday morning was an early morning trip to JFK to pick up Shirrin who was returning from a 5 week trip to India. She was on the non-stop from Bombay to New York. The flight was supposed to come in at 7 AM. The previous night before hitting the sack I checked on Air India’s site and they said scheduled landing was 7:33 AM. So I get up in the morning and make my way to the airport to be there around 7:30 AM. Time was of critical essence as we had to be somewhere at 8 AM for a very important official appointment. Reach the airport and the annoucement board says “FLIGHT DELAYED” and the time expected shows 7:13 AM.

There is no one at the Air India counter at Terminal 4 till about 7:50 AM. I call up Air India and all I get is a recorded voice. The recording says that it was made the previous day and that Air India’s morning flight will land at 7:33 AM. Its 8 AM already and there is no sign of flight or someone who can tell us where it is. To add to the weirdness, my mother in law has been on the SMS with me and she checked with Air India and they told her in Bombay that the flight already landed at 7:15 AM. So that adds another layer of confusion.

Finally around 8:05 AM two people show up to man the counter at the Arrival Lounge. A lot of people gather there and questions are asked and we are informed that the flight is on the radar and will land soon. OK, good enough; right ? Nooooo….if you thought so, you are so wrong.

A few minutes pass and someone asks them again and they talk into their radios and say that the flight may now be landing at Newark (EWR) because of the bad weather and traffic. That sends a collective “WTF” groan around the airport. From JFK to Newark at that time of the day is at least 90 minutes by car. However this is not confirmed news so they ask us to wait.

Someone from the crowd of nearly 30 of us calls Newark to find out if the flight is going to land there. And they get a negative. So back to the Air India guys. Where is the flight ? More radio talk and now they tell us that the flight was on the radar but now it is not and they dont know where it is. I was like “Be#$#%*…..that’s the stupidest answer you can give”. People are flipping out. Someone hypothesizes that since this is such a long flight, it must be nearly out of “petrol” and now if they cannot find the flight means something bad has happened. Someone else says that sometimes when flights have less “petrol” they land in Miami. So that brings another layer of complication.

Some dude already calls up his relative in Miami and asks them how far they live from the airport and if they can go to the airport and check if there is an Air India flight.

Luckily someone I was talking to said he had a laptop in his bag. And wifi access too. So I requested him to get out his laptop and navigated to the Port Authority website and that gave us an accurate status, saying the flight was on approach at 3100feet and would land at 9:04 AM. After a few minutes the flight status got updated to flight landed at 9:10 AM. That got another collective sigh of relief in the terminal.

Finally at around 9:20 Shirrin called from her cell while they were still in the aircraft and people around me were more excited to see me get my wife’s call than I was. This was proof enough for them that the flight was actually on JFK.

So that ended a few hours of high packed drama.

What was appalling in this whole scenario was:

1) Air India did not have their own staff to man the counters. The rent-an-employees that were there were uselsss. They could not even get their basic info right.

2) Air India’s phone support system is even worse, with no human to answer the calls and a voice greeting which says “I am 12 hours old, so dont waste your time listening to me”

3) How people’s ignorance and panic can cause wildfires of information to spread so fast. In a matter of minutes Shirrin and her flight had gone from being on the radar, to Newark to Miami to missing in space to back at JFK. Maybe Air India can use this incident and advertise space and time travel too.

Why, one wonders can our national carrier not be professional, accurate and exact as it is expected and should be. I think the time is ripe to take the airline out of nationalisation and give it back to the original founders….the TATA’s and they will lick it back into shape.

One Comment

  1. Vinod July 14, 2010

    You are quite right about Air India’s ‘customer service’. The employees think that they can treat the customer in whatever way they want. And they will not lose their jobs because it is it freaking ‘nationalized’ sector. It is time that the Airline goes to private sector.

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