No, Indigo. No

This might be a little long. Had an experience with Indigo that, I feel, needs to be shared. It may not be unique, but it highlights a couple of problem areas.

I traveled from Bangalore to Mumbai on the 24th of August with three bags – one standard laptop carryon and two check-ins weighing 23 kgs each. The allowance for international flights is 2×23 kgs. I was to travel to Canada from Mumbai on the 4th of September with Air France as carrier. When I presented my passport to the check-in counter at Bangalore, the customer service representive told me that the free domestic allowance was one carry-on of 7 kgs and total check-in allowance of 15 kgs. I was, obviously, 31 kgs over the allowance. I told her that I was traveling abroad for a reasonably long duration of time. She responded by saying that, in that case, I was permitted 35 kgs as an international traveller. She checked my onward ticket and asked me to pay the over-the-allowance charge for 11 kgs. I acquiesced. I travelled with no problems. Upon alighting in Canada, I found that all their modes of transportation are harmonized to the maximum weight allowance per bag of air travel (both domestic and international) i.e. 23 kgs. I’ve travelled by car, intercity bus and train.

I returned to Mumbai with the same carrier on the 14th of December, with the same number of bags and same weight. Based in Bangalore for the time being, I was to connect via Indigo 6E 212 from Mumbai on the 15th of December. I reached the check-in counter and apprised the customer service agent of my travel and connection. I also notified him that I would be over-the-allowance because I was connecting on international travel. He said okay and asked me to load my check-in bags for weighing. The estimate matched. To my surprise, he informed me that I was over-the-allowance by by 33 kgs. I asked him to check my travel documents and reminded him of the allowance I was provided at Bangalore on the way out. He said that was for international travel. I said – exactly; this is international travel too. He refused to check my documents. I had retained my boarding pass with check-in baggage details for Montreal-Paris-Mumbai the previous day. He insisted, rather unimaginatively I might add, that this is domestic travel. I asked him whether all international travellers who come in with their standard international allowance pay an exorbitant amount for their domestic connections. He said – Yes. His supervisor had come in by that time. I raised the issue to him. Same response – this is company policy. The Assistant Manager, a young lady, came over to log him into the payment module for my debit card. Same question. Same response. I suggested to her that there might be some error in interpretation. She said that there wasn’t. I paid a rather hefty charge. She had initially tried to suggest that the Bangalore agent had granted me a one-off. I told her – No, she accommodated me on her own, with no prompt from me. Then she tried to change tack and tried to indicate that she was in no position to discriminate or use discretion. That was when I gave up.

It does not end here. While waiting for my flight, I wanted to see how their online chat system responds to customer problems. I logged into the company’s website and soon got a representative to connect with me. I informed him of my experience and asked him why my international allowance was not granted on the return trip. To cut a long story short, he merely said – there is a different policy. I asked him what it was. My flight got called. I asked him for the contact of their customer compaint redressal before I take the matter to court. He said – Sure, I will help you. And he closed the chat window.

So this issue raises the question of harmonization, which I started off with. And the lack of a suitable response to a simple customer question which is to be expected, if this were indeed to be company policy. To be honest though, I don’t quite believe this could be legitimate company policy because it sends out a message of them being exploitative in a very selective way. Then there is the question of service quality – the chat disconnection just when I asked for compaint redressal. I could go on with a few more things, but I think this is enough.

I have travelled only with Indigo in India, over the past 5 years. I have no experience of situations with other carriers. I also think there is an issue with training of agents at the customer interface. But the Assistant Manager was no better. I don’t think they are to blame though. This is a management problem. In case it helps, the names of the Mumbai staff, in the order that I have referred to them are – Faiz Ahmed, Hakim and Paromita. The chat agent was Ramanpreet.

On a positive note, I sense a competitive opportunity for any domestic carrier seeking to establish international traveller preference for local connections (Upon checking online, Air India wins on this account giving precedence to the International Sector allowance). Though I cannot quite get how they have not thought of this before. What am I missing?

The only explanation I can imagine, if I am wrong above, is that this allowance differential between domestic-international and international-domestic has not been taken cognizance of by the Ministry of Aviation/DGCA, though I don’t get how it helps those who travel abroad starting with a domestic connection only to return to an asymmetry on the ending domestic. What are we hoping to achieve by this?

Thesis and Hypothesis

As a wave of anti-intellectualism appears to take over public discourse in the country, a few things I’ve often mused about come to the surface of my consciousness. Literacy levels in the country have gone up exponentially, and education appears to be its primary casualty. I’ve discussed this with a few people in the past. I tend to agree when they say that this is par for the course when one considers the democratization of education – more and more people are joining in. And the question I have is – are they equipped to deal with the information overload?

Take the example of the internet: the developed world, in particular Northern America, had a relatively gradual process of people getting wired and connected. And then they had a whole host of intermediate devices – mainframes, desktop computers, smartphones like the Blackberry,  and then onto laptop and the touchscreen smart revolution. Usenet groups existed a couple of decades prior to social media as we know it now. The people, under such an environment, could be assumed to be capable of handling information better. But, as commentary on sites like reddit and popular news media sites shows – there are a great many exceptions which render such an assumption moot.

If that be the case, how can one, speaking reasonably, expect the masses of a country such as India to be able to develop the necessary critical thinking faculties in an education system gone terribly wrong? I was led to think a bit about this while I tossed and turned, trying to sleep, after reading this comment on a sub-reddit that I occasionally follow:

Screenshot from 2015-10-04 23:23:03

Since I tend not to wait for REM under such circumstances, I figured it might help if I started with the introduction to a book (The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver) that I have in my queue. And, I found this:

(Speaking of the invention of the Gutenberg Press)…As was the case during the early days of the World Wide Web, however, the quality of the information was highly varied. While the printing press paid almost immediate dividends in the production of higher quality maps, the bestseller list soon came to be dominated by heretical religious texts and pseudoscientific ones. Errors could now be mass produced, like in the so-called Wicked Bible, which committed the most unfortunate typo in history to page: thou shalt commit adulteryMeanwhile, exposure to so many ideas was producing mass confusion. The amount of information was increasing more rapidly than our understanding of what to do with it, or our ability to differentiate the useful information from the mistruths. Paradoxically, the result of having so much shared information was increasing isolation along religious and national lines. The instinctual shortcut that we take when we have “too femuch information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.

I felt that this explained, in large part, what has been happening to us here. Large swathes of humanity, hitherto denied opportunities to participate in learning about the world around them, now find themselves connected to the WWW through cheap internet plans available on their equally cheap smartphones.

Screenshot from 2015-10-05 00:26:24

(Ericsson Consumer Lab: The Changing Mobile Landscape in India, 2015)

WhatsApp, Facebook, Viber, Telegram and the rest are available to spread (dis-)information faster than the ability of people to process it or assimilate what they have just learned and decide how to deal with it. They have not gone through the stages of acquaintance with the medium – understanding the pitfalls of trusting what is published and available on search. And, the education system has not prepared them to determine what are reliable and trustworthy sources and what are not. Needless to add, herein lies a chance for political opportunists of a certain ilk to capture their vote banks.

In a sense, it is no different from what Silver describes above. What I have not added here is that the invention of the press led to nearly four centuries of wars all across Europe – mostly religious. And then the world witnessed the light of the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century. The question I’ll sign off with is this – how do we move ahead from here, in India? How long will it take for us to realize that the political (and cultural) masters that we have so recently sworn allegiance to, are merely exploiting our ignorance and our inability to suss out what is worthy of our regard and belief from what is not?

Of Cabbages and Kings

My reading habit had gone into recession for a while, as I searched for something to hold my wandering attention. It seems to have returned with a vengeance over the past month, as I rapidly devoured two not-too-slim volumes on state malfeasance in international economics and finance.

I must confess, however, to being a neophyte – just starting to engage with ‘the dismal science‘. If these two readings are any indication of what lies in store as I delve deeper, I would like to believe that it would add another dimension to my education thus far.

The first was ‘Boomerang‘ by Michael Lewis – a merry romp through Europe and the US in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. Sharp and witty, it provided a delightful preamble to the more serious work that I followed it up with. You can read a chapter from the same at Vanity Fair, online, at the following link:

Beware of Greeks bearing Bonds

Doomsday titles can work for or against you, though I’d tend to think it is the latter. As I held James Rickards‘ ‘The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System‘ in my hands, I did reflect if I wanted to read something so dire-sounding (there is this tendency to walk away from apocalyptic and click-baity titles). And then, there is no dearth of writers who have been flogging a dead horse for quite many years, regardless of changes in the environment around them, the metaphor standing for a pet thesis or hypothesis or, as is usually the case, a crackpot theory. But something made me think otherwise and I decided to take a chance.

The truth be told, the book really isn’t much about a doomsday scenario as it is about a history of currency manipulations by the US, China, Japan and Germany exercising overweening leverage over the IMF post World War II, starting with Bretton Woods.

The book begins with a, admittedly incongruous (in the sense of the whole) but very interesting, preamble on the subject of an additional dimension to warfare – the financial, following the 9/11 attacks on the US. I understand that the point about insider trading on the airline stocks in the days preceding the attacks is not taken very seriously, at least in the public domain. But there could be another way of looking at it – that the US government would prefer that be the case such that its ‘Project Prophecy‘ stays subterranean (and, concomitantly, effective).

With that for starters, Rickards moves onto how competing economies (especially the US and China) have set the stage for an economic war of hithertofore unseen scale using trade (exchange rates) and acquisition of the ultimate hard asset – gold (China has been surreptitiously acquiring gold over the past couple of decades and is expected to declare its state of reserves this year, going by periodicity of past disclosures). He describes how China’s economy is a fragile construct ruled over by financial warlords gazing over ghost cities of real estate and infrastructure, driven by greed and fear. The section on China’s investment trap and wealth management products (WMPs) is an insight into growth gone awry (economists have long been wondering if the double-digit growth story is sustainable for a country of its size and we have some sense of an answer now – especially in the stock market crash of recent days and how it has managed to wipe out $5 Trillion of wealth in a day).

The book takes a curious detour to Germany and how it holds the key to stability in the Eurozone (it takes a bit of discrimination to suss out why Rickards feels that centralization of economic and financial activity in Europe is good while it has been terrible for Japan and the US; one wishes he were to have to have noted the natural question and taken a bit of time to explicate the reasons why), followed by a discussion of the EMEs and such like acronyms for potentially important economies.

The book tends to get increasingly interesting as it moves forward into standard economic theory – debts, deficits and fiat currency. It discusses the missteps and motivations of the Central Banks in doing what they have done over the past hundred years or so and, yes, we now see what happens behind the media reports and public signals and, possibly, why.

This is followed by a discussion on what I take to be his primary recommendation – a replacement of the USD as the global currency with fiat SDRs or gold-backed SDRs/notes issued by the Central Bank of the World – the IMF. There is an interesting little discussion on Complexity Theory (I’m rather gratified to note that he makes the distinction between what is complex and what is merely complicated – it’s a pet peeve of mine that people use these terms interchangeably).

I guess, in summary, the only weaknesses I could find ipso facto are those common to works that do a great job of describing difficult problems – the solutions. Rickards would like the whole edifice of international trade and finance to crash and burn so that we would be compelled to rebuild from scratch. While I tend to the same approach in my little private projects which go off-track, I don’t quite believe it is workable at any scale that impacts the lives of billions. Therefore, to that extent I can understand the machinations of the Fed and other Central Banks to keep the system’s nose above water.

It’s a great read and rather insightful. I’d give it 4/5.

In the queue:

The Improbability Principle by David Hand

Signal and Noise by Nate Silver

The Alchemists by Neil Irwin