René Seifert

Entrepreneur, Global Citizen, Flat World, Internet, Web 2.0, Innovation, Start-Up

Archive for July, 2007

Sri Lanka: Cuddling Couples under the Umbrella

I find this a lovely story that deserves to be told. And that’s the picture to the story.

Galle Fort "Reeperbahn" ;-)

Ignore the tower in the background, it’s all about the little colourful spots aligned neatly on the walls. These walls belong to the former colonial Dutch Fort of Galle on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. Hidden beneath each umbrella, there are boy and girl. As Mother Natures has designated it, young loving couples. As culturally it would be completely unthinkable for them to bring their boyfriend or girlfriend respectively to their parents’ home, this place has become their secret get-together point. Or given the notable number of couples no longer so secret. Hence the ubiquitous umbrella, to at least provide that little intimacy under which they are cuddled closely together. Everything by western standards very decent, I haven’t seen anybody kissing at all. (Here is, by the way, the full-blown picture in high resolution.)

Ranjith, the Sri Lankan guide who had lived 5 years in the 70s, jokingly explained: “This is the Reeperbahn of Galle.” Reeperbahn is the notorious red light district of Hamburg in the north of Germany, where a lot of activity happens outside on the street, too. Here in Galle, I miss the red light and I don’t believe that anybody is paying anything to anybody. Still, “Reeperbahn of Galle”, was a good laugh :-)

First Reaction from SriLankan Airlines

Well, well, there is some movement in the case and the first reaction after 4 hours already. Like in good e-mail style, please read bottom-up. At the bottom is my e-mail to SriLankan Airlines, and above their first response which went cc as well to the Personal Assistant to the CEO. Will keep the posts in case I get a substantial response as they promise. Let’s wait and see.

Just on another note: What is an adequate compensation for just letting passengers on the ground? In order to not appear just corrupted for money, I would like to elaborate a few thoughts on that: As I wrote, US-$ 40.- I do consider entirely ridiculous. So what would be adequate? First, there should be the feeling that there is a fairly “divided pain point” between the passenger and the airline. As I wrote, given the economics, exactly the opposite is the case because in such a model, the airline always has the incentive to largely overbook. Hence, you feel being entirely at the SriLankan Airline’s mercy where they can arbitrarily foist their will on you. I guess that’s a very bad piece of experience. Second, what is adequate in terms of value, given that I paid for the return ticket app. US-$ 200.- ?

Why not take the pressure out of the discussion and make it rather non-monetary like. “Come back to Sri Lanka soon, you flight is free. Just book 2 weeks in advance” or so. In case there is free capacity, which is more often the case than not, the marginal cost for taking a passenger on board for an airline are minimal. That’s something where I’d say: “Ok, let’s do it that way and all anger forgotten.”

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Dear Mr Seifert

We acknowledge receipt of your mail.

While apologising for the events that made travelling with SriLankan an unpleasant experience, we kindly request you to await a further response from us.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely

Olu Abeyasena

Executive Secretary

Customer Affairs Department

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Dear Sirs,

Please find beneath my experience on your airline last weekend which I allowed myself to make public on my blog as well here:

http://www.reneseifert.com/2007/07/srilankan_airlines_sucks_worst.html

I would be very pleased about a response from your end. Just one request: I took the time and effort to write in much detail and reflection. So if you intend to reply, a qualified response would be indeed warmly appreciated. In case, however, you intend to continue with you learned-by-heart mantras of customer anaesthetisation like “we understand your situation and we are extremely sorry for the inconvenience caused, bla, bla, bla”, then you better save us both another disappointment.

Best regards from Bangalore
René

SriLankan Airlines sucks: Worst Airline ever

Last weekend in Sri Lanka was beautiful, and I intend to come back, yet certainly not on the national’s carrier SriLankan Airlines. And I dare to say, flying more than 200,000 miles a year on various airlines that SriLankan Airlines is the worst, least reliable and most unprofessional I have ever come across. One might tend to be apologetic and say, well, it’s a developing country, so what do you expect. But it’s not that simple: SriLankan Airlines has a proclaimed widespread international network, Colombo being its hub and hence competing with other hubs in the region like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Therefore, SriLankan Airlines intends to play in the Premier League, hence it must be judged by the rules of the Premier League.

What happened? I flew from Bangalore to Colombo on Friday and had a confirmed return flight on Sunday late afternoon. Arriving in time at the airport, I wondered that there was a queue of people at only one counter and hardly anything was moving on and no communication on whatsoever. Finally, the crowd gathered in a cloud in front of the counter and wanted to know what’s up. The alleged supervisor of the airline ground crew floundered something like “flight by 20 percent overbooked, 22 more people than seats, we have only very few seats left.”

Let’s briefly discuss the metrics of airline capacity booking which is a hell of complex thing. Airlines overbook by default because the experience has demonstrated that many passengers don’t show up. Fair enough, you don’t want to fly with empty seats on a regular basis. On the other hand, as an airline you are riding a thin line in the probabilistic space in case that basically everybody who booked actually shows up. Professional airlines like Lufthansa have a very transparent method of handling that situation: Passengers are asked openly who would like to stay back, get a nice compensation (a few hundred Euro) and a good hotel. Usually, the situation can be cleared to everybody’s satisfaction.

SriLankan Airlines, however, has a totally different approach to it. In the first place and in our concrete case, the plane from Colombo to Bangalore was almost fully booked with incoming transit passengers from other destinations who would change to their connecting flight to Bangalore. You remember: Premier League player, big balls and stuff, international airline and cool. So the “probabilistic space” of possible no-shows did not apply because they knew that these people would be in for sure to Bangalore, because they were already in other planes on their way in to Colombo. So, question number one: Why did Sri Lankan Air not take the effort to call the passengers who were booked for only the leg Colombo-Bangalore and ask them if they were willing to stay a day more. I would have answered: “Sure, fine, so one more day on the beach.” No, no, but what they do: They let their paying cattle gather in front of the check-in counter and make idiots out of them.

Transparency of the process? Forget about that. It was obvious that people who were somehow personally connected in the airline got preferential treatment and got on board. And there was at no point a straight-forward word from the alleged “supervisor” who was staring in her screen and rocking for alibi-action into her keyboard in order to avoid confrontational discussions. When it became clear that quite a lot had to stay on ground, of which many from Colombo simply went back home, there were seven of us who were told that we would get a hotel for the night and a “compensation”. For that we would just have to fill a “voucher” where it turned out that we would get 40 US-Dollars which can be used to purchase SriLankan Airline-tickets. The “voucher”, however, turned out to be in the first place a waiver for all claims against the airline for any damages or indemnifications suffered from the non-transportation. This really hit the roof. As chance wants it, among the seven four of us were quite smart businessmen and we started to protest to sign-off our souls in that way for 40 f*** Dollars.

For the average Sri Lankan, 40 Dollars might be a lot of money, but for someone in business from the west that’s ridiculous given the hassle plus loss of earnings for a day. So out of principle, us four refused to sign this paper. Instead we called for the senior supervisor who should have been there anyway to handle the situation from the beginng. And this guy, by the name of D.J. Ahmat (Senior Airport Services Supervisor) behaved like the biggest sissy, coward and girlie-man I have ever come across. When we started to give him some “tough love” about the nature of his airline, the insufficient compensation, the unprofessional communication and asked him where we can sue the company, he was almost in tears saying: “My hands are tied at the moment, these are the rules the company has set up”, hiding in organization inertia and displaying utmost level of irresponsibility for his customers. Like everybody does at Sri Lankan Air, by the way, as I’ll come to explain later. However, he promised that all of us would get a nice hotel and for all of us the tickets would be ready at a quick check-in counter the next day and our seats would be confirmed-confirmed to finally reach Bangalore.

Hotel Tamarind Tree was ok, no complains about that, but using the lost time somehow productively, I started to do the maths. The “voucher” of $40 plus hotel and food altogether might cost the airline $80. Which is a great bet, because the bank (=the airline) always wins. Think about that for a moment. Instead of keeping somehow to your real capacity, you always overbook by a huge margin so that you are always full, especially with transit passenger from abroad who are paying flight rates on western price-levels. The deterrent for the airline on the flipside given $80 per rejected passenger is negligible. The clue: This only works well as long as you are in a banana republic like Sri Lanka where you as an airline know that a “voucher” of $40 will be considered adequate by local measures and there is no way that in front of an abysmal jurisdictional system you will be forced to pay a higher indemnification. Hence, you just deep-dive into collective ignorance and overbook, overbook, overbook. (The manager of the hotel Tamarind Tree actually confirmed that SriLankan Airlines sends a lot of people like this to his place on a daily basis.) So as Sri Lankan Air you simply give a shit about the people you leave on the ground for the sake of your profit maximization. Even myself as an entrepreneur, I have to admit: Karl Marx with was painfully right describing the only real intention of “the capitalist”.

But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end here. The next day, the cattle were brought back to the airport and went straight to the promised quick-check in. And indeed, the tickets for the flight were prepared. Surprisingly, however, only for those three who has signed the “voucher” (=waiver). And the lady started to ask us other four: “Have you actually signed this voucher yesterday? Otherwise I can’t give you the ticket.” This really made the glass overflow: There was shouting, yes, and there were f*** words, too, and the immediate request to speak to the highest available service manager for immediate action and handing us out the “f*** boarding passes”. Given the front of collective well deserved aggression and after a few panicked phone conversations, the woman gave in and gave us what we had actually paid for already for one day before. Conclusion: SriLankan Airlines not just denies you what you have purchased, i.e. a confirmed flight on a given day, but attempts to blackmail you in case you don’t buy into their lame deal. That’s really the pinnacle of everything I have ever experienced in the service industry.

Especially, the above mentioned D.J. Ahmat (I don’t actually think that as a “D.J.” he’s responsible for the music in a club; they just take cool people for that) should really have made sure after the scene on the airport the day before that all the tickets according to his promise for the next day would be ready. But not, as he’s a sissy, coward and girlie-man, and his “hands are tied” he just lets it fall one more time into the gap of a big organization thinking: “Well, my shift tonight is over, let the morning shift handle it.”

We are almost through. What I find important to emphasize is that my harshest criticism is not directed towards the mere overbooking. That per se can happen. It’s about exploiting the particular underlying economics by SriLankan Airlines to drive this habit to the absolute extreme. Moreover, when you are affected as a passenger: to make a bad situation even worse by incompetent, unprofessional and irresponsible staff. The extent to which these people hide behind responsibility and refuse taking ownership of a problem, can well be called “systemic organizational failure on a large scale”. It is obvious that I will never ever use this airline again, but expressing this with a supreme attitude would just make me fall prey to ridicule. So the reason why I took the time to write about it in detail and put it up my blog publicly is my belief that such a situation can only change if the reputation of Sri Lankan Air gets systemically tarnished by just truthfully telling how they behave. And then let the word spread so that educated consumers make their available choices. If that pain in terms of lost revenues becomes too strong, then, and only then such an aloof apparatus will begin to change direction.

I have forwarded that text to the “customer service” of SriLankan Airlines as well as to their CEO Peter Hill (peter.hill@srilanka.aero). In case there is any response, I will keep you posted here.

Bavarian Nostalgia in Sri Lanka

Last week was even more intense in terms of traveling that usually. Last Friday, from Munich to Rome, on Monday to Munich to deliver the presentation of a project. Wednesday flight to Bangalore, and on Friday evening to Colombo (Sri Lanka) and today morning returned to Bangalore. Guess I got a few quite nice pictures from Sri Lanka, yes, also those with the typical beach-sun-palmtree-leave-the-civilization-behind-setting here.

In spite of the travel warning because of the renewed tension between Tamil Tiger rebels (LTTE) and the government which is being spelled out by the German Foreign Service or the Lonely Planet, I decided to undertake the trip as I had only heard the most beautiful stories about the country and a limited personal risk for tourists.

What one realizes when arriving at Bandaranaike International Airport first is military presence which I have never seen anywhere in the world before and which reminded me more of securing positions for a manoeuvre during my military service than providing normal protection for an airport. No wonder: In April of this year, Tamil Tiger rebels bombed the Sri Lanka Air Force base adjoining the international airport. Three Air Force personal were killed and 16 injured when light aircraft dropped two bombs, although no aircraft were damaged.

Following a 30 km drive past many military controlled roadblocks, Friday evening I arrived for one night in the Galadari Hotel (US-$ 70 per night, decent rooms) at the Northern Colombo Fort where security became even tighter. Reason: The area includes the commercial heart of Sri Lanka with high and modern buildings like the World Trade Centre which is considered as a strategic target with strong symbolic importance for a possible attack. Here a picture from my hotel window looking South along Colombo’s shore of the Indian Ocean.

Colombo Fort

Following a little walk through the High Security Zone on Saturday morning, I strolled over to Fort Train Station to board the train to my destination in the South: Galle. Already entering the train station, the mood changed from the all-present military to what so strongly epitomizes the country’s charme with it’s ever-friendly people, a sense of timelessness between yesterday’s Colonial past of Ceylon and everyday’s life of contemporary Sri Lanka.

Colombo Train Station: Clock

As a reasonably experienced traveler, I have developed a quick filter for people who approach me for a talk. The filter goes like this: I am very keen on every conversation which is genuine about whatsoever to get to know a country and its people better, but I am extremely quick at turning people away who are just commencing the talk to add a sales pitch a few sentences further. Hereby, I tend to give people in the first 30 seconds the benefit of the doubt. It happened, waiting on the platform, that a gentleman from Sri Lanka approached me with the typical question where I was from. “Germany”, whereto he replied in very good German “Wirklich? Ich habe 1972 bis 1977 in Deutschland als LKW-Fahrer gearbeitet und gelebt.” (“I lived and worked in Germany as a lorry driver between 1972 and 1977”). I was truly taken aback, especially when Ranjith specified that he had lived in Bavaria as I could make out from his slight dialect.

Hilarious. He remembered all the routes he had driven to Freilassing, Trier, Lugano, indulged in memories of the German football players of that time (“Beckenbauer, Schwarzenbeck, Sepp Maier …”), opening his purse to show me the picture of his biggest idol: Gerd Müller – all this even managed to send me a shiver of nostalgia down the spine. In the train he was enormously hospitable to quickly arrange a seat in the else overcrowded wagon for me and sharing his experience from his years in Germany when he was in his 20s. Where the “girls from North Rhine-Westphalia or Berlin were much easier for getting laid than those from more conservative Bavaria” (I agree).

Getting lost in time and space on this 3 hour ride brought back the feeling of traveling as the movement itself being an end and not only a means to reach a destination. Beautiful views with the Indian Ocean on the right and changing landscapes on the left with lots of lush green forest as the train steadily moved southwards.

Train Ride from Colombo to Galle

From Galle it was just a 10 minutes ride by Tuk-Tuk to Unawatuna where I checked in at the Full Moon Resort (US-$ 11 per night) whose Italian owner, according to the Lonely Planet, became a hero in his home country when he survived the Tsunami 2004 in one of the hardest hit areas of the island. This place exhales everything one can imagine from paradise: simplicity, honesty, authenticity. Here an impression from wandering along the beach:

Unawatuna: Beach

July in Sri Lanka is off-season due to the monsoon, although I was lucky due to clouds, yet absence of rain. The sea is rough, not suitable for snorkeling or diving at this time of the year, but never mind, on the flipside there is hardly anybody around which adds to the Robinson Crusoe-impression. And those few are doing cool things on the beach like these guys playing cricket, the national sport of the country.

Cricket on Unawatuna Beach

After some delicious dinner with grilled fish for $ 4 and a night of good sleep with the soothing melody of the waves in the background, Ranjith, my Sri Lankan-German friend from the train, picked me up at 9.30 am with his car which he uses as an official tour guide. This was one of the best decisions ever because this guy brings this perfect mix of explaining, letting loose and joking around. If you ever come to Sri Lanka, contact him a few days before under +94 91 22 777 27 for an unforgettable experience.

Ranjith: Tourguide with 5 Years German Experience

Heading north, we made a little “giro” through Galle Fort built by the Dutch colonial-masters, headed north to Hikkaduwa famous for its coral reef habitat, spiced by Ranjith’s fondness of the former Bavarian politician Franz-Josef Strauß (“der Deifi”) to reach Colombo for a lunch-break at the picturesque Galle Face Hotel.

Galle Face Hotel ("Verandah") in Colombo: Lunchtime

Dropping me at the airport in time to catch my flight to Bangalore would have been a perfect end to the trip with my clear intention to come back soon. And then at least for 7 days, especially after my personal impression that personal safety is not really at stake once you left the heavily guarded and strategically important areas. My conclusion which was also bolstered by a risk specialist (former Indian Army officer and man of honour) on a project for one of the world’s Big Five consultancies: “The risk is being at the wrong place at the wrong time. By keeping away from military installments or convois, you can drastically minimize it.”

Altogether, I could have been a perfect stay, if Sri Lankan Air had not screwed up the return flight by overbooking in the first place and then making a bad situation worse by behaving like idiots in the second. But this is matter for another story on this blog this week and should in the nutshell not tarnish the memorable experience of Sri Lanka. And I am coming back for sure – with another air carrier and a Bavarian Weißbier for Ranjith …

Rome: Mesmerized from the Eternal City

There was no doubt that it would be an amazing experience, but Rome topped even the biggest expectations with its ubiquitious historical beauty.Here is the picture set on Flickr. It meant coming to the place which, as no other, has laid foundation to our cutural heritage as well as shaped the way of our western thinking. Both from the ancient history of the Roman Empire and well as in the aftermath of its collapse the rise of the Catholic Church. Visiting the Vatican with a savvy guide was more than a worthwhile investment given his vast insights into architecture, history and arts. Like here the Laocoon Group which made the start in a huge collection of statues, pictures and tapestries.

Vatican Museum

Moving slowly through the richness of the Vactican I contemplated about the usual and mostly simplistic critisizm of the current Pope “to be conservative”. In the first place, in my view “being conservative” is rather a virtue than a vice. Morover, what do you think if you are a Pope who is on top of both the oldest and the largest organization of the world, if your name indicates that there have been fifteen with the same name before you, if you are among the most brilliant intellectuals alive, if your belief is that your organization epitomizes the concept of truth and then some “progressive” journalist in some local newspaper calls you conservative: You simply don’t give a shit. And right so.

Which should not mean that the Catholic Church can’t ignore an environment which, also thanks to communication technology, is changing faster than ever. But reading the latest publications of Benedict XVI. like his encylce “Deus Caritas est”, the Pope displays are very real understanding of today’s world when he explains his e.g.model for separating of roles between the state and religion.

St. Peter's Square: Vatican

Here’s the famous Trevi Fountain in which you throw a coin over your back which allegedly will bring you back to Rome.

Trevi Fountain

And me being and old fan of Latin Language wanted to see the Colosseum where my Latin textbook began with “Marcus hodie in Colosseum est”. I didn’t make it “in” the Colosseum, but at least in front of it. So I can confidently say: “René hodie ad Colosseum est.” (German translation: Renés Hoden sind am Colosseum” – LOL)

Roma_126

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One addition as I just came across Fabio’s (the guide’s) phone number in case you want to do the tour: +39 335 841 27 22 (kind regards from my side :-)

Rome ahead

After a few tough working weeks, I guess this weekend is really well deserved: Rome. Although I had Latin at school for 5 years, always loved the language I never made it to the cradle of our civilization. I remember stil the starting lines of my Latin textbook:

Marcus hodie in Collosseum est.
Sed ubi est Cornelia?

Hope to be able to say tomorrow or on Sunday: “René hodie in Collosseum est” and write more next week and post some pictures :-) Have a great weekend.

Down under …

… with lots of work. So little to no postings for I guess another week as I involved in preparing an exciting venture. Bear with me and I assure to be back in full flesh soon :-)