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Fifty-Fifty: Kissa Wheelchair Ka

My own minor disability has taught me a valuable lesson that the airlines must also consider: when comparing service delivery, consider the passenger with the least resources rather than the most advantaged

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I have been having trouble with my left knee for a few months now. While I manage all my day-to-day activities at work and at home reasonably well, I have been requesting a wheelchair at the airport because of the long queues and sometimes long commutes to airport gates. The wheelchair has turned out to be my most valuable litmus on customer care by various airlines. Smiling air-hostesses, I have figured over the past few months, don’t make for good customer care: handling a customer with a disability, with respect and efficiency, is a much better test of goodness. 

Before I tell you my Kissa Wheelchair Ka with airlines in India, let me begin by telling you about my trip to Australia a few months ago. Almost all through our Perth-Sydney-Canberra-Brisbane trip, we were flying Qantas. Due to acute shortage of staff all over Australia, Qantas staff would just point us to the wheelchair dump at every airport and my daughter would push the wheelchair for me to the boarding gate. I am sure they had some staff assigned to helping those who were unaccompanied and travelling alone, but because I had family travelling with me, the wheelchair became an additional familial responsibility. The airlines’ attitude was simply matter-of-fact and completely hands-off – just fend for yourself. It is good enough that we’ve provided you a wheelchair. Beyond that, please take care of yourself. My rating of Qantas: 2/10. 

On our Mumbai-Singapore-Mumbai sectors, enroute Australia we were on Singapore Airlines and had to transit through Changi Airport. The SQ service was pretty efficient and the staff were there waiting at the plane gates, and they were on time to pick me up from the business lounge both ways. But on the return journey, the wheelchair attendant transferred me to a golf cart which dropped me near the security check but there was no help available to wheel me to the gate thereafter. My rating of Singapore Airlines: 5/10. 

Now back home. My first choice for all domestic flights is invariably Indigo. I must have flown the airline at least twenty times in the past six months. Indigo have a vendor who handles the wheelchair services. And the vendor, to be honest, is pretty harried and significantly short-staffed. There is a constant shortage of wheel-chairs – Indigo has over 50% market share, or thereabouts, of the Indian skies. But there seems to be some hesitation in investing in more wheelchairs and adequate staff. Once you have a wheelchair handler assigned to you, the ride though is pretty smooth at all airports. The handlers are polite, caring and efficient. My rating of Indigo: 7.5/10. 

My best experience domestically, by far, has been with Air India. At the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, Air India has electric wheelchairs which move like a dream – no pushing, no wheeling – just a smooth ride to the boarding gate. Only during one of my trips to Delhi, the handler just disappeared after dropping me at the business lounge. It took some frantic efforts by the lounge staff to locate him, and to get him to pick me up for boarding. My rating of Air India: 8/10.

Flying Business on Vistara is always a pleasure. But my wheelchair experience with the Tata-SIA airline has been, at best, lukewarm. I forget which sector I was flying but the plane parked fairly far away from the terminal building. So one had to use the bus to get to the terminal. The wheelchair handler assigned to me did meet me at the base of the ladder as I de-boarded but refused to ride with me on the bus saying someone else would meet me at the terminal entrance. But that was a false promise. No wheelchair was in sight. I wrote to Vistara’s customer care. There was no response. I wrote again and got an automated mail saying my complaint had been received. But no response thereafter. Persistent me, I wrote again. Some automated bot sent me a Rs. 500 voucher as compensation for all my troubles. No call. No apology. My rating of Vistara: 3-4/10.

My worst experience to date has been on Akasa Air. Call it teething troubles for the new airlines, or call it poor service standards, but my interaction with the airlines was a poor C+ while boarding in Ahmedabad. The handler was restless and fidgety, more so since the plane was considerably late. I was however very very surprised when Vinay Dube, CEO of Akasa Air called up to apologise and take my feedback. I thought that was rather sweet. My rating of Akasa: 2/10 after the flight; 10/10 after Mr. Dube called. 

I just took one flight each on Spicejet and Go Air. Average experience. Ratings wouldn’t be fair. 

British Airways at London Heathrow was very cold and mechanical. I had to wait almost 45 minutes in the holding area before a handler was assigned. My rating of BA: 5-6/10. 

And now to the last one: Emirates. The customer service at Dubai was outstanding. My Egyptian handler in fact waited a good 20 minutes till my car picked me up from the parking. Extremely courteous, caring and clean. My rating for Emirates: 10/10. 

The one thing that surprises me – and the DGCA surely needs to look at – is that you have to first reach the airline counter inside the airport terminal yourself before the wheelchair is offered to you. In my case, I could manage. But a lot of others could have limited to no mobility. Only Ahmedabad airport has a counter outside at the car drop-off that provides wheelchairs to all listed passengers. And they are quick and efficient. No other airport I have flown out of seems to be as thoughtful. 

Airlines seem too focused on smiling air hostesses. Wheelchair passengers, I am sure, don’t feature very highly on customer service checklists. Frankly, I too wouldn’t have cared less if I hadn’t personally used the wheelchair. My own minor disability has taught me a valuable lesson that the airlines must also consider: when comparing service delivery, consider the passenger with the least resources rather than the most advantaged.

Dr. Sandeep Goyal is Managing Director of Rediffusion. He is also Chairman of the Mogae Group.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Dr Sandeep Goyal

The author was Founder Chairman of Dentsu India. He has authored Konjo – The Fighting Spirit and Japan Made Easy, both Harper Collins publications, on his 25 years of working with Japan.

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