Archive for February, 2007

London Bus Travails

Saturday, February 10th, 2007

When I used to travel by London buses in the early 2000s, I’d found them to be punctual and very user-friendly. Features I’d grown used to from my experience with buses in Germany — like visual displays and verbal announcements of the forthcoming stops on the way — were also present in London. In addition, I’d found a few more features like the Local Bus Maps that were on display at the various Tube stations in London.

But, my recent experience with the London Bus Service has been full of travails and tribulations. Poor quality / lack of information and announcements, breakdowns and delays — these are the lowlights of my last two months’s experience.

Schedules posted at the bus stops do not list all the stops on the way. Inside the bus, there are no announcements of which stop comes next. As a result, you need to find out how many stops away is your destination stop (e.g. I need to get off at Oxford Circus, which is five stops away) and keep a count of the number of stops on the way (e.g. Ah, I have crossed the first stop, …, I have crossed the fourth stop, the next stop must be my stop). But, even that is very challenging, thanks to a large number of Request Stops, which you can easily miss out in your count because buses tend to zoom past such Request Stops if there’s nobody inside the bus who has pressed the button or sticking out their hand at the stop to request the bus to stop there.

Asking the driver where to get off works often, but not always. On Bus # 422 headed towards North Greenwich Station a couple of weeks ago, I asked the driver where I should get off for Odeon Cinema. The driver stared blankly at me. When the person behind me told him that the bus is supposed to go via Odeon Cinema, the driver was bewildered and told us he wasn’t going anywhere near Odeon Cinema. When I politely pointed out that the bus was indeed supposed to be going via Odeon Cinema as per the route chart I’d seen, the driver decided to check with the Control Room on his wireless system. The Control Room confirmed what I was saying. The driver then told the Control Room that he was headed towards North Greenwich Library, and not North Greenwich Station. Only when we pointed out that the display in front of the bus said North Greenwich Station did he realize the source of confusion. He quickly changed the display to North Greenwich Library. After a couple of stops, he did shout out that Bus Number 486 would go via Odeon Cinema. Since he didn’t have or didn’t use a PA system, it was purely by fluke that I realized that he was actually addressing me.

My next experience was in Bus # 15 going from Paddington Station to Blackwall. I had to get off at Limehouse DLR Station stop. Somewhere around Aldwych Tube Station, the bus simply stopped without any announcement — at least without any announcement that I could hear. I saw people getting off, so I also got off. I never figured out why this happened. After 15-20 minutes, all of us got into another 15, only to hear beeping sound after a couple of stops. It turned out that the engine was over-heating, so the bus had to stop right there, or, as the driver said, "risk fire"! So, my journey got aborted not once, but twice during a single journey!!

I also cannot forget the driver of Bus # D3 telling the passengers that he was only going up to "Isle of Gardens". I pointed out to the driver that the display in front said "Isle of Dogs", which is the correct destination, and asked him if he meant he was going up to Isle of Dogs — which suited me since I had to get off a couple of stops before the last stop — or Island Gardens, which came much before my stop. He kept saying Isle of Gardens. I again pointed out that it is either Isle of Dogs or Island Gardens, there’s no stop like Isle of Gardens. The driver realized his mistake and confirmed that he was indeed going up to Island Gardens DLR Station only. Hearing this, a lady traveling in the bus got off at the Westferry Circus stop to get into the next D3 arriving at the stop. Imagine her shock when the second D3 zoomed off without stopping at the stop, its driver possibly being the misguided impression that, well there was already a D3 in the stop, so nobody would be interested in getting into the second D3! She rushed back and was lucky to get back into her original D3. Seeing this, I complained to the driver and he then decided to radio the Control Room. Only then did the second D3 stop at the next stop and we were able to get in to continue our journey.

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Grameen Charity Model

Saturday, February 10th, 2007

There is a large population of people out there which will donate to charities if they can get to earn recognition within their local communities while doing so. You can be quite sure that such a population exists when you come across people who exhibit lukewarm responses to organized charities, citing reasons like, "I don’t have control on how my money is utilized", and so on. Watch the same people loosen their purse strings when a local school or old age care home offers them a chance to be the chief guest at a local community function.

By no stretch of imagination are we suggesting here that these people will donate to any school or any old age care home just for the chance of being a chief guest. But the point is, ulterior motives do exist when it comes to donating to charities. The mere satisfaction of ‘giving for the sake of giving’ is not necessarily enough for some people, even if they don’t realize this themselves, or articulate explicitly.

Large global NPOs (not-for-profit organizations) will do well to recognize the existence of this category of people who aspire to social recognition while donating to charities. Doing so will help them enhance their donor base and their collections. However, most of them operate on global scale with global charters. Apart from sending birthday and anniversary cards, they don’t — and can’t — have the required bandwidth for facilitating any more recognition for their average donors.

To tap this category of people and make donors out of them, NPOs might want to explore an alternative structure where they organize themselves as a huge network of small units operating at a community level — some sort of "Grameen Charity", similar in principle to Grameen Bank, whose founder Mohammed Younus won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for popularizing the concept of micro financing at the local community level in Bangladesh. By operating at this level, local units of an NPO will find it easy to get immersed in local events and day-to-day activities of their respective communities. This will in turn provide their donors with ample opportunities to play leading roles in local affairs — including being chief guests at local functions — and gain the recognition they might be aspiring for in addition to the satisfaction of contributing to a good cause.

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Open Letter to Virgin Atlantic

Sunday, February 4th, 2007

On my recent trip to London, I flew Virgin Atlantic. In the following open letter to Virgin Atlantic, I describe my experiences, some good, some not so good.

OPEN LETTER TO VIRGIN ATLANTIC

Dear Virgin Atlantic:

It is indeed a pleasant surprise to receive an email in response to my feedback — I never expected one! Besides, the content of your email makes it very obvious that it isn’t one of those auto-generated emails which use boilerplate text, and politely inform you not to bother replying because they are from so-called “Do-Not-Reply@xyz.com” sort of email addresses.

Only for this gesture, I agree to your request of not judging Virgin Atlantic “… purely on this …” experience, and take you up on your offer to “give us a chance to show you a more typical Virgin Atlantic experience”!

Let me now comment on some of the specifics:

1. I haven’t been charged yet for the said text / SMS. If I am in future, I have made a note of the address to which I should mail the credit card statement so that I can get a refund.

2. While I got a message onboard that my message sending had failed, actually the recipient on the ground landed up getting my text message … not once, not twice, but around 33 times over the next 24 hours! Having disclosed this, I hope I don’t now get charged 33 times!!

3. My feedback regarding the toilet was not that it was dirty — but that the faucet / wash basin was choked because the water hadn’t drained away. The cabin staff to whom I’d reported this soon after getting out of the toilet (a different person from the one who collected my feedback very courteously) just shrugged and said, “Yeah, we know, it takes a long time for the water to drain off”. Having flown with many airlines in the US, Europe and Asia over the last 20 years, I have rarely experienced such a thing, and I could only sympathize with the cabin staff’s ignorance / apathy / attempt to BS me.

4. As regards the ability to manually override the mechanical problem with my seat, your cabin staff was clearly oblivious to this feature. Instead, what I heard was, “Yeah, we have known this, our Engineering hasn’t been able to find the time to attend to this”. I’d hoped at the time that Virgin Atlantic’s Engineering does find the time to attend to more serious mechanical faults viz. wheels not coming out during landing, etc. etc.

5. On my return trip, I found that the dinner service was significantly delayed. The flight departure time was 2145. Even though there was an announcement by the cabin staff around 30 minutes into the flight that dinner would be served in the next half-hour, we actually got served as late as midnight. I don’t know if this is the norm in Virgin Atlantic flights, but you might want to review this process. In my experience, most airlines serve lunch / dinner around 1-1.5 hours into the flight. Two and a quarter hours is just too late.

6. Having said the above, it’s not as though I found everything about the trip unpleasant. Here are some good features and they can get even better with slight improvements:

(a) I love San Pellegrino sparkling water and Virgin Atlantic is the only airline I know that serves it. Even Alitalia, the flagship carrier of Italy, the country of origin of San Pellegrino, doesn’t. I very much appreciate this. Keep it up, Virgin Atlantic!

(b) A bar that was open throughout the flight (even if I don’t imbibe alcohol). But, it would help if there was an onboard announcement that such a bar exists and is open to all Business Class passengers. I happened to spot it purely by chance and had thought that it was perhaps open only for First Class passengers (given that the bar was located on the other side of the galley from the Business Class). Only when I inquired with one of the cabin staff, did I learn that the bar is indeed open to Business Class passengers and that, Virgin Atlantic doesn’t even have a First Class.

(c) For all my comments about the cabin staff, I must say that they appeared bright and attentive throughout the flight. Which is not something I’d say about too many other airlines in my experience. I won’t name names, but I have flown in European airlines where the cabin staff doesn’t even keep on their full uniforms throughout the flight — their jacket comes off quite fast — and generally appear shoddy / fatigued / inattentive after a few hours into the flight.

(d) Even in the late ‘nineties, I have come across SkyPhones (on Singapore Airlines flights) which allow you to make telephone calls to Mother Earth. I even remember making a call successfully from onboard a Singapore Airlines flight from Bangkok to Singapore in 1999. Not having encountered a similar telephone facility on any other airline since that flight, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Virgin Atlantic offered not just a telephone but also an SMS texting service. And, at around half the price of the telephone call (2.5 US$ per message as against 4.5 US$ per minute), the texting service can be a cost-effective and useful feature — if only it worked properly! Also, while in the middle of keying in the message, it was very annoying to see the screen blanking out without any warning. I found out later that this happened because of an inflight announcement that overrode the texting function. It would be useful to display a message that the texting function would be restored when the inflight announcement ended.

Hope you find my feedback useful.

Thanks and Regards.

KETHARAMAN SWAMINATHAN

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Travel-related Posts Coming …

Sunday, February 4th, 2007

Dear Readers:

The last two months have seen me traveling a lot … two trips to the UK and around two weeks to Malaysia, Singapore and a couple of places inside India. Consequently, you will get to see a couple of travel-related posts on Talk of Many Things in the coming days.

Travel-crazy and travel-wary readers — Enjoy!

Others — ‘I really don’t mind if you sit this one out’!!

Belated New Year Greetings!!!

With best regards.

Ketharaman Swaminathan

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