Kenya Airways Customer Disservice

Kenya Airways customer service counter, Nairobi Airport, 6:00 a.m.

“Good morning. I’ve just arrived on the delayed flight from Antananarivo and need to re-book …”
“Welcome to Kenya, sir.  I hope you have a wonderful stay in our country.”
“No, you don’t understand.  I’m not planning to stay.  I need to get home to the U.S.  Can you re-book me on a flight later this morning?”
“The lion park is near the airport.  Only ten U.S. dollars by taxi.  Many tourists visit it.  Maybe you will have time too?”
“I don’t think so.  Can you re-book me?  Other passengers got new itineraries in Antananarivo but the rest of us were told to get them here.”
“I’m sorry, sir, you will need to wait.”
“Isn’t this the customer service counter?”
“Yes, it is.”
“But you can’t help me?”
“No, sir.  We have to wait for the supervisor to unlock the computers.”
“When will the supervisor be here?”
“Very soon, I hope.  Please wait with the other passengers.”
I join a group of weary, disconsolate travelers, some of whom I recognize from the lines at the airport in Antananarivo, Madagascar.  We had arrived there in mid-afternoon to be told that the Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi had been delayed.  We were bussed back into the city, returning at midnight.  The flight eventually left at 4:00 a.m.  Everyone missed their connections to Europe, Asia and North America.  A few were given new itineraries and boarding passes but most of us were told we would receive ours on arrival in Nairobi.
8:00 a.m.
“Where is the supervisor?”
“He is not here.”
“Yes, I can see that.  When will he be here?”
 “Very soon, I hope.  He rang to say he is finishing his breakfast.”
“Any chance we can get some breakfast?  You’ve got some angry, hungry passengers over there.”  For a moment, I imagined a group trip to the lion park and wondered who would eat who.
“I am sorry, sir.  There is no food available in the transit area.  Please wait.”
8:25 a.m.
“Sir, this is George, our customer service supervisor.”
“Nice to meet you, George.  Can you re-book me?”
“Please give me your passport and itinerary and I will enter the details into the system.”
“You mean it’s not already in the system?  I thought that’s what airline computer systems were designed to do—store information.”
“We will see.  Your passport and itinerary, please.”
8:30 a.m.
“Sir, your details are now in the system.”
“So can you re-book me?”
“You need another flight?”
“Yes.  Don’t you understand? Your flight from Antananarivo was delayed, and I missed the connection to Paris and then on to Atlanta.”
“Please give me your credit card.”
“Why do you need it?”
“So you can pay for the flight.”
“I’m not paying for it.  It’s your airline’s fault I’m stranded here.  You need to find me another flight.”
“I will have to talk to the sales office about it.”
“Please do so.”
George fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a tattered slip of paper with several phone numbers on it.  He dialed the desk phone.  After a few moments he replaced the receiver, pulled out another slip of paper and called on his mobile.
“They are not answering.  Maybe it is too early and no one is there.”
“What time does the sales office open?”
“In the morning.”
“At what time in the morning?”
“Maybe by 10:00.  It depends.”
“I’ll come back to the desk at 10:00, then?”
“Yes, sir, please do.  And welcome to Kenya.  May I recommend the lion park …”
10:00 a.m.
“Is George here?”
“No, he has left for the day.”
“He’s left?  Where did he go?”
“He went home.  His shift is over.”
“He told me to come back at 10:00 and he would call the sales office to rebook me.”
“I will be happy to help you, sir.  My name is Gladys.  Let me welcome you to Kenya.  Please give me your passport and itinerary so that I can enter the details into the system.”
“But George already did that.”
“We each have our own system for entering data.  I will take care of it.”
Gladys pounded the keyboard for a few minutes while I pondered the digital disaster that was the Kenya Airways reservation system.  Gladys called the sales office.  No answer.
“While we’re waiting for the sales office, can you check available flights for me?”
Gladys pounded a few more keys, then frowned.  “You could have taken the 8:00 a.m. flight to London and then connected to Atlanta on Delta.”
“I was here at this desk at 8:00 a.m., and was told I could not be rebooked.”
“I am sorry for the inconvenience.  The next flight is not until tonight at 10:30 p.m. The Paris flight you missed last night.”
“I didn’t miss it.  Your airline did.”
“Whatever you say sir.”
10:45 a.m.
Gladys has reached the sales office which issues a new itinerary.  
“Can you print it for me?”
“We need to wait for the manager to approve it.”
“You’ve got to be joking.”
“No, sir.  Only the manager can approve a rebooked itinerary.”
“Where is the manager?”
Gladys conferred with her colleagues.  “He is in a meeting.”
“When will the meeting be over?”
“Soon, we hope.”
11:30 a.m.
“Is the manager out of the meeting?”
“Not yet, sir.  Please wait.”
“We’ve all been here for 5 ½ hours.   No food.  No water. And no help.  Tell the manager he’s going to have a riot on his hands if he doesn’t deal with the situation.  Can you call or text him?”
“We will try.”
“The manager has approved your new itinerary, sir.  Here it is with a voucher for a hotel for the day.  You will need to be back by 8:00 p.m. Perhaps you still have time for the lion park.”


Vive le Renault 4L!

“Do you have a lot of 4Ls in the United States?”

My friend, sociology professor Richard Samuel, asked the question (in French) as our Renault 4L taxi hurtled down a cobblestone hill in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, dodging pedestrians, parked vehicles, and hand carts hauling furniture, metal fencing and sacks of charcoal. It was a jarring, noisy ride. I gripped the door handle which appeared to have been re-riveted to the frame more than once. At the bottom of the hill, the driver crunched into low gear, and began a slow climb.

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I told Richard I had never seen a 4L in the US.  His question puzzled me but, as I looked out at the chaotic traffic, I realized why he had asked. In his urban landscape, the 4L was a dominant species. 

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His pride and joy—a Renault 4L

His pride and joy—a Renault 4L

When I traveled in France in the 1970s, the Renault 4L was a common sight. With its functional, box-like design, it sat high (for its size) on its chassis, its front end inclined downwards as if it was getting ready to dive into the muddy farm fields. It was introduced in 1961, aimed at the lower end of a market dominated by the two-cylinder Citroën 2CV, the celebrated deux chevaux (two horses), a small front-wheel drive saloon marketed as a people's car in the same class as Germany’s Volkswagen Beetle. The 4L, like the 2CV, was seriously under-powered, taking several minutes to reach its preferred cruising speed of about 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour. Once it made it, it chugged along happily, using much less gas than anything else on the road. The gear shift on the 4L and 2CV was a challenge—you pulled it out directly from the dashboard, then twisted it left and right, forward and backwards, in a complex series of motions. In my 20s, living in Britain, I owned first a 2CV and then the slightly up-market (but no more powerful) Citroën Diane. I soon became expert at the contortions required to shift gears.

Citroën 2CV

Citroën 2CV

I visit my sister and her husband in southwestern France every couple of years. These days, it’s unusual to see a 4L or 2CV on the road, although I’ve spotted a few rusting in barns. But they are still the most common taxis on the roads of France’s former colony, Madagascar. Many are veterans of the traffic wars with battered panels and spectacularly out-of-whack alignment. You try to forget that there’s almost no suspension and just marvel that the car is still running.

The history of the French automobile industry lives and breathes—or rather wheezes—in Antananarivo and other Madagascar towns. I’ve seen other Renault and Citroën models, the Peugeot 204, 304 and 404, and even an occasional Citroën DS (Goddess), the sleek, streamlined car with a hydraulic system that looked years ahead of its time when it was introduced in the mid-1950s.  


Some have a dodgy electrical system that requires wire-twisting to start the engine.  In Toliara, on the southwest coast, one taxi driver told me the alternator on his 4L had long ago expired; each day, he manually recharged the battery, providing enough juice to start the motor but not enough to run the headlights as he navigated the darkened streets. Another proudly showed me how he could pull the key out of the ignition of his 1990 red Peugeot 404 without any effect on RPM. 

There are gas-guzzling SUVs on the roads of Antananarivo, most of them owned by  politicians, business owners and aid agencies, but in a country where all indicators—unemployment, poverty, health, literacy—put it in the “least developed” category on global indexes, you’re fortunate if you can move up from a zébu (ox) cart to own a 4L or a 2CV. The last ones came off the production line in the early 1990s, but still command high prices on the used-car market, more than $2,000 for a model with a few dents, a cracked windshield and worn seats.

With spare parts no longer available, except from specialty dealers at high prices, how do drivers keep their cars running? The answer is bricolage (from the French verb bricoler, to tinker), loosely translated as do-it-yourself. The auto parts trade, Richard said, is controlled by Indian and Pakistani shopkeepers who import parts from factories in Mumbai and Karachi. Many either fit the old cars or can be made to fit with a little bricolage. For that service, you go to a metal fabrication shop that cuts and welds made-to-order fencing, pipes, market stall frames, and agricultural implements. They can take a Tata or Mahindra part and make it work for your 4L; if not, they’ll just make you a new part. When cars eventually break down and cannot be repaired, the parts are salvaged and resold. “In this economy, there’s almost always a new use for something,” said Richard.