Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Amazing Race 15, Episode 5

Dubai (United Arab Emirates)

This was one of the rare episodes of The Amazing Race spent entirely in a single city — in this case Dubai — without setting foot on a train or bus, much less an airplane.

Did the racers like Dubai? That’s hard to tell. The one thing they clearly agreed was that it was hot. Very hot. Hotter, in mid-summer, than they had ever been in their lives.

Some of them got frustrated at the complexity of the water pipes they had to assemble (another geographic gaffe in nomenclature in the voiceover, which described them by the Hindi/Urdu name used in South Asia, “hookah”, rather than by the Arabic or Turkish names more commonly used in West Asia, “nargila” or “shisha”), or at trying to weigh out an assigned value of gold as determined by a price adjusted every minute based on the latest commodity market transactions. For one million dollars, did you learn your long division and algebra when you were in school?

Mika’s fear at the six-story water slide with the view of the shark tank (CBS included a credit for “promotional consideration” from the resort where it’s located) led to her and Canaan’s elimination. The takeaway for travellers: Your fears are equally real regardless of whether or not they are rational or well-founded. If you’re too afraid of something or someplace to enjoy it, don’t go there unless your goal is to overcome your fear and not to have fun. Neither you nor anyone else is likely to talk you into having a good time in spite of your fear, or in spite of knowing intellectually that your fear is irrational. You might discover that in the event, you don’t feel as afraid as you had expected. But that’s another story and not something you can count on.

Why Dubai? Not everywhere interesting is fun, and there are good reasons to go to Dubai. Dubai is an important place to visit if you want to understand the range of possibilities open to human society: a place that’s sui generis while exemplifying the most extreme instantiation in the real world of a complex of post-modern values, trends, and ideals. As Mike Davis asks in his essay on Dubai in Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism , “Is this a new Margaret Atwood novel, Philip K. Dick’s unpublished sequel to Blade Runner , or Donald Trump on acid?”

My fantasyland isn’t a place where the biggest tourist attraction is the annual Dubai Shopping Festival (which draws four million visitors a year, although The Amazing Race came through in the wrong season and missed it). But I wanted and still want to see Dubai to learn where our own and humanity’s future are headed, why some people seek out as a utopia that which I recoil from as from a nightmare, whether that’s the vision I want to pursue, and whether there are any signs of hope, resistance, or dissenting cultural discourse.

We had planned a stopover in Dubai last year on our trip around the world. In the end, though, we didn’t get out of the airport. We were behind schedule, and wanted the time for other places further along our route. We had already spent time nearby, in Doha (Qatar) instead, in response to an invitation from a reader of my blog who offered to show us around and who gave us a fascinating introduction to a slice of Doha expatriate life. (Rule of thumb: if you have to choose between destinations, pick the one where you have a local contact or introduction, no matter how tenuous, over the one where you know nobody.)

The last straw in deciding us not to stop over in Dubai was the dismal performance of Emirates Airlines , unquestionably the worst experience I have ever had in my life with airline ticket office and ground service. We flew on Emirates, paying the full published fare, from Cairo to Hong Kong via Dubai and Bangkok. Because of changes in plans enforced by outside events (deadly post-election riots in Mombasa, Kenya; delays in getting visas for Eritrea) we had to deal with Emirates offices on four continents over a period of a couple of months. All of them treated us with a perfectly consistent level and style of gracious and fawning incompetence, suggestive of a staff that been selected for subservience rather than ability, then further disempowered by their training and left unwilling to take any initiative or responsibility for dealing with problems, lest they be blamed. It left me wondering whether, if an Emirates employee admits to a customer that the airline has made a mistake, the cost of making it right gets taken out of the employee’s paycheck.

None of the people we dealt with at any Emirates office understood their own airline’s tariff, and some of them didn’t even seem to understand that as a common carrier they have published rules governing things like changes to tickets. For good measure, they tried to blame anyone but themselves: sending us away, referring us to Emirates’ offices in other countries and on other continents (which didn’t bother to answer queries, or only bounced the problem back), and falsely claiming that our travel agent had undercharged us a thousand dollars which we would have to pay before they could touch our tickets.

After hours of hassle, trips across town, and waiting, we got our freely-changeable full-fare tickets re-routed for only a small fee (eventually refunded, in part, a year later). But the whole affair created a lousy first impression of anything associated with Dubai, which was only reinforced by the airport: a shopping mall designed to separate you from your money, not a comfortable place to arrive or change planes. We couldn’t have been more eager to get on the next flight to anywhere else.

While I’m handing out prizes for ground service, I should note that the other extreme of operational competence and reliability I’ve experienced — anywhere, ever, including in comparison with airlines including not only Emirates but some of the others with the world’s best reputations such as Virgin Atlantic, Thai, Cathay Pacific, Malaysian, Air France, Qantas, British Airways, and so on — was with Ethiopian Airlines , which we flew on from Zanzibar to Addis Ababa as well as on five flights within Ethiopia. (Disclosure: I paid full fare on the international flight, but Ethiopian gave me a travel agent discount on my domestic tickets, bringing the price down to about what it would have been if I had bought them in advance in conjunction with international tickets issued by Ethiopian.) Ethiopian doesn’t go in for groveling, but they do go in for getting things done efficiently, without muss or fuss, even with severely limited infrastructure and resources. We had consistently excellent experiences with Ethiopian ticket offices and airport staff in Addis Ababa, in the provinces, and in other countries.

And while I’ve said it before I should also mention again that my “we try harder” award for best personal service by a smaller airline goes to Yemenia (Yemen Airways), which we were on (again, at full fare) from Addis Ababa to Sana’a and on to Cairo. Yemenia not only got us where we were going, on time, but their staff repeatedly went out their way to help us with things that were unquestionably not their fault or responsibility. Individual members of their staff, undoubtedly overworked and underpaid, repeatedly took personal initiative to make sure that we were taken care of the way they would want to be if our places were reversed.

For example, when we discovered that our applications for visas to our next intended destination, Eritrea, had been denied without our knowledge, Yemenia put us up at their expense for the next 24 hours — comfortable hotel, all meals, transfers from and to the airport, and assistance with visas to stay longer in Yemen — while we tried to figure out what to do. (We went to Egypt next instead. But we backtracked to Eritrea after that, when a combination of luck and Eritrean generosity and hospitality finally got us visas.) When my companion left a fleece jacket on a Yemenia plane, and asked a member of the ground staff if it had been found, they apologized and offered to buy her a replacement! (She declined.) When we needed to change our tickets, Yemenia took care of it without drama.

Surprised? Moral of the story: Most airline reputations — especially with people who haven’t flown on them — have more to do with marketing than with performance.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 25 October 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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