Category Archives: Airlines

My experience as a female traveling to Saudi Arabia for work

Since the start of my blog I’ve talked about cultural differences between the US and Spain, from my point of view as an American living for a third of my life in this country. As I travel quite frequently for work, for example to Germany, the US, Hong Kong, Nigeria, I have seen many cultural differences vs the US with these travels. However, nothing has been as interesting as my recent trip to Riyadh. So, for this blog, I’m going to talk about my perception as a Spanishized American traveling to Saudi Arabia.

To give a little background, in my work I talk with a variety of potential clients from all over the world. In the past year and a half the number of requests from companies within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has increased significantly. I see this as a result of two factors: 1. Strategy 2030 within KSA – a move to become more international and modern, a top international tourist destination, etc. and 2. IESE’s FT rankings as the #1 Executive Education institute in the world. They’re tied together: as KSA is looking to gain more international exposure they’re looking to top educational institutes to grow. I have had many phone calls, proposals, etc. with a number of companies, but nothing was ever really moving forward or the conversations were difficult. Finally, however, one did move forward and after a year of conversations, proposals and negotiations I finally found myself on a plane traveling to Riyadh for a full day of meetings with the company CEO and VPs.

I didn’t travel alone. After my not so great experience last year traveling to Lagos, Nigeria, I decided that I wouldn’t travel alone, and in this case I needed to go with a male. I may not completely agree with the cultural norms in KSA, but my feeling is that if I’m going to travel and enter into a foreign country I should be respectful of the norms there  – if not, it wouldn’t make sense to go.

First off the visa process is a bit complicated. If you have to go make sure you have plenty of time. In my case as the trip was pretty much right after summer vacation there wasn’t a lot of time to get everything together. There are a number of different forms and papers to gather including an invitation letter from the KSA company, which, as one would assume, comes in Arabic. This ended up slowing down the process as the job title they had put in their letter didn’t match the one I had put on my form. Note to self – learn Arabic beforehand next time.

Before traveling I did quite a bit of research online and spoke to a female who travels there frequently for work. The main things I learned were that I shouldn’t worry too much about saying or doing anything wrong; it would probably just be best to follow what others were doing. And I definitely needed to buy some appropriate clothing (=hijab and long shirt/very loose clothing, preferably black, that covers your entire body). By the way, thank goodness for youtube with the Hijab or I wouldn’t have had much of an idea of how to tie that thing together. Apparently 1.6M other viewers also feel the same: search for “youtube how to wear a hijab”; that’s all you need.

So with a bit of preparation and hijab in hand I headed off to Riyadh. Originally we were flying with British Airways, but due to a pilots’ strike we ended up flying out with Saudia. I had never flown or heard of this airway before although my past experience with Asian or MEA airlines has been that they tend to be more luxurious than US/UK Western airlines. I was right. The plane was nice, and the business class Furla present was a pleasant surprise.

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Saudia Airlines Business Class swag – not too shabby

The only thing that was a bit strange was the prayer that was played over the loud speaker and accompanied by video and captions before takeoff, but I did recognize that I wasn’t going to California…

The trip started ok, but we ended up landing in Riyadh 9 hours later than originally planned… Thank god (Allah) I wasn’t traveling alone. To make a long story short, the plane had technical problems. We took off about 3 hours late from Madrid. Then the planned 45 minute layover in Jeddah where we shouldn’t have gotten off the plane turned into a 2 hour excursion into the airport while we waited for a new plane.

Unexpected stopover @ Jeddah airport

Trying to figure out a plan – @ Jeddah airport with plane technical problems

Once on the new plane and about to take off we received a message that there were new technical issues and we had to go back to the airport and back to the lounge. At that point I wasn’t even sure if we would make it to Riyadh for the meetings I’d been working on for so long. To top things off my companion had his Apple watch stolen (I still find it hard to believe that this happened in a place where you could get your hand cut off for a crime like that), but in any case it disappeared in the security line when they made him take it off and put it in one of the trays. The only thing I can think of is that either it (a) fell down somewhere and got lost in the moment or (b) was stolen by another passenger behind him. What didn’t help is that I was in a different security line as a female so I didn’t see a thing.

 

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Getting off the plane in KSA. As soon as the plane landed everyone put on their formal outfits and covered up

What was interesting to see was a number of women more relaxed with their clothing on the flight from Spain. As soon as the plane landed in KSA, however, they immediately covered themselves up.

There were many women working in the airport, mostly in the security lines and in the passport immigration section, all completely covered except for their eyes. I had seen this type of clothing in pictures but it was quite shocking to see so many women walking around only with a small slit to see through, especially as an “uncovered” woman watching the scenes play out.

Fast forward – we finally made it to our hotel at 9.30 in the morning, over 9 hours later than originally planned. As we had all important meetings planned for that day sleep wasn’t an option. A quick shower and a hijab/loose clothes change later we headed out to our meetings.

Everyone has asked me since the trip and since seeing pictures if I had to wear the hijab. The short answer is no. No one was there forcing me to put it on or watching over my shoulder (probably two years ago when women weren’t even allowed to be out on their own this would have been the case), but, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable without it seeing that all other women that I saw around the city had their heads covered. To me it was showing respect to my colleagues as well. As I was making a presentation in front of 50 (almost all) men I didn’t think now was the time to be making statements. In my opinion it was already quite modern and a statement to be having a female in this role.

Overall I was treated very respectfully and felt comfortable speaking during the meetings and presenting in front of the group. Probably the most uncomfortable part was having my hijab falling off during the presentation and awkwardly trying to fix it with one hand as I was holding onto a microphone at the same time with the other…

 

Business meeting in Riyadh

That’s me with my black hijab and my colleague in his black suit. Apparently, no one told us about the dress code…

As for the office setting, overall it was very formal. Despite all the changes and modernity that the country may be going through there is still a long way to go. Two years ago females couldn’t work or drive or probably be even seen alone… there were a handful of women at the office where we went (half totally covered except for their eyes, the rest showing only their faces), but overall it was still a very male-dominated environment. All of our meetings were very formal, and you could see the strong sense of hierarchy within the organization. You could also see the strong sense of hospitality – I can’t even remember how many fancy types of dates we were offered or fancy Arabic tea/coffee and chocolates. At one point we had to just refuse, even if it could have been seen as rude. One can only have so many cups of Arabic coffee…

As I said I felt quite respected in the meetings and the overall reception was great. However, there were a couple times where I noticed a man not being able to even look at me, and one instance in which I was refused a handshake (I only offered it as I saw that this was in general what everyone was doing, but I guess in this case as he was wearing a different type of clothing I should have guessed there was something different – I still haven’t figured it out). While we were in the hotel I took off my hijab, but in general I definitely felt more comfortable with it on.

My experience in Riyadh was short-lived; 12 hours after arriving we were already making our way back to the airport. I can’t say that I was sad to be leaving given the overall experience, but it was certainly eye-opening to be there as a female and not exactly out of the spotlight. I’ll be going back in the future for work and, while I don’t see myself running around doing touristic activities or driving a rental car, I’ll look forward to seeing continuous changes as the kingdom itself keeps evolving and modernizing.

My Abusive Relationship with Iberia

I’ve written how my experience moving to a foreign country with a basic level of the language was humbling and made me more accepting of circumstances (and people) and more relaxed.

However, there is one thing that can always manage to make my blood boil. No matter how long I’ve been abroad I just cannot tolerate bad customer experience. There still exists a strong mentality, at least here in Spain, that the customer is wrong. After having worked for several years in the Customer Experience research team at Forrester Research (https://www.forrester.com/Customer-Experience) back in Boston and having researched and documented the high correlation between positive CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE, consumer loyalty and positive business impact ($$), it still boggles me how there can exist this mentality and bad treatment of customers. Maybe there are still some businesses or sectors where consumers don’t have much of a choice, but with the way the world is changing so rapidly with digitalization, AI, paradigm breakers in existing sectors (think Uber, Amazon, Amazon Go, …) I don’t think this mentality will work forever.

Iberia and I have an abusive relationship. Sometimes I like being close to him to get to the end result (get from Madrid to Boston and vice versa without having to go through a layover). However, there are other times when I can’t even stand looking at him, when he disrespects me and even hangs up on me.

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Let’s be honest; people fly to get from one point to another. I’m not looking for miracles. However, I do expect to be treated with respect, especially when there are loyalty programs involved. So, what happened the other day? Well, it goes back to 6 months ago when I tried to use my frequent flyer “avios” to purchase tickets for Boston for the summer. I figured I had enough points that I could buy my ticket and one of my child’s. As it turns out it’s almost impossible to use avios to buy tickets during high travel season. Eight months prior to the planned travel dates there was only 1 seat available that could be purchase with avios (my husband called 5 minutes afer I did and there were no longer avios seats available). In the end I purchased my seat with avios and had to pay almost 200 euros in taxes. Makes you wonder to what point it’s really worth the avios…

For my two kids (ages 5 and 2) it was impossible to apply any of my avios. I purchased their tickets for almost 2000 euros, but in order to get assigned seats for them to be near me we’d have to pay another 200 euros. I said I think it would be their mistake to try to put a 2 year old screaming for his mom in a different aisle, but I think I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it in a few weeks. I’m pretty sure someone will prefer to switch with me if Iberia won’t give us seats together than suffer 8 hours of screaming…

On top of the kids’ tickets I also purchased some sort of travel insurance that wasn’t very clear at all over the phone but made to seem as though it was an essential part of the purchase. Next thing I know I had an extra 108 euro charge on my card. When I called a few days later to ask for more information about the insurance I had purchased I was told I’d receive it via email (the same email through which I received the tickets). Nothing came. Honestly out of pure laziness of having to call Iberia again and wait on hold I put it off for months.

The other day I called Iberia to ask about the insurance policy I had semi-consciously purchased. They confirmed that I had purchased a policy for both of my children with Allianz insurance, but to receive information about the coverage I would have to speak directly with Allianz. I asked what information I would need to provide to Allianz when calling (I’ve had enough experience with being bounced back and forth) and was told that with my ticket locator number that would be enough.

Next step- I called Allianz. Not surprisingly they were unable to find my information, policy, etc. They said that likely Iberia had made a mistake and that unless I had a separate payment on my account for the insurance that it was never purchased. They were unable to look up any more information with my name or personal data; I even tried repeating my email twice (another thing I’ve had enough experience with is people not understanding me on the phone with my accent) spelling out each letter like “M as in Madrid, A as in Alemania…” Nothing.

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Their solution: send an email to a generic Allianz sales email with a proof of payment from my bank account from January. That’s when I hit the table (literally) and tried to politely express my anger at their complete lack of efficiency as I had a ticket right in front of me. As I saw I was getting nowhere the conversation ended. I immediately found the information and sent an email titled “URGENT” with the information they requested. To my surprise they answered me within a couple of hours with the information I had requested and the full policy coverage. I have to say I was impressed with this part of the service, but was it really worth it for Iberia to put me through this hassle? Talk about making things not easy for the customer.

As it turns out, despite having repeated my email address twice and having the agent repeat it back to me, he somehow had managed to completely butcher it with about 3 letters and a period missing.

So, I’ll fly with Iberia in a few weeks, and maybe things will be smooth between us for a while, but at some point we’ll hit a bump and it will go back to rocky. For now I’m not going to end our relationship as I’m still getting the final results I’m looking for, but once something more attractive comes along with less hassle (and baggage) I will be first in line. My next challenge: try to understand the insurance policy.

To be continued…

Iberia, how about a little logic over the rules?

Is Iberia a great airline? Not really. Does Iberia offer great prices? Not so much. Does Iberia have a good cross-channel experience? Eh. So, why do I keep coming back for more? Well, Iberia happens to be the only airline that offers direct flights to Boston from Madrid (during certain months of the year), and with a two year old in tow there really isn’t any other option. So this fact puts it on my “better than other options” list. Also, Iberia has an executive devoted to Customer Experience (Dimitris Bountolos), something which I think is great given my interest and sometimes annoying persistence with this topic here in Spain. (Note: after writing this post I’ve discovered that this VP of CxP no longer exists at Iberia. Go figure).

The other week I finally sat down to finalize my summer plans and buy tickets home. As usual I had to make things a little more complicated, just to challenge the system I guess – I wanted to use frequent flyer points for my flight and buy my son’s ticket separately.

Step 1: When I tried to do this on the web site it wasn’t possible since you can’t mix buying two tickets by different methods. And if you want to buy a separate ticket for a two year old you have no other choice but to pick up the phone and buy the ticket through an agent.

Step 2: So… I picked up the phone. When I spoke to an agent to try to buy both tickets, mine with points, he told me the only way to see my options and do this was through the web site. Then I would have to call after and buy my son’s ticket over the phone since there’s no way to buy a 2 year old ticket through the site.

Step 3: Back to the web. Buying my tickets using my avios through the site – easy enough.

Step 4: Right after that I called Iberia customer service to buy my son’s ticket to make sure there wouldn’t be any problem getting seats on the same flight. I didn’t have any problem doing this. And Iberia didn’t have any problem charging me 90% of an adult fare for his ticket (one of the things you don’t think about when you’re young and reckless and decide to move across the ocean…). I of course tried to be reasonable and say that I could have him sit on my lap for the 8 hour flight (no way would this be possible), but apparently age is the determining factor here. Between 2 and 12 years (no scaling) you get a fantastic discount of 10%. Good thing I already flew with him twice while he was younger…

I figured, well, at least everything is set and the tickets are now a sunk cost. After hanging up the phone and reviewing the tickets in my email (and happily seeing a 20€ fee for buying my son’s ticket over the phone even though there was no other option…) I remembered one very important thing – our seats.

Step 4: Back on the phone. And this is where it got amusing. The agent who attended my call informed me that it would be free for me to pick my seat now since I have a loyalty card, but I would have to pay over 40€ to assign my son’s seat next to me! She quietly suggested I could wait until checking-in at the airport. Talk about logic, Iberia…

Step 5: Time will tell. I’ve decided to take a “gamble” and see what happens at the check-in counter this summer. Call me crazy, but somehow I don’t think Iberia will put my 2 year old next to a random person, with his mother aisles away. And if this were to happen I can absolutely guarantee that Iberia itself would be willing to pay me to switch seats!

 

Note: I’m currently waiting for an Iberia Kids loyalty card. Maybe this will change the situation…

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Can airlines really deliver good experiences? Listen up Iberia Customer Experience!

Iberia, I know here in Spain you actually have a Customer Experience director (not a common job title in this country), so, read on…

Let’s face it – most airlines are pretty similar. Unless you’re taking advantage of frequent flier miles, the reason you pick one over the other is price, plain and simple. In my case, the only reason I might pick Iberia is because they have direct flights to Boston from Madrid, not because the service is great – or even that good. I think we’ve just resigned ourselves to the fact that flying is what it is – a means to get from one place to another and something that you have to put up with. (maybe you’ve seen one of my earlier airline experience posts).

So, is it possible to create a good experience?

Yes! I think it is possible to break old thinking and barriers and create something new with flying. Take a look at this article about a design consultancy’s idea “Poppi” for reinventing the airline experience:

http://edition.cnn.com/2015/10/07/design/airline-future-uber-airbnb/index.html

For example, instead of having customers be upset and complain for being stuck in a bad middle seat, why not let those who want a free gift choose  to go with that seat? Why not make the luggage experience more hassle-free? Why not think of ways to make the waiting time at the gate be better?  Poppi might not be a reality yet, but I hope it follows in Uber’s footsteps to shake things up.