Half a Story

Via JuliaM, this story doesn’t stack up:

An African woman and her children were kicked off a United Airlines flight after a fellow passenger complained that she had a “pungent” odour, according to a racial discrimination lawsuit filed against the company.

The incident involving the passenger, a white male, happened two years ago, when Queen Obioma, a Nigerian citizen, and her two children were boarding a flight from Houston to San Francisco. The family had flown from Lagos, Nigeria, and were on the second leg of a three-flight journey to Ontario, Canada.

Okay, let me start by saying the behaviour of Nigerians on flights can be absolutely abominable. Many take absolutely no consideration of other passengers whatsoever, barging, elbowing, and yelling as of they were in Lekki market. Worse is their sense of entitlement leading to them treat the crew like shit, shouting demands in their faces if their every whim is not immediately catered to. Now of course not all Nigerians behave this way, nor even most Nigerians, but a substantial minority of them do. I spoke to a few stewardesses on the various airlines and they all hated the Nigerian routes because of the behaviour of the passengers. So when I hear a Nigerian has had trouble on an airplane, my first reaction is not one of surprise.

Obioma saw that the other passenger had sat in her assigned seat in the business-class cabin, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Friday in federal court in Houston. The passenger refused to move, so a flight crew member, instead, asked Obioma to sit elsewhere in business class.

This strikes me as odd for two reasons. Firstly, whereas the cabin crew may occasionally ask you to move seats, being ordered to do so because someone else has nabbed your seat and refuses to move is unheard of. Secondly, wasn’t she flying with her kids? Where were they?

Later, before takeoff, Obioma went to use the bathroom. On her way back to her seat, the same passenger was standing in the aisle and blocking her from getting to her seat, the lawsuit says. She said “excuse me” three times, but was ignored. After several minutes, Obioma managed to squeeze her way to her seat.

Again, this doesn’t sound right. If someone is blocking your way back to the seat and refuses to move, chances are other passengers will get involved followed by the air crew. There’s an awful lot being left out of this story.

But just after she sat down, a crew member told Obioma to go outside the aircraft, where another employee told her that she would be removed from the flight. The lawsuit says the pilot had personally requested that she be removed because the male passenger, who was not identified, had complained that her smell was “pungent,” and he was not comfortable flying with her.

Whatever the reason for her being removed, it wasn’t because she smelled pungent.

“Ms Obioma watched her minor children marched out of the aircraft like criminals, confused and perplexed… She sobbed uncontrollably for a long time,” the complaint says, adding that the children, who were seated in the economy cabin, were humiliated.

Ah, so she was flying business and quarreling with other passengers while her kids sat in economy. This woman is clearly wealthy, at least by Nigerian standards, and unfortunately obtaining wealth and status in Nigeria can sometimes bring with it a sense of entitlement which they foolishly try to apply outside the country.

The lawsuit alleges that United Airlines discriminated against Obioma and her children during the incident on 4 March 4, 2016 at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, because they were black. It also accuses crew members of singling out Obioma, not because she was being disruptive, but because a white man – who refused to sit in his own assigned seat – did not want to share a plane with her.

I suspect this woman has more money than sense and some shyster lawyer has found a way to relieve her of it. I’m looking forward to hearing the airline’s side of the story.

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Fonctionnaires

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s had to deal with a French fonctionnaire:

A recording of an emergency service operator mocking a young mother, who died hours after her call was ignored, has sparked outrage in France.

Naomi Musenga, 22, called Strasbourg’s ambulance service with severe stomach pain and said: “I’m going to die”.

“You’ll definitely die one day, like everyone else,” the worker replied.

The woman eventually called another service and was taken to a hospital but died after a heart attack. The health minister has ordered an investigation.

In the three-minute audio, Musenga – in a very weak voice – appeals for help and struggles to describe her pain while speaking with the ambulance service (Samu).

The operator, apparently in an annoyed voice, replies: “If you don’t tell me what’s going on, I’ll hang up!”

I don’t know if the operator was employed by the government, but I suspect he was poorly paid, unmotivated, badly trained, and a member of a powerful union. During the experience I recounted here, the woman in charge of the department I was dealing with quickly adopted the attitude of a petulant child who knows they are immune from repercussions regardless of their behaviour. She was quite young but already bitter and jaded, wielding her allocation of power with callous indifference to those relying on her department to do its job competently.

For French and foreigners alike, dealing with such people is simply part of life in France.

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Planes, Dogs, and Sheep

Last week it was reported that a dog belonging to a passenger on a United Airlines flight died after it was stuck in the overhead bin on the orders of a member of the flight crew. Apropos of this, Mark Steyn asks the following question:

Why didn’t anyone on that United flight stand up for the dog and take it down from the overhead bin?

I can answer that question. Since 9/11, any member of airport staff or airline crew can squeal that a passenger isn’t being sufficiently compliant and security goons will rush in mob-handed, beat them, arrest them, and hit them with terror charges which have a good chance of sticking. In other words, you are expected to obey every instruction issued by flight crew immediately and without complaining or they will seriously fuck up your day and possibly your entire life.

The airport staff – particularly security people – and flight crew know this only too well, and are happy to wield this disproportionate power they’ve been granted. No doubt in the beginning some held back from exercising their full authority unless absolutely necessary, but you’ll always get some people – and attract more of them to the job – who take a perverse delight in barking orders at those who would otherwise knock their teeth in. Next time you’re in a British airport, watch the behaviour of those wearing hi-viz vests and carrying a walkie-talkie and ask yourself if they haven’t let power go to their heads.

So that’s why nobody intervened when the flight crew ordered the dog to be stowed in the locker overhead. Had anybody taken it down, the crew would have initiated a sequence of actions commensurate with the plane being hijacked and the authorities on the ground would have gone along with it. Having recently seen some poor sod have the absolute shit kicked out of him and dragged off a United Airlines by uniformed thugs, nobody wants the same thing happening to them. And I expect few people have the confidence that the police chief waiting at the destination, or subsequent judges, will side with them against the air crew. Many people think the purpose of the TSA and the power given to airline crews is intended to get Americans used to being compliant in front of uniformed authority figures, and I would probably agree. If that was the purpose, it seems to have worked well. If that dog were to be saved by passengers, we would have first seen the two officers who dragged that man off the flight last year accosted on the plane and beaten senseless. That would never happen in today’s environment, and Rover paid the price.

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Avoid the gunman, but shoot the guy with no gun

There is a problem with this, but possibly not the most obvious one:

An armed officer assigned to the Florida school where a gunman killed 17 people last week stood outside the building during the shooting and did not intervene, the local sheriff says.

Deputy Scot Peterson has resigned after being suspended, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said.

“I am devastated. Sick to my stomach. He never went in,” Sheriff Israel said.

On the face of it, the officer should have gone in and tackled the shooter, as he ought to have been trained to do. The possibility of coming up against armed criminals is why they’re given guns after all, and considering an unarmed ROCT cadet of 15 years of age sacrificed himself to save his fellow pupils, it’s pretty poor that this policemen stood outside and did nothing. Worse, he allowed the gunman to leave the building, thus endangering more lives.

Sheriff Israel said Mr Peterson was on campus, armed and in uniform when the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School campus in Parkland began.

He said video footage showed Mr Peterson arriving at the building where the shooting was taking place about 90 seconds after the first shots were fired and that he remained outside for about four minutes. The attack lasted six minutes, Sheriff Israel said.

Asked what Mr Peterson should have done, Sheriff Israel said: “Went in, addressed the killer, killed the killer.”

Mr Peterson is yet to publicly comment on what happened. Sheriff Israel said he had not given a reason for why he did not go into the building where the shooter was.

So we can add an ineffective deputy policeman to the litany of FBI and Sheriff’s department screw-ups which led to this incident. But the NRA is to blame really, oh yessir.

However, it has been pointed out on Twitter that policemen are not obliged to put themselves in danger to save others, despite many people understandably thinking they ought to, and it’s what they’re paid for. Personally, I’ll not criticise the individual too harshly. Nobody wants to go and get shot and this chap probably didn’t realise he’d have to face down a lunatic with an AR-15 one day; when the time came, he bottled it. Yes it’s cowardly but it’s also human and understandable. Would I have done things differently? I have no idea and hope I’ll never find out, but physical courage isn’t doled out evenly and some people find out they don’t have it until it’s too late. So yes, let’s beat up on this guy a bit but consider he’ll have to live with the guilt and opprobrium for the rest of his life. If his family don’t have him on suicide watch right now, they’re guilty of negligence.

The wider problem is that there have been several high-profile instances of the police shooting unarmed men recently. Firstly there was this story about a policeman in Arizona shooting an unarmed man who was lying on the floor of a hotel corridor clearly drunk and confused by the conflicting instructions being yelled at him by different officers. The justification for the shooting, heard at the cop’s trial in which he was found not guilty of murder, was that the suspect reached to his waistband and the policeman feared for his life thinking he had a weapon.

In body cam footage of the event, Mr Brailsford can be seen telling Mr Shaver to get on the ground and crawl toward him. Mr Shaver complies, crying and asking the officer not to shoot him. At one point, Mr Shaver puts his hands on his low back. The officer warns him not to do so again.

“You do that again we’re shooting you, do you understand?” he asks. Mr Shaver, visibly upset, says yes.

Seconds later, however, Mr Shaver reaches toward his waistband. Mr Brailsford told the jury he thought Mr Shaver was reaching for a gun. A detective investigating the shooting said the motion was similar to drawing a weapon, but was most likely an attempt by Mr Shaver to pull up his drooping basketball shorts.

The officer fired five shots at the suspect with his AK-15 rifle. Mr Shaver died on the scene.

Most reasonable people who’ve seen the video think this is absolute bullshit, but obviously the jury saw it differently.

Then there was another story of an entirely innocent man being killed by a SWAT team who were called to his house as part of a prank known as “swatting”:

In this case, Wichita local Andrew Finch, whose family members say did not play video games and was a father of two young boys, answered his door only to face down a SWAT team-level response. Allegedly, one officer immediately fired upon Finch, who later died at a hospital. It’s unclear why Finch, who is said not to have had a weapon on him, was fired upon.

Here’s the photo which accompanies the second story:

Many American police forces, especially the SWAT teams which seemingly every two-bit police department now has (and gleefully uses), go around in full combat gear and armoured vehicles looking as though they’ve come straight from Falluja. In fact, much of the gear the’re toting is indeed military surplus, which explains the look. In both the incidents I’ve recounted, the policemen were out in numbers, heavily armed, and wearing body armour and killed the suspect because he made a hand movement which someone thought might have meant he had a gun somewhere. The police defend such shootings by saying their officers have every reason to fear for their lives. Many of the public, quite rightly, complain that an officer “fearing for his life” when part of a small army and facing a man who may well not be armed ought not to be a license to murder citizens going about their lawful business. These instances are not cases of a lone patrolman suddenly being confronted by a criminal in a dark alley, but the police chiefs treat them as if they were.

Possibly the only way the American public will accept police departments turning up mob-handed and killing innocent people is if, when faced with a real dangerous criminal who is unequivocally armed and murdering folk, they will jump in without hesitation and deal with him. Instead, in Florida, we have a policeman deciding it’s all a bit too dangerous and not getting involved.

What this tells the American public is the police are happy to arm themselves to the teeth and shoot an innocent, unarmed person for making the wrong hand movement; but don’t expect them to tackle a lunatic with an AR-15 who is murdering kids in cold blood. In the UK, it often appears the more law-abiding you are and the less danger you present to the police, the more likely they are to visit violence upon you. It seems the Americans have unwittingly gone in for the same deal. Reversing that should be a top priority.

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Working for Toys R Us

I see one of my former employers has filed for bankruptcy:

Toys ‘R’ Us has filed for bankruptcy protection in the US and Canada as it attempts to restructure its debts.

I don’t know if this will affect their UK stores, particularly the one on Great Ancoats Street in Manchester in which I worked through Christmas 1996. I know the store still exists because it’s in the background of this video from last July of a man carrying a crossbow and a knife being tasered by police:

That ought to tell you what sort of area we’re talking about.

I took the job out of necessity having failed to grasp the concept of budgeting in my first term in university. I secured it within five minutes of walking into a manpower agency; this was early December and Toys R Us was ramping up for the busy Christmas period. I turned up and was issued with a blue blazer with a yellow collar and a round badge of Jeffrey Giraffe, a garment I kept for several years after I left for fancy dress parties. My job was that of Product Adviser, the lowest position in the store which involved standing around trying to help customers.

There were a few of us, some of whom were brand new, others who’d worked there years. My manager was a Manc woman in her late twenties whose boyfriend ran the warehouse or something. From what I remember they were both nice people, and I had no problems with her or any of the other managers. It is worth mentioning that was probably the only job I’ve had where I can say this.

My fellow grunts varied. Two of the area supervisors were students, a little older than me, and good lads. The guy I was put to work with was called Greg, a youngster from Openshawe who was as thick as mince but a really nice guy. Nearby was a 16 year old Asian girl from Longsight, possibly of Iranian extraction, who was very attractive but way too innocent to be working around us. She was also very pleasant. Then there was some nasty piece of work whose name I forget, a man in his mid-twenties with a pierced eyebrow and a greasy ponytail down to his arse. On my first day he immediately told me students are useless and don’t know shit, and he seemed to resent me being there. He told me I was inferior because he had five years’ experience and I had none. Yet there we were doing exactly the same job. I soon figured out he was desperate to be invited onto the management training programme, but his being thick, nasty, and unpresentable prevented it.

We were kept busy. The lead-up to Christmas in a Toys R Us is mental, and on the last Saturday before the 25th we took £150k on the tills (this was in 1996). The most sought-after toy was a Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story which had recently been in British cinemas. Unfortunately the product people vastly underestimated demand and they were sold out worldwide. Customers would come running up to me and say:

“OhmyGodIheardyouhaveBuzzLightyearswherearetheywe’lltakefour!”

The girls manning the phones would get calls that went:

“HelloIwantaBuzzLightyearmycreditcardnumberisthreefoursix…”

We never had one in the shop the whole time, and we turned away a lot of disappointed parents who would have paid a hundred quid or more for one. The Toy Story sequel even made reference to this shortage:

The work itself was rather tedious, standing on a shop floor for eight hours per day, but the worst aspect was the Christmas musak. They played the same ten or twelve Christmas tracks over and over again to the point I still can’t go in a shop in the festive season and not think of my time in Toys R Us. I would have thought it would have been banned on human rights grounds (along with my children’s clothes) by now, but apparently such tortures are still permitted.

I only worked there a few weeks, then my new semester started and the store laid off the additional hires they’d taken on for Christmas. On my last day I was asked to go and see my manager and, instead of a bollocking of the type I’d have to get used to in my career proper, she asked if I’d be interested in joining the management training programme. I politely declined and said I was heading back to class, and she laughed and said they’d expected I’d say that, but they thought they’d ask anyway. I liked that.

I left her office and went straight up to the dickhead with the ponytail and said I’d been offered after a month what he’d been striving for his whole adult life, yet I’d turned it down. I’d worked with plenty of stupid people before on farms, but most were harmless enough and some were very pleasant. Toys R Us was the first of many jobs where I’d work with people who were both stupid and nasty.

Several years later I’d graduated, and was sitting in the McDonald’s in Fallowfield with a bunch of friends when I thought I recognised the Johnny-No-Stars who was sweeping the floor. Sure enough he was one of the Product Advisers I’d worked with at Toys R Us, a right horrible little shit with a big mouth. When he saw me he made the mistake of opening it again with a smartarse remark, and spent the next twenty minutes ducking pieces of burger and French fries my friends and I were hurling at him.

“I see you’ve moved up in the world,” I said to him as we were leaving. I pointed to the plastic yellow man who stands over wet spots on the floor. “He’ll be promoted faster than you. Now get sweeping!”

I hope the nice ones did all right.

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Outsourcing Censorship

There’s been some noise on social media over the last few days about Gab, the alternative to Twitter where anything goes, having its domain name rescinded:

This letter came a few days after Gab announced it was going to sue Google for some reason, and skeptics are saying it may well all be a publicity stunt by the Gab founder, who I understand is notorious for attention-seeking.

Whatever the case may be, the letter supports something The ZMan has been banging on about for a while now. He argues that in order to get around laws guaranteeing free speech, governments have taken to leaning on social network providers – Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. – to enforce “community guidelines” which purport to outlaw hate speech to protect people, but in practice are used to silence any subscriber who is saying things they don’t like. The government can then hold their hands up in all innocence and say “nothing to do with us, these are the decisions of private companies”. On the evidence I’ve seen, I find ZMan’s argument convincing.

When Twitter started banning people for having unwelcome opinions, the founders of Gab saw a gap in the market and started their own version. Both Apple and Google have refused to approve a Gab app until they can ensure nothing which constitutes discriminatory language will be posted, which defeats the whole purpose. Now it appears someone has gone after Gab’s domain registration, probably having seen other right-wing sites get their registrations pulled in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

So far it’s an effective tactic. If the tech giants and domain registrars are the gateway to 99% of communication, denying somebody access is the equivalent of banning them from speaking. I don’t buy the argument that this is purely a private matter between companies and their customers: corporations which enjoy monopoly positions and dominant market share are forever being hauled into courts on anti-trust charges, all in the name of consumer protection (and filling the coffers of cash-strapped governments). And I’d be more convinced governments were concerned about the situation were they not rubbing their hands with glee, Theresa May being the main culprit:

Technology companies must go “further and faster” in removing extremist content, Theresa May is to tell the United Nations general assembly.

The prime minister will also host a meeting with other world leaders and Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter.

She will challenge social networks and search engines to find fixes to take down terrorist material in two hours.

This meddling, useless former head-girl never passes up an opportunity to push for restrictions to the internet or powers to snoop on people’s electronic communications. She’s obsessed with it, and the sooner she’s booted from office the better. Of course, the effect of May’s lecturing is that tech companies will double-up what they’re already doing: pulling down posts and articles willy-nilly if they contain a single word which might upset this year’s designated victim class, yet the stuff calling for shooting cops, punching Nazis, and the destruction of Israel and the west stays up. And if a load of right-wing writers, bloggers, and commentators get caught up in the sweep? Well, that’s a feature, not a bug.

My guess is people will slowly start shifting their domain registrations to countries where companies can’t be leaned on so easily, namely Russia. Not that Russia is a bastion of free speech but they have the advantage of being beyond the west’s reach and quite happy to see people bashing them from its territory. They also couldn’t care less about discrimination on the basis of race, religion, etc. I don’t know what it takes to set up a .ru domain, but I’m sure enterprising Russians will spot a gap in the market if dozens of popular sites are being thrown off the internet by their domain registrars.

If you drive people away, they’ll seek shelter wherever they can find it. They will then start defending those who provide it, and refrain from criticism. Anyone who has seen their website disappear from the internet after receiving a weaselly-worded letter like the one above and sets up in Russia isn’t going to spend much time complaining about the Russian government. I know I wouldn’t. Frankly, if I got booted off here and a Russian outfit was able to host me solely because Russia was beyond the reach of what is effectively western government censorship, I wouldn’t give two hoots who they were flogging advanced weaponry to, or whose elections they supposedly rigged. If you’re silenced in your own country, you’re not going to be too fussy who you make friends with. Freedom of expression is something people take very, very personally.

Of course, should unapproved opinions start popping up on websites hosted in countries like Russia, the next step for western governments would be to force ISPs to restrict access to them. You can imagine authoritarian harridans like May rubbing her hands with glee at the prospect of that. I expect we’d then see calls to regulate ISPs like utilities, but the way we’re going we’re more likely to see people having their gas and electricity cut off for having the wrong opinions than the government allowing them to say what they like on the internet.

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Why NHS Food Is Crap

One of the things you notice if you work long enough for large companies is that the quality of any given support service suddenly becomes a lot better if the people managing it are themselves users of that service.

When I worked in Africa, the senior management had their own company-supplied vehicles and drivers to take them to and from the airport; everyone else used a shuttle bus. With no senior management ever having to see what taking the shuttle bus was like, you can imagine the state of it.

You sometimes see a similar thing with travel departments. The administrative staff who work in them are usually local employees who generally don’t have to go on business trips in far-flung cities taking flights that leave at 7am. When you come to deal with them, this becomes painfully obvious.

Last week I saw somebody on Twitter complaining about the food in the NHS, and naturally somebody leaped in underneath to claim that this was a result of the catering being outsourced to private companies. There exists a mindset among some people that private companies cannot possibly provide a better service than public bodies because of the profit factor, the veritable planet of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. But in the case of the NHS the food really is terrible, at least from what I’ve seen and heard.

Thanks to a decade or so traipsing around oil and gas offices, installations, and construction sites I’ve seen a lot of mass-catering and it ranges from extremely good to absolute shite. In most cases the catering has been outsourced to one of two companies: Eurest (a subsidiary of Compass, which is British) and Sodexo (which is French). I don’t know if they supply the NHS with catering services, but I’d be surprised if they don’t. What I found is that the quality of food is dependent on two things:

1. Budget

2. Whether the management or the management’s close colleagues eat it.

One the first point, the budget is the difference between reasonable food and very good food. With the oil industry swimming in money until fairly recently, the food in the canteens was generally pretty good, and offshore it could be outstanding (the food on the Safe Astoria was superb, thanks to a Singaporean chef).

But it is the second point that makes the real difference. The one place in the whole Sakhalin II construction project where the food was absolutely woeful was at the transit camp in Nogliki, halfway up Sakhalin Island. As the name suggests, it was a camp set up for people to spend a night or two in transit between Nogliki, where the train from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk terminated, and the various construction camps that lay further to the north. Aside from a few poor bastards who were based there permanently, people were only supposed to be there for one or two nights, and it showed. I spent a night there between coming off the Lun-A platform and going to inspect the Piltun lighthouse.  The beds had been bought second-hand from the folk who dismantled the barracks at Auschwitz and fitted with dark brown sheets that were supposed to be that colour. Dinner consisted of a slab of grey meat and watery gravy by an Indian who told me that’s all there was. By contrast, the grub on the actual sites was excellent. Senior managers never, ever stayed at the transit camp.

The reason why the NHS food is crap is not because private companies are providing it, but because the people who administer the catering contract do not eat it. I’d be surprised if even the NHS staff eat it; if they do, they are low-level staff who don’t have much clout with the people in charge. Or perhaps the staff are fed in separate canteens? I don’t know, but the reason it is crap is because those who eat it have no influence over those who pay for it, and those who pay for it don’t eat it. If people want the food in the NHS to improve they should insist that the middle management eat it as well. It would improve overnight at no additional cost.

Of course, this is a long-winded version of Milton Friedman’s four ways to spend money, but it’s fun to spot examples of it in the wild.

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More Psychology than Economics

Years ago I worked as a banqueting steward in Manchester’s Victoria & Albert Hotel, which at the time was a Meridian (it’s now a Marriott).  A large part of my job was to wait the tables in the massive function room, which people would hire for weddings, conferences, balls, etc.  We didn’t do a lot of silver service thankfully – most of it was plated, meaning the chef and his team would prepare a hundred or more dishes on plates and half a dozen of us stewards would distribute them among the tables.  I never learned to carry more than four plates at once, but some people could carry six or eight.

When times were quiet and there weren’t many functions on I used to take the occasional shift in the restaurant behind the bar.  I can’t give you exact figures because I can’t remember them and inflation will apply, but the place was extortionately expensive.  In fact, everything in that hotel was one giant rip-off, and I expect – as I learned recently from a discussion on wi-fi prices in hotels over at Mr Worstall’s – the higher-end hotels rip people off because they assume it will all be submitted as a business expense.

Anyway, between the banquets and the restaurants I noticed there were a lot of complaints and food was being sent back, or we’d be collecting plates with uneaten food.  Chefs being chefs, they generally dismissed all this as the customers being heathens who simply wouldn’t know vegetables are, apparently, best served near-raw.  I was young then and still had a long way to go towards finding my place in the world, but nevertheless I was able to see what the problem was: it wasn’t that the food was bad, it was that we were charging too much for it.

We were charging a lot of money for the supposed privilege of eating in our fine establishment and enjoying food prepared by our top chef, and so customers’ expectations were sky-high from the beginning.  If the slightest thing was wrong they’d complain, and rightly so.  But if the same thing had been served up at a lower cost they’d have eaten it gladly.  I learned during my time in that hotel that when customers complain it is not so much about quality or price but of unmet expectations.

I experienced this myself when I checked into the Pullman hotel in Cologne some years back and found they charged for parking and wifi on top of the 250 Euros per night room rate (I was paying in Accor club points).  Now I know they are just ripping off businessmen but at the time I didn’t and I was incensed.  I could understand the Ibis in Heidelberg charging for wifi and parking because their room rate was about 70 Euro per night, but I thought the Pullman in Cologne was ripping me off.  I complained and to their credit they waived the charges in pretty short order.

This weekend I am going to Lille, just for the hell of it.  I have found a hotel which charges 200 Euros per night, and an additional 20 Euros per night for parking.  Reading the reviews, I see that a few people are quite pissed off by this extra charge.  Sure it reflects the market rate for parking in Lille city centre, but as a guest of a 200 Euro per night four star hotel, having to pay extra for parking grates a bit.  Again, it’s not so much the price but the feeling that you’re being fleeced; it makes you feel that you’re dealing with an outfit more akin to Ryanair than a luxury hotel.  I suppose these outfits must run the numbers and find the additional revenue compensates for the complaints and negative comments, but often I wonder how closely the management pay attention to these things.

It appears that British Airways does.  Via the ever-traveling Michael Jennings who posted this link on his Facebook page:

In the annual Investor Presentation to the City back in November, British Airways revealed plans to re-introduce Club Europe on UK domestic flights.

This is almost certainly linked to the introduction of ‘buy on board’ catering from next Wednesday.  BA’s biggest nightmare is that someone paying £7,670 for a fully flexible Club World ticket from Edinburgh to Tokyo decides to switch to a Middle East carrier or KLM because they are insulted at paying £2.30 for a cup of coffee on the connection.

And that’s exactly what would happen: if you’ve shelled out all that money and then somebody asks you to pay £2.30 for a cup of coffee between Edinburgh and London, you’d never fly with them again.  It’s not about the money, but the principle: people don’t mind spending money, but they don’t like being ripped off.  It’s more psychology than economics, in fact.

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Electrical Problems

Tell us your tales of utility company woe and how you overcame them.

asks James, and so I will.

Years ago I moved to Liverpool to take up my first graduate job, and – like a lot of people in their early twenties who have just left university – I was spectacularly naive about renting a flat (student flats are a joint effort and renting them seems to be a lot different from when you’re on your own).  My first mistake on viewing a shitty, 1960s icebox on the top floor of a dreary brick building with a flat roof was not laughing and walking away.  My second mistake was not recognising an Economy 7 heating system and knowing they are worse than useless.  My third mistake was seeing there was no sofa and assuming I had to buy one myself, instead of telling the agent the landlord needed to buy one.  You get the idea.

Anyway, in my hurry and naivety I signed for the flat and collected the keys, and arrived for my first night quite late on a Sunday evening.  I walked in and found there was no electricity.  Fumbling around in the corridor I discovered the meter which confused me somewhat.  It didn’t look like the meters I was used to: this one had a strange slot by the LCD display, and a button beside the slot.  I pressed the button and the lights came on, but the display then showed a 24 hour countdown.  The next day I called the electricity company and they said it was a pre-paid meter and I would need to “build up a credit rating over the next 12 months”.  I said this was ridiculous, I had a good salary and mobile phone, credit card, etc. but I got the usual “tough shit” from what passes as customer service in the UK.  Anyway, I found I had to buy pre-paid tickets from a newsagent.

Only when I went to buy them I found I first needed a customer card, presumably so the power company could assign the purchases to a particular account.  Without one I wasn’t supposed to be able to buy the tickets, but the newsagent sold some to me anyway and advised I get a card ASAP.  I also found out that buying electricity using pre-paid tickets was far more expensive than on a normal meter.  It is ironic, but being poor is very expensive, and one of the reasons why climbing out of poverty is so damned difficult.  There are probably reasons related to administration costs why pre-paid electricity is more expensive than metered, but I did feel like the energy companies were fucking over the poor on this score.  Also, the button I pressed to get 24 hours of electricity was an emergency measure.  They billed the consumption at twice the normal pre-paid rate.  You can imagine how the unorganised poor are clobbered by this.

Somehow I got the prepaid card quite quickly, but by then I had taken advantage of the deregulation of utilities to switch providers.  Within a few days a different company had done what the first one refused to and sent a man out with a normal meter who installed it, taking the pre-paid one away.  So the immediate problem was solved.

The trouble was, I never got a bill.  I waited a few weeks and then called them, and they said they’d sent a bill out.  I asked them to send another and they did, but I never got it.  What I think was happening was every time I called up, the zombie on the end of the phone would immediately ask “what is your postcode” followed by “what is the number of the address”.  Being a bit dense myself, I would give them the flat number, not the street number common to the whole block of flats.  The call-centre zombie didn’t have permission to say “what is your address” and so the same error was made each time I called.  Eventually I figured this out and went to the house just up the street where I thought the bills would have been sent, but nobody was in.  So I called them up again and put them straight.  Only no bill arrived.

I was in that place about six months, and I eventually walked away leaving several months’ rent unpaid because the roof was leaking, the washing machine didn’t work, and the agency and landlord had “all agreed” I needed to fix everything in my own time and at my own expense.  The younger of my two brothers, who was himself a landlord at the time, gave me some good advice: just stop paying the rent.  When several months had passed he gave me some more: why don’t you just fuck off?  So I did, moving back to Manchester, and mailed the agents the keys and never heard from them again.

But despite my best efforts I still never received an electricity bill.  I’d called them enough times and I have no idea why one never came, so I just forgot about it.  Then two or three years later, late one evening somewhere around 9pm, a man called my mobile with a practiced, aggressive opening designed to throw me off balance.  Before I could say more than hello he said:

“You have an outstanding balance on your electricity bill of two hundred and seventy pounds, could you please tell me when you intend to pay it?”

I’m sharp when I need to be, and knew immediately what he was talking about.  “No,” I said.  “That’s not right.  I pay my bill on a monthly direct debit.”

He had a weak hand, but he tried to play it best he could.  “This is for a property in Liverpool,” he said then read out the address.

“Nope,” I said.  “I don’t live in Liverpool, I live in Manchester.”  I wasn’t going to do his job for him.

“Could you confirm your name and address?” he asked.

“No,” I said firmly.  “I have no idea who you are.”

“Okay, but can you confirm if you lived in Liverpool?” he said.  He was clutching at straws.

“Nope,” I said brightly, lying through my teeth.  “Never lived there.  I live in Manchester, sorry.  Bye!”

And that was that, I never heard from them again.  My conscience was completely clear: I’d given them every opportunity to send me a bill in a timely manner, and they’d screwed it up.  I wasn’t going to get stuck for a bill – half of which probably wasn’t mine – because of their incompetence.  And I knew that if they knew my current address they’d have sent me a letter, and the guy calling me represented their last throw of the dice.  If I refused to cooperate there wasn’t much they could do, or if there was, then they were going to have to do it without my help.

Part of my intransigence came from the experience I had buying the sofa.  I bought it on credit and was expected to make a monthly payment of £50 by direct debit, only the money never left my account.  Six months passed and suddenly I got a threatening letter through my letterbox about non-payment of monies owed and court summons, etc.  I wrote them back explaining they’d fucked up and the money had never been taken from my account by the loan company, and without a sniff of apology or acknowledgment they just helped themselves to £300 which I was fortunate to have (I’d been setting the money aside).

So when the electricity company made a similar blunder, I thought screw you, I’ve done everything properly on my side, if you send me a bill I’ll pay it but don’t expect me to make your job easier by answering questions when somebody calls me out of the blue.  Shortly afterwards I moved to Kuwait, and whatever minimal chances they had of catching up with me I left at immigration.

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