4-star service requires skills and a noble attitude, not paternalism and arrogance. An open letter to Vietnam Airlines.

While Vietnam Airlines targets at becoming a 4-star airline, the company fails to meet minimal standards and a proper business attitude. Far from overcoming the filth of communist paternalism, non-existent customer service still reflects the terror of governmental bureaucracy.

Lately, Vietnam Airlines is bombarding its frequent flyer customers with emails explaining how hard the company was working on becoming a 4-star airline. In contrast to these efforts, today I experienced an incident that proves that VN Airlines has not changed too much since I first used their services in 2010. Booked on flight VN1189 from Hai Phong to Ho Chi Minh City, I was called by the baggage control unit to report to their office shortly after check-in. The staff there informed me that I wasn´t allowed to bring three bottles of fish sauce in glass bottles that I had bought as a present. According to the person in charge glass wasn´t allowed as a check-in item due to safety concerns. Confused due to the fact that I have many times checked in wine bottles and perfume in glass containers, I asked for clarification and an extract of the accordant part within the air transport regulations showing that glass was indeed not allowed on a plane. The lady then referred me to Vietnam Airlines to clarify the issue.

At the Vietnam Airlines ticketing desk I was told the same story without giving further information and―after insisting on a proper statement―I was made to wait for at least 10 minutes. It wasn´t after asking again that the woman in charge finally contacted a supervisor and explained the matter. He―probably sure that I was right―then tried to find whatever reason to maintain the claim his colleagues had made. He made me wait for another 15 minutes and eventually showed me a board that said that passengers are not allowed to carry on ´corrosives´ (the rule was accompanied by an image showing a car battery). I then tried to explain both members at the ticketing desk that fish sauce was in no way corrosive and that I believed they were wrong. I insisted that they show me the part of the transport conditions that I accepted as part of my ticket purchase which confirms that fish sauce in a glass container and properly packed was not allowed as part of the check-in luggage.

In continuation, a team of five Vietnam Airlines staff tried to find a regulation which could sustain their claim. Eventually, and maybe 30 min after the initial protest, I was shown what was supposed to be an extract of Chapter 9 of the Vietnam Airlines baggage carriage conditions with the following text highlighted as proof of the claim that fish sauce in a glass container was not allowed: “passengers are not allowed to carry irritating or offensive materials”.

Needless to say that I wasn´t satisfied. However, the staff would not give in. I then said that I agreed to leave the fish sauce there if they would sign a paper stating that I left it there due to transport regulation, accompanied with name and role and signed by the person in charge. However, all of them, including the supervisor, denied to provide their names or sign whatever paper. In the meantime, passengers were asked to move to the gate. I had to repeat that they move forward with their decision but the staff clearly played with time since they knew that I had no choice than to give in at one stage. Eventually they sent me back to the baggage control to make sure that my luggage was on the plane. When I returned to the baggage control room, the lady had already packed and sent my suitcase to the plane and I had no access to it. Further, she also denied to provide her name or sign a paper, but insisted that I had to throw away the fish sauce. Eventually, I had no choice but to proceed to the gate and leave the fish sauce behind.

I ask you what I asked the staff at check-in: what about fish sauce―a food item and daily ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine―is irritating or offensive?

It doesn´t matter if Vietnam Airlines cares about their Elite members or not. I believe that what happened to me is very ruthless and lacks all respect for a human being, no matter their frequent flyer member status. Worse than that, the incident reflects business practices that have terrorized Vietnam for decades. Based in the doctrine of communist top-down control and power abuse, it is the practical arm of arbitrary rules and incapacity called bureaucracy. The fact that none of the VN airline staff was willing to identify their names or role but insisted on rules that they made up ad hoc as they pleased (the reason for not carrying the fish sauce changed from ´glass container´, to ´corrosives´, to ´bad smell´ and eventually to ´offensive material´) suggests that their actions are not based in knowledge or proper training, but rather on abuse of power. If Vietnam Airlines truly strives for a 4-star service in an international context, I can´t see how this could be achieved. Apart from FIFA, there is no other international forum that can accommodate for such misconduct.

While Vietnam is developing and changing fast, Vietnam Airlines seems to have lost focus and connection to a reality it never had. The worst terrorism is not the one from psychopaths targeting airlines, but that from those people among us denying basic human rights to fellow citizens.

P.S. For all those interested in the statement by Vietnam Airlines, please find here the letter from Vietnam Airlines I received in reply. It makes things worse…..

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About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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