Russian Airport Security – A Myth

vnukovo-airport-at-nightI’ve written several times before already about how security at Russian airports is a joke. Like all things Russian, it is a Potemkin village designed to provide the proletariat with the illusion that the State has their best interest at heart and takes their lives and well-being seriously.

So imagine my feigned surprise when I read this morning of the story about an unaccompanied 11-year-old girl who managed to slip through security checks at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport and then managed to board a flight to St. Petersburg without a ticket or ID. There are so many failures here, not just with the airport security, but also with the airline itself.

According to the website, the unnamed girl said that she had never flown by plane before and decided to go to Vnukovo after school where she mingled with crowds, slipped passed the security checks (see the security video footage below) and managed to get on-board a plane. As she boarded the Rossiya Airlines plane, the girl said she told the flight attendant she was travelling alone but was never asked by cabin crew to present any travel documents.

It is a sad but undeniable truth that Russia has for many years fabricated the illusion to its own citizens that it is both security concious and mindful of potential security issues, particularly in the wake of dozens of bombings and targeted attacks in Russian in recent years. The reality though is very different. This perceived blanket of security is non-existent. Security checks across Russia’s transport infrastructure are either never performed, or if they are, they’re done in a perfunctory and cursory fashion by a person who earns a pittance in salary and simply can’t be arsed to do their job professionally or properly.

Take for example the metal detector when entering the Airport Express train station. Every time ANYONE goes through it, the detector is set-off, but the security guards wave you through. The same is said of the security screening at the airport entrances. Sure, they have large x-ray machines scanning my bags before I even get through to the check-in hall. But 99% of the time the staff are chatting amongst each other barely glancing at the screen to see what’s inside passenger’s bags. It’s a joke! And don’t event get me started on the kid they employ whose sole function in life is to stamp my boarding pass before immigration!

Given the continued spate of bombings that have taken place at a variety of Russian airports and train/metro stations, you would think that if anywhere, Russia would take the idea of airport security seriously. That being said, it’s also not above the Russian security services to manipulate and manufacture “terrorist” attacks as was demonstrated with the apartment bombings in the September of 1999. Here it was proven that the FSB, in an effort to justify a war in Chechnya, and thus facilitate the apparatchik and military establishment to steal left right and centre under the guise of a civil war as well as enabling a newly installed Putin to demonstrate his hard-man image to the Russian proletariat.

Of course, the easiest way to resolve such issues is to assign blame. And it’s absolutely normal in Putin’s Russia that the blame rests, not with the state, but in this instance the parents of this little girl and the airport and airline whom she managed to slip past on on to said airplane. I have a hard time trying to understand why the parents should be blamed. Sure, an 11-year-old should have come straight home from school. But looking back to when I was that age, it was perfectly normal to go to and from school by oneself without the need to be chaperoned by your parents. No doubt her parents were worried sick when she hadn’t arrived home. Slapping them with a fine is just another way for Putin’s government to avoid criticism for a failure on the government’s part i.e. to provide fit-for-purpose state services by competently trained staff and properly organised institutions.

The longer I deal with Russia, the more Kafkaesque the country becomes over time.

KLM Airlines – When An Upgrade Is Really A Downgrade

KLM Seat Map KLM Seat PitchFor those of us who fly frequently for work or business, there seem to be fewer and fewer perks afforded these days to frequent flyers these days. The entire experience of business travel is often a stressful and soul destroying one, fraught with long queues at the security, lost passengers, cancelled/delayed flights and very little in the way of edible food or on board perks once you get on board your flight. And with airlines these days maximising load factors with flights nearing full capacity by way of selling more Economy seats and having fewer Business Class seats, the days of a freebie upgrade have all but diminished.

So imagine the joy experienced by one KLM passenger who was told he was being upgraded on a flight from Prague to Amsterdam, only to have that jubilant feeling dashed immediately when he was told by the ground crew that although he was being bumped up to Business Class, he wasn’t allowed to avail of the creature comforts everyone else was to enjoy near the pointy end of the flight. WHAT?!

This is what happened to a passenger who wrote about his experience in a complaint to KLM. KLM’s new preferred method of dealing with customer queries, compliments and complaints is via their Facebook and Twitter social media tools. Given the very public nature of social media, it means that the airline’s dirty laundry is aired in public for all and sundry to see, and this one makes for interesting reading.

I managed to reach out to the passenger in question to find out more. It turns that on his return flight back to Amsterdam, he was told he was being “upgraded”. BUT, he was told he wouldn’t be served a business class meal and wouldn’t be getting the frequent flyer points either. To make matters worse, when he was nearing the plane, it was only then that he realised that his preferred seat – which was a window seat in the Economy Comfort section in KLM’s premium economy cabin – was substituted for an aisle seat. Not only that, but the aircraft in question has no difference in seat pitch or seat comfort between the Business Class and the Economy Comfort. So he was effectively moved from a seat he paid extra for to a seat he didn’t want and has clearly stated in his passenger profile on KLM’s frequent flyer programme that he doesn’t like.

But wait, it gets better. Because whilst he knew he wasn’t getting a Business Class meal, the cabin crew made doubly sure that both he AND his fellow passengers knew that he was “upgraded” by way on blabbing out loud to him during the cabin service that he was only entitled to an economy meal. It was at this stage, he explained, that he reached boiling point, because in his eyes, he had not been “upgraded”, despite the ground staff and cabin crew repeatedly using that phrase to him. If anything, he explained, he had received a “seat reassignment”.

When he arrived home, he wrote a complaint to KLM, expecting the airline to acknowledge the error of their ways, and offer up a remedy or token of apology, but their responses only further served to rankle him. His biggest frustration, he emailed to me, was that the airline continued to reply scripted responses feigning platitudes of insipid and insincere apologies over his experience during the flight, and never once offering anything at all to make-up for the fact that his “upgrade” wasn’t an “upgrade”, but rather a “downgrade”.

In his original opening complaint, he wrote to KLM explaining the dictionary definition of an upgrade, i.e. the definition of an upgrade is “an occurrence in which one thing is replaced by something better, newer, more valuable, etc”, and further explaining that being moved from a preferred seat, to a worse location AND not being treated the same as your fellow passengers in Business Class does not, by definition, meet the criteria of an “upgrade” and therefore should not be referred to as such. It’s hard to disagree with the man.

From their replies (see the attached conversation), however, it’s pretty self evident that the customer services people either didn’t understand his point, didn’t care about his point, or weren’t empowered/inclined to do something to make it up to him. Even when he pointed out to KLM that Business Class is not just a seat, it’s a service – a selling point that the likes of Singapore Airlines, Qatar, Emirates, Virgin and Cathay capitalise on – the airline failed to acknowledge the issue.

I know many of you will look at this and think it’s another one of these “First World Problems”. That it’s merely someone being difficult. However, there is a valid point to his argument, which is that if an airline sells the concept of a frequent flyer programme to customers, with one of those benefits being upgrades and preferential treatment for it’s most revered passengers. When they treat that loyal customer like a second class citizen, that same passenger who has helped keep that airline in business, then maybe it’s time to start thinking about flying with someone else.

The differences in customer service, quality of product offerings on-board with Asian/Middle Eastern airlines versus European Flag Carriers and US airlines has long been discussed in travel forums across the internet. Everyone knows that the Gold Standard of in-flight service and customer service on the ground is held by the likes of Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Emirates Airlines.It’s the principle concept of good customer service in any business and in any industry, and these three lead the way. And they have proven that if you treat your customers well, they will come back time and again. But treat them with contempt and you’ve lost not just one, but perhaps hundreds of potential customers, new and old. A lesson KLM’s latest financials would suggest that they cannot afford to ignore.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, KLM will do regarding this issue. They had made noises about offering our weary traveller a “surprise” on his next flight. But it appears that doing their “utmost” meant doing nothing at all. It’s one thing to ignore and shrug off a complaint, it’s quite another to promise you’ll resolve it, and then break that same promise. My guess is that this wasn’t the first passenger KLM have done this to, and it will most likely not be the last. And scripted false apologies on Facebook are also not the way to handle such things either. But if you, like me, travel a lot for business, you might might find yourself also getting a “downgrade” soon.



Eye Candy – Hot-Air Balloon Fiesta

This short time-lapse, produced by Roadtrippers, is a beautiful and vibrant introduction to the nine-day International Balloon Fiesta event held every October in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Every year, the city’s skies are filled with hundreds of hot-air balloons, all shapes and sizes. Launching into the sky at all hours of the day — many taking flight just before sunrise — the spectacle creates a sight and experience which is unique in the ballooning calendar.

Hat-tip to Amber for sharing

Balloon Fiesta_1 Balloon Fiesta_2 Balloon Fiesta_3 Balloon Fiesta_4

Irlande. C’est Cool

Dublin C'est Cool_1Dublin C'est Cool_2Dublin C'est Cool_3

Fun loving traveller Sophie, has travelled to Ireland from France to make a documentary showing off the many sides of Dublin.

She spend an evening of “le craic” in Temple Bar, measuring the height of the Dublin girl’s heels and mini-skirts, to a fun filled evening revelling with the trad musicians in one of the capital’s oldest pubs. Finished off with a “mammy-style” fry-up in her B&B.

When herself explains Dublin nightlife to friends, this is exactly what she’s trying to describe 🙂

The documentary has been shortlisted to a list of eight shows, but only one will be selected for broadcast on French TV, based on the public vote. Go to the site and help her out. I’m sure that your votes would be very much appreciated.

Feeling kinda homesick now 🙁

By Night, la nuit dont vous êtes le héros / le… door tvlabfrance4

2012 Year In Review

2013Happy New Year Everyone!!

It’s been an amazing and fantastic year for both the blog and life in general. Let’s start with the blog.

The sites readership has doubled to more than 11,000 readers in 2012. OK, that’s not perhaps very much when compared to other blogs, but given that this is limited to my bitching and moaning about life in the Netherlands and Russia, my take on politics, healthcare and economics, as well as stuff that I think is cool, these are probably all topics that would have had limited audience to begin with. So having on average 1,000 people a month who tune in every month to read my ramblings, I’m quite pleased. I’m also started with a weekly Saturday Science post which I hope people will enjoy and learn something new in the protest.

The top 5 favourite articles amongst the readership this year were:-

  1. Holland – Flower Fields And Tulips Galore
  2. Childhood Dreams Made Real!!
  3. Goofy Little Town
  4. Making Good Time….Literally!
  5. Russian Health & Safety – Airport Security

On the personal side of things, Herself and I have been pretty busy. In between my bi-weekly trips to Russia and the rest of Europe and the U.S. for work, we’ve managed to squeeze in trips together to Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Valencia, Dublin and the big one….South Africa.

Herself has started a new, and thriving little business, which we hope will continue to grow in 2013. And my own work continues to throw new challenges and opportunities every week.

All in all, 2012 has been a pretty good year. I’m really looking forward to see what 2013 has in store.

Valencia – City Of Sunshine And Sandy Beaches

Herself and I have been to Valencia three times now, which is a clear sign of how enamoured we are with the city. For me, the thing I love most about Valencia is that fact that it’s still very much “Spanish”….(ignoring the fact that they speak both Catalan AND Castellano, but for most foreigners that’s akin to splitting hairs), with very little of the usual rowdy Dutch, German, British or Americans to be found. The Russians, thankfully, have not yet discovered this little gem either.

Sitting on the Costa del Azahar – the orange blossom Coast – Valencia is also blessed with some of Spain’s best beaches. Valencia is both of Spain, and distinct from Spain. In Muslim hands for five centuries, its Christian European history has been shaped as much by Catalonia, its neighbour to the north, as by Castilla. The region’s flag bears the red and yellow stripes of Catalonia and the mother tongue of many is Valenciano, a dialect of Catalan.

The second thing we love about Valencia is the combination of new and old architecture, and the fact that you have a city that is wonderfully fresh, clean and vibrant. Two of our favourite places in the city are the City of Arts and Sciences (Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències) and the Garden of the Turia (Jardín del Turia).

After a catastrophic flood in 1957 which devastated the city of Valencia, the river was divided and the water has been diverted southwards along a new course that skirts the city. The old riverbed is now a verdant sunken park that allows cyclists and pedestrians to traverse much of the city without the use of roads. The park boasts numerous ponds, paths, fountains, flower-beds, football pitches, cafés, artworks, climbing walls, an athletics track, a zen garden and much much more.

I really love the contrast of architectural styles from the classic and historic buildings found in the old town – the old Silk Exchange, Torres de Quart and the numerous Cathedrals to name but a few – to the new ultra-modern, and in my opinion, almost alien/futuristic styles that are found at the City of Sciences and elsewhere throughout the newer parts of the city.

The third thing we love are the beaches. Or should I say “beach” because it looks like it  simply doesn’t end. It stretches north as far as the eye can see and is pristine and clean with a very visible police presence on the beach. Unlike, say, Barcelona, which has the problem of having only a few crowded beaches, as well as the incessant pestering of African immigrants trying to sell you their tat or braid your hair, Valencia thankfully has none of that.

Spaniards are known throughout the world for their love of partying and fiestas and Valencia is no exception. Every year during the week before the 19th of March, they celebrate Las Fallas. It’s an annual celebration held in commemoration of St. Joseph.

The origins of the Fallas stem from the Middle Ages, when artisans disposed of the broken artifacts and pieces of wood they saved during the winter by burning them to celebrate the Spring equinox. Valencian carpenters used planks of wood called parots to hang their candles on during the winter, as these were needed to provide light for the carpenters to work by. With the coming of the spring, they were no longer necessary, so they were burned. Over time, and with the intervention of the Church, the date of the burning of these parots was made to coincide with the celebration of the festival of St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.

On the nights of the 15, 16, 17, and 18th there are firework displays in the old riverbed in Valencia. Each night is progressively grander and the last is called La Nit del Foc, (the Night of Fire).

On the final night of Falles, around midnight on March 19, these falles are burnt as huge bonfires. This is known as the cremà (the burning), and this is of course the climax of the whole event, and the reason why the constructions are called falles (“torches”). Traditionally, the falla in the Plaça de l’Ajuntament is burned last.

Many neighbourhoods have a falla infantil (a children’s falla, smaller and without satirical themes), which is held a few metres away from the main one. This is burnt first, at 10:00 p.m. The main neighbourhood falles are burnt closer to midnight; the burning of the falles in the city centre often start later.

And for those who want to venture outside of the city, you can venture to the wetlands of the beautiful lake and nature reserve of Albufera, or head into the surrounding hills to go white-water rafting, or venture to the town of Teruel, famous for its Jamón serrano and many delicious sausages and meat…..a carnivores dream town 🙂

As the third largest city in Spain, (after Madrid and Barcelona), it doesn’t give one the feeling of being stuck in a large busy city. There’s not much in the way of traffic jams, the streets are generally wide and comfortable to walk around in, and we’ve found that cycling is the best way to explore and get around the city. So if you’re looking to sample Spain, but without the tourist traps of Barcelona, then come check out our favourite little gem.


Craigslist Joe

At a time when America’s economy and sense of community are crumbling, one guy decided to leave it all behind and see if he could survive solely on the support of the 21st century’s new town square….Craigslist.

Zach Galifianakis is the executive producer of Craiglist Joe, a movie which documents 29-year-old Joseph Garner on his intrepid trip across America. Armed with nothing more than an iPhone, laptop, a toothbrush and the clothes on his back Joe tries to find out if he can survive for 31 days with no money and no other lifeline other than the charity of people he finds through Craigslist.

This bold adventure across America sees Joe helping and sharing in the generosity from people across all walks of life for everything from transportation to food, from shelter to companionship.

Is this a gimmick or is it sincere? I don’t know. But what I do believe is this….given half a chance, most people in the world would help if they could, as long as you didn’t come across as a nutter. But maybe the additional cameras in tow also help persuade or influence their generous side? I’ll leave that for you to decide.