Airtel billed me for 3G at 33,000ft above sea level!

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 6.18.49 PM.png
Swanky new airtel.in/ir promising international roaming bliss! Sadly not up when I was leaving for my trip.

EDIT: Airtel agreed to waive the charges, finally. Late but correct.

In an interesting follow-up story to my recent conference travel to Mexico, I found two diabolical entities waiting for me back home: Mom, with matrimonial matches for me (Ugh!) and a whopping Airtel bill upwards of Rs. 20,000/-. A rude shock for someone who just flew coach for 26hrs straight, with the added fun of jet lag.

Now, the timeline of my interactions with Airtel, is humor enough. From my past experience, I know that it’s always better to get them to respond on email, so that they can’t deny what was said to me. To be honest, the first part of the interactions with Airtel customer care (before my trip began) was normal  (read: good).

  • I described the itinerary (Bangalore -> Dubai -> NYC -> Cancun) to Airtel customer service on phone, since they called me back as follow-up to the email I sent asking for details about international roaming charges. I asked for a package that gave me data as well, and got an international roaming package enabled. (this is the only part of the interaction I dont have proof of).
  • As with any Airtel customer, you get an itemized bill. The bill consists of the charges, unit rates against a datetime stamp.
screen-shot-2017-01-06-at-2-04-01-pm
See bullet point 1,2, 3? I wasnt in UAE at that time!
  • Now to get one question out of the way, I asked by email if the Airtel bills are recorded in Indian standard time? Nodal officer Kiran Thakral replied, yes.
Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 12.54.27 AM.png
So, the timestamps in the itemized bill is IST
  • I do not dispute most of the charges they made to me, except for bullet points 1,2 and 3 in the itemized bill Airtel sent to me with charges in Du-UAE:
  •  So, below is my ticket, I also have with me the stamping in the passports and thankfully even the ticket stubs (my company requires that I hold on to them for reimbursement).

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  • * The flight took off on 30th Nov at 20:05 IST.
    * The flight duration is 04 hours and 15 minutes (as given in the ticket).
    * The flight landed at 00:2o the next day. 
  • So according to the itemized bill sent to me by Airtel, I was using data (loads of data, not a few KBs), in fact a total of 164 + 16 + 2636 = 2,816 pulses or 27.5 MB of data, while I was mid-air on the flight.
    Let me reiterate this point, the flight took off at 20:05 and landed 04 hours and 15 minutes later at 00:20 the next day. And according to this bill, I was using the Airtel network between 22:21 and 23:00. That is roughly half-way during the trip.
  • To put this in perspective, I went around searching for free flight tracking data, and sure enough, its offered by flightradar24.com at this link. So, if you put down the time which Airtel claims I used their international data services, ie, between 22:21-23:00 IST, which translates to between 16:30-17:30 in UTC, here is what the flight data tells you:

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 1.40.36 AM.png

  • So, I was in the middle of the journey, more than 33,000ft above sea level, at the time Airtel claims I used their services.  Before you ask, let me tell you that such technology doesn’t exist in the public domain, certainly not with Airtel and its partners.
  • What is most likely the case, is that the Airtel’s billing system can’t handle the time zone differences correctly when time bound packages are applied. A classic corner case bug.
  • As I have mentioned I did have a international roaming and data package installed, for which they charged we Rs. 999.00

screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-6-53-42-pm

  • Now this is just the first of many, almost foolish, ways in which Airtel handled the situation. Net result was that I could not use data when I just reached Cancun and needed to book an Uber ride, I could’nt use Maps to find my hotel. So the whole thing was pretty useless and unreliable to me.

Now, here is where things stop being funny. I have, for the past month or so, exchanged over 30 emails and countless minutes of calls explaining this discrepancy to over half a dozen Airtel employees at various levels starting from the call center guy to Appellate officers. In fact, let me name all these people, so in future if anyone of them contacts you, you know that there is almost no chance of your issue being resolved or even heard.
Madhumitha, Rajeswari, Ezakiyal Chinnaiah, Vidhya, Archana R, Sheela HK, Bharani S Chandar, Soumodip Acharya, Ramya S, and Kiran Thakral
None of them were rude or unfriendly, but just not receptive to the idea that a customer may be right. Which really really really bothers me. Forget for the moment that there is overwhelming evidence and focus purely on the intent of the customer.
A customer wants to use your services while traveling abroad.
He look up your website, contact your helpdesk email and gets a package installed before leaving. Then he uses the services assuming certain billing rates.

The intent is clear.
There is no need for me to furnish evidence, just bill them accordingly, and stop harassing them with some technical intricacies. 

A similar incident happened to me with Amazon.com and also with Netflix.com. Both websites took my credit card information before providing a free 30 days account for their site. I had stopped using them after 4-5 days but forgot to cancel them and was charged for the next month. However, both websites rolled back these charges since my intent was clear. I wasn’t using those accounts, I clearly didn’t want them.

I have been an Airtel customer for over 10 years. I have paid between 3-5 times the amount an average post-paid customer pays. Airtel, could have earned this disputed amount from me within the next 6-8 months of my regular usage anyway. But they seem to be hell-bent on getting rid of me as a customer.

So Airtel, congratulations. You succeeded.

Oh baby there ain’t no mountain high enough,
Ain’t no valley low enough,
Ain’t no river wide enough, To keep me from…. billing you!

~Airtel seems to have taken thse Martin and Teller’s lyrics way too seriously!

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