British Airways – A Sad Shadow Of Its Former Self (Final Part)

Over the past few days I’ve been using this blog as a therapeutic outlet to vent about the ever-worsening experience that travelling with British Airways has become. I’ve tried to rationalize, in my own mind, why I don’t get this annoyed with other companies’ incompetence, ambivalence and general inability to provide acceptable service (BA is certainly not alone in all this) and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s down to BA’s over-confidence and reliance on their past reputation. This seems to almost border on arrogance.

Cartoon by Peter Brookes from The Times

If there’s one thing that BA does well it’s complacency stemming from this arrogance – how else do you explain their belief that they can continue degrading their service and hard-product offerings while continuing to charge top-tier prices?

They truly don’t seem to care about even appearing to be consumer friendly. Take a look at this tweet for example:

How can anyone running a customer services operation think that (a) it’s ok for a global airline to restrict a main avenue of communication with their customers to UK office hours? And (b) that it’s a good idea to advertize it?!

Granted, this tweet was from a year ago so I’m not entirely sure if BA has addressed this issue by now – but I don’t see anything on their Twitter feed to suggest that they have. (I tweeted their team with an issue 2 days ago and still haven’t heard back). Nevertheless, fixed or not, the fact that in 2013 BA thought that it was appropriate to restrict a main channel of customer service operations to UK office hours beggars belief – even the US legacy airlines know better than that!

Unfortunately, even if you can get hold of someone in their customer services team (usually after a very long hold on the phone), things don’t get much better.

I’ve had the misfortune of interacting with their phone team on two occasions recently and neither experience was good.

Before I go any further allow me to say this: I realize that neither of the issues I’m about to describe were dramatic/disastrous/dreadful or any other hyperbolic word that I could come up with – but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. How a company deals with issues is as important as what it does to prevent issues arising in the first place – and BA seems to deal with customer issues in a very disingenuous way. In addition, the issues I had should be taken in context with everything else I’ve been saying about the airline and its disregard for passengers and the service it provides (or doesn’t provide!).

Rather than going in to the boring details of both issues I’ll get to the crux of the matter of the first issue and give you a bit more detail on the second issue (detail that may help you out in the future if you ever fly BA short-haul)

Case 1 – BA’s systems wouldn’t allow me to select seats on the plane (in Club World) despite having the airline status that entitles me to do just that – I was running the risk of having to sit apart from my flying companion if I waited until 24hrs before check-in, which is what the alternative was.

  • After 35 minutes on hold I got through to BA customer service
  • BA admitted there was an issue.
  • I agreed a temporary workaround with BA – I’d pay to select seats now ($240) in return for a refund when the issue was solved.
  • I asked for email confirmation of this and was told that one would be sent.
  • 2 days later I called back to ask where the email was – apparently “it must have gone astray“.
  • 4 days and 3 more calls later I got the confirmation email.
  • 2 weeks later I called to cancel the tickets as a better option had opened up (I was entitled to do this so I wasn’t looking for any favors).
  • BA agreed to the cancellation (they had to) but refused to refund the seat charge
  • I supplied BA with the email, from them, confirming a refund would be due but BA customer services ignored it and never replied.
  • 3 more emails went unanswered.
  • I opened a dispute, via my credit card, and BA was forced to refund the money (thank you Chase!)

Case 2 – I arranged some flights around the availability of extra legroom exit row seats (I always try to book myself on to a flight in coach in an exit row).

  • 6 days before departure I got an email from an alert service I use (not BA!) to tell me that my seat has been changed. BA would have been happy for me to find this out at the airport, it appears.
  • I checked my new seat assignment online and found that I’d been put in a middle seat 2 rows from the back of the plane.
  • All exit row seats were now showing as occupied.
  • I put myself in an aisle seat further forward in the cabin and called BA.
  • 28 minutes of holding later and I got an ‘overseas call center’ (it’s outside of UK office hours but not outside US office hours so this seems odd)
  • BA customer services told me that I’d lost my seat assignment because of an ‘equipment change’.
  • I pointed out that it was the same plane as the one I’d originally booked, same type of aircraft and same seat plan.
  • they then said that the aircraft was under “airport control” so there’s nothing they could do.
  • I pointed out that their aircraft don’t normally go under ‘airport control’until 24hrs before departure.
  • They repeated that there had been an equipment change.
  • I pointed out that this was clearly untrue and asked if they were reading from a script.
  • They ignored the question and repeated that the aircraft was under airport control (I’m not joking!)
  • I pointed out that this was also probably untrue and again asked if they were reading from a script.

This went on for a while! (even after I spoke to a supervisor – they wouldn’t deviate from that script).

I ended up hanging up and heading somewhere I knew I’d get an proper answer. FlyerTalk. In all honesty I should have just gone here first.

FlyerTalk is website which brings together anyone with an interest in travel and they have some pretty useful message boards – in particular the British Airways message board. If you ever have a BA related question there is absolutely no point is calling BA customer services, they’re useless – just head to the BA board on FlyerTalk and ask there. They’re friendlier, more helpful and worryingly far more knowledgeable than BA customer services and you’re far more likely to get the truth – which is what happened in this case.

So what was really going on?

I found out that BA has an unwritten policy (I couldn’t find it anywhere on their website) which involves them changing the size of the Club Europe cabin (CE) to suit their needs. (Remember the Club Europe cabin from yesterday? It’s the one that costs ten times as much as the RyanAir coach cabin but gives you exactly the same amount of leg room).

What BA does is this: If there is high demand for their over-priced front cabin (CE), they move the curtain (the one that divides CE from the coach section) further down the plane to give them more seats to sell up front – and this often (usually) involves taking over the exit rows. So, apparently in my case, BA had been seeing extra demand for CE on my flight (almost certainly because, as of a few weeks ago, they’re the only airline flying this route direct) and, a few days before departure, they decided to kick everyone out of the exit rows and hold those seats to sell at a vastly inflated price.

It had nothing to do with an equipment change and nothing to do with the aircraft being “under airport control” as their customer service people would have me believe, they just wanted the exit row seats for extra revenue and they don’t care if they have to displace passengers to get it – heck, they don’t even seem to inform their passengers that they’re moving them out of their seats!

As things stand I’m still scheduled to fly sitting in a seat I didn’t originally reserve but I’ll be taking this up with BA at the airport – I doubt I’ll get anywhere.

Everything I’ve written about this formerly great airline does leave me wondering why anyone ever flies them anymore? People clearly do, because they’re moving curtains around their cabins and kicking people out of exit rows just to sell more premium seats!

It must be one, or a combination of, the following:

  1. I’m very unlucky and I’m the only one seeing the decline, which I find unlikely, especially based on the results of various internet searches.
  2. I’m completely wrong, which is possible, but again unlikely, based on other people’s musings on the internet.
  3. Customers are showing loyalty to an airline which they remember, rather than the one that exists today.
  4. Customers have little choice but to fly BA (probably true of UK based customers)
  5. It’s mainly businesses paying for employee travel and they’ve negotiated big discounts – they don’t much care what the airline is like as long as it gets their employees where they need to be and gets them there within their travel budget.

It’s almost certainly a combination of (3), (4) and (5) and that’s bad news for BA passengers. While BA may lose some people from (3) if they continue being a truly mediocre airline, they’re not going to lose people from (4) or (5) for rather obvious reasons. This gives BA management no reason or incentive to change or improve anything at all, which means that BA will remain an overpriced, customer-unfriendly operation for the foreseeable future and that is very, very sad.

Of course, you don’t have to believe everything or anything I’ve written – and it’s your prerogative to disagree if you want to – but if you have a trip coming up I wouldn’t book on BA expecting a premium experience, if I were you. You just won’t get it. Whether you’re paying for a premium cabin with cash or with miles it doesn’t matter, you’re always entitled to a top level of service (from start to finish) and that’s a level of service BA no longer provides. Why would you risk it? Do your research and take a look around, there are a lot of better options out there for the same price (and quite a few that are lower).

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Absolutely spot on. Giving up on them after several years of hoping it would improve. They’re clueless and it’s just going to be a long slide to the grave. American’s transatlantic service is now noticeably better than BA and that’s a sad commentary on BA’s sad fall from grace. Though remember! 30 years ago the same airline was known as the Flying Slum. So it might improve again but in its present sorry state it deserves no one’s business.

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