British Airways – A Sad Shadow Of Its Former Self (Part 2)

What I imagine the BA cabin crew see when their gate agents release passengers to board the plane

In Part 1 of this series, which posted yesterday, I focused primarily on British Airways’ seeming reluctance to do anything positive with its seats or cabin layout. They’ve definitely managed to make things worse (see yesterday’s comment about the new Club Europe seating arrangement), so we know that they still have people who deal with on-board ‘comfort’, but they’re showing little sign of doing anything to make life better for their passengers.

I’m focusing now on the customer service side of things – and here things don’t get any better for the airline that once called itself “The World’s Favourite Airline”.

BA hasn’t called itself “The World’s Favourite Airline” since 2001 when Lufthansa overtook it in terms of passenger numbers and it’s just as well. Passenger numbers aside (I don’t really care how many people an airline carries – that particular statistic has little bearing on how good the airline is) BA has been on a slippery downhill slope for some time.

As mentioned yesterday, I can still remember the times when I truly looked forward to getting on a BA plane. I could be sure that the service was going to be good, the aircraft clean and that, if we had any issues, the customer service staff would be responsive and generally happy to help.

At this point, someone who has only been flying BA for the last decade could well be wondering why I have such issues with the company. Well, it’s simply because I still remember the good times that I dislike them so much now. It’s not too dissimilar to having a favorite restaurant. You get used to the good fresh food, the smiling staff and the attention to detail – then things change. The name doesn’t change but the service does. It starts with a salad that has been in the fridge overnight, then your medium-rare steak is served dry as a bone and finally the waiter does all but throw your food onto the table in front of you. Would you keep visiting that restaurant? Wouldn’t you wonder what has happened?

The biggest issue for BA is that passengers nowadays have a choice. Granted, luckily for BA, if you live in the UK you don’t have that much of a choice, but at least there are still options. On the whole, people travel more widely these days, so passengers can compare experiences from airline to airline. That means that it’s getting harder and harder for airlines to live off any of their past glories  – although BA still seems to be trying.

Customer service isn’t just about being looked after on-board, or what assistance you receive when your plane is canceled, it starts from the moment you are booking your flight and what you get for your money. Let’s take, for example, one of the more ridiculous examples of nickel-and-diming that I’ve experienced:

As a regular flyer in the US I’m used to working out the best ways of avoiding the airlines’ attempts to charge for absolutely everything and that’s because the US airlines were some of the first large airlines to adopt the various charges we see on airlines today (US Airways once even tried to charge for water!). But, to give them a little bit of credit, if you’re flying in a premium cabin on a major US airline you generally don’t get charged for anything ‘extra’. Yet here, BA somehow manages to outdo the masters of nickel-and-dime-ing.

A passenger, with no-status, booking a business class seat on British Airways will be charged up to $120 (in either direction) to select a seat unless they’re paying for a “flexible fare” ticket (for that you can read “very expensive ticket”). BA will tell you that someone on a semi-flexible ticket (still expensive) can select a seat 48hrs before check-in opens and everyone else can select seats 24hrs before check-in opens, but what good is that? All the best seats are gone by then. If someone is paying thousands of dollars for a seat, isn’t it reasonable for them to expect to be able to select a seat at the time they are booking?

Moving on to the boarding experience with BA:

Airlines and their alliances from all over the world have policies to help them board their planes in a methodical order. That order varies from carrier to carrier but there is usually still some recognisable pattern by which passengers are herded on to the plane. Most often you’ll hear first class called, then business class and top tier elites, then the agents work their way through their loyalty program’s tier structure allowing different groups to board in order. It may not always be perfect, and it can be frustrating if you’re in one of the last groups to be called, but at least there is some semblance of order and recognition of the passengers who have status.

Not with BA.

It’s not that BA don’t have a boarding policy – it’s laid out quite clearly at the gate – it’s just that they either have no idea how to apply the policy or, possibly, have no interest in applying it at all.

Picture courtesy of Aviation News

On all my flights with BA over the past 5 years (about fifteen long-haul and short-haul trips) I’ve had the impression that what the gate agent most wanted to do, when announcing boarding, was to yell “CHARGE!” very loudly and to then stand back and watch the chaos. As it is, they announced boarding by calling first class (so far so good) and then, after about thirty seconds have passed, they call every-single cabin and every-single loyalty status all in one go – and then stand back and watch the chaos unfold (not so good). Seriously, it’s every man, woman and child for themselves when it comes to boarding a BA plane. It doesn’t matter if you’ve paid $10,000 or $500 for your seat, you’re all in the same scrum!

What I imagine the BA cabin crew see when their gate agents release passengers to board the plane

The experience onboard hasn’t been much better in recent years.

One thing that has always stood out for me, on all long-haul BA flights (not so much on short-haul flights) has been the almost uniform voice of all their Captains. There’s something soothing in their voice and, for someone who isn’t a huge fan of flying, it can be very reassuring. You’re given the feeling that the guy in charge has a good idea what’s going on and that this plane will be taking off, flying and landing all in the way intended. Luckily that still prevails today and it’s the last remnant of what made BA an airline I loved to fly.

The rest of the onboard experience has been more hit-and-miss with each passing year. Surly cabin crew, something which would never have been tolerated in the past, are becoming more and more common and the displays of unprofessionalism are sometimes astounding.

My most memorable such moment was on a overnight flight from Heathrow to Dubai: At a time when all most people wanted to do was to get to sleep, we were treated to an announcement in Club World which started with some whooping and then went on to ask us to “Give it up for [insert person’s name] as it’s her first trip to Dubai!“. An announcement a few minutes later then asked another person to “Give the rest of the cabin a wave – show them you’re having fun!” I had a quick look around to see if I’d accidentally boarded a Club 18-30 charter plane before sitting back in my seat to wonder if I was missing something. I wasn’t.

Perhaps this is where some of BA’s cabin crew would be happier working?

I was one of the lucky ones. I hadn’t paid out thousands of dollars to listen to a wannabe DJ – I’d used Avios to upgrade from World Traveller Plus. But what impression did that leave on the rest of the cabin? “Classy” would probably not be a word used by anyone recounting that experience later on.

As it happens that flight was terrible for a host of other reasons, warm cold drinks, cold hot drinks, a dinner service that took three hours on a six-and-a-half hour overnight flight (which made sleep impossible) and then there were those Club World seats that I mentioned yesterday – not at all good.

The thing is that if this had been a one off experience (admittedly the wannabe DJ was a one off) I could put it down to one or two incompetent members of staff – an issue which every corporation faces. But the poor service hasn’t been a one off, it’s been more the norm than the exception. Flights to LA, San Francisco and New York have all been marred by moody, unhelpful staff and, as I will outline tomorrow, heaven help you if you have to call in with an issue – their off-shore call-center staff are nothing short of abysmal.

Although it’s quite therapeutic to put all this down in a blog (I’ve really had enough of BA) I’m genuinely taking no major satisfaction out of all this bashing. It’s sad for me to see the airline that I remember so fondly from childhood descend ever-more-rapidly into a sea of blandness and mediocrity. The problem is that we’re all becoming sanitised to mediocrity because it’s ever more pervasive in our everyday lives. If those of us who remember how things used to be (and still could be) don’t speak up, there won’t be anything to stop the decline – not that I think BA management cares.

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