British Airways: A Lesson In How Not To Treat Passengers

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Major disruptions are not exactly a new thing in the airline industry and there are any number of things that can cause them (bad weather, IT meltdowns and air traffic control strikes are just a few). But, regardless of the cause, there’s always at least one common factor to these disruptions when they arise – inconvenienced passengers.

So, considering how often airlines face major disruptions and considering they all have at least that one factor in common, you’d expect airlines to be on top of the situation when it comes to knowing how to deal with passengers and how to manage expectations.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

It shouldn’t take a genius to work out that one of the things passengers put a lot of emphasis on during flight disruptions is information.

a close-up of a text

Passengers who feel like the airline is communicating with them to the best of its ability are passengers that are most likely to remain calm and unflustered and are more likely to give the airline a bit of leeway.

No one thinks airlines are deliberately screwing everything up so when passengers see that an airline is trying its best to keep them informed, that can go a long way in a crisis.

In every airline disruption I can remember the biggest single complaint from passengers has been “they didn’t tell us anything”……and in the 21st century there’s absolutely no excuse for that.

So why doesn’t British Airways realise this?

A little over a week ago British Airways suffered a catastrophic IT meltdown that resulted in most of its fleet being grounded around the world. It would appear as if most (if not all) of the airline’s computers went down leaving it unable to schedule crew, manage passengers’ reservations or move aircraft around.

In short it was an all out catastrophe for the airline.

a sign on a building

I’m not about to speculate what caused the meltdown or if it was as a result of the never-ending cost cuts that we’ve seen British Airways embrace….but I am left wondering how the airline managed to be quite so pathetic when it came to communicating with its passengers.

On the Saturday of the IT failure passengers at both Heathrow and Gatwick airports reported minimal communication from the airline. There were some mentions of staff walking around with whiteboards but I’m not exactly sure what information those boards were attempting to convey.

Comments from passengers, like this one, have been all to easy to find:

There was serious lack of communication and we were told to go to the gate and back to the lounge three times. No one knew what was going on or if we were actually going to fly that day.

What a lot of passengers caught up in this mess appear to agree on is that they were getting all their information from sources like the BBC while British Airways said nothing.

a blue book on a wooden surfaceA lot of passengers were indeed “ready to fly”, sadly British Airways wasn’t

On the Saturday afternoon the press reported that British Airways had cancelled all flights from Heathrow and Gatwick up until 6pm that evening….but, according to a number of reports from people at those airports, passengers only received that information from the airline long after they had already got it from the media. Why?

If the airline can tell the media something is it really that much to ask for someone to make a tannoy announcement in the airport around the same time?

Yes, passengers were annoyed/angry/frustrated that their flights weren’t taking off but all of that was exacerbated by the lack of news or information being given to them by the airline.

And it didn’t end on Saturday either, the lack of communication continued into the following day.

I was traveling out of Heathrow on the Sunday after the meltdown and, being a reasonably sensible traveler, I checked a few news sources (as well as and the BA app) before I left home to keep on top of the situation.

The news sources were focused on the carnage of the previous day while, as far as the British Airways channels were concerned, it was business as usual with the chance of some flight delays.

Needless to say I was more than a little surprised when, half an hour later, I turned up at Heathrow T5 to be told that I wasn’t allowed into the terminal.

Heathrow airport staff told me that they were under instructions from British Airways not to let anyone into T5 more than 90 minutes before their flight was scheduled to depart.

a group of people standing outside of a buildingBritish Airways passengers being turned back at the entrance to Heathrow T5

I had arrived 2.5 hours before my scheduled departure time to give myself plenty of time to deal with whatever I encountered at the airport… I wasn’t exactly impressed to find myself waiting on the sidewalk!

The British Airways website had been back up for at least 14 hours by the time I left for the airport so there was absolutely no reason why the airline couldn’t have posted a message on there to warn passengers of what was going on.

For years travelers have been conditioned to arrive at airports at least 2 hours (preferably 3 hours) before departure so it’s not like BA didn’t know that passengers would be turning up at Heathrow only to be told to wait outside the terminal building – we were lucky it wasn’t a rainy UK day!

How is it possible that no one at the airline thought to get a message out to its customers?

It continued from there too.

Unsurprisingly my flight was delayed – I’d expected as much and it wasn’t the delay that bothered me. While British Airways apparently has the ability to send me a message to my phone when a gate is assigned to my flight……

a screen shot of a phone

….it either doesn’t have the ability or the inclination to let me know my flight is delayed. On this occasion I learned of the delay from FlightAware around 20 minutes before the Heathrow boards were updated.


Is it really too much to ask for airlines (and BA isn’t the only airline that’s terrible in this regard) to keep their customers up to speed with developments during disruptions? Just how hard can it be?

If the media know what’s going on then presumably they’re getting the information from the airline and/or the airport… why aren’t passengers given the same timely information?

Communication is such a simple thing to do and to do right….. and yet airlines like British Airways are truly woeful at it. There’s no excuse.

I’d love to know just how much BA’s head of communications gets paid because, based on this past weekend, he/she isn’t worth a penny of that salary.



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