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Updated 3/24/2015 : Update in this color at the end
Maybe an airline marketing person will read this and finally realize why business travelers increasingly hate them all. I'm sure both of my regular readers will be sympathic, though I'm also quite certain my little story will have no effect on British Airways whatsoever. It is sufficient to me that I can vent into the vast internet and allow this to live forever in the annals of the search engines.
In the past I have recommended to my friends traveling to conferences in Europe, a particular flight on British Airways. I’m afraid I have to withdraw that recommendation completely after my most recent experience. Premium Economy on British Airways is no longer a significant step up from regular economy. Some flights have not had a cabin update in many years, and those which have now use seats that are not particularly more well-spaced or comfortable than the ones provided on other airlines at regular price. Customer service is dismal, and many flights do not even offer power for electronics in this “enhanced” class of service. I’m going to focus here on that dismal customer service.
Travel problems happen. Flights get delayed or cancelled all the time. Often these kinds of things are unavoidable. If there is anything more important than good service when a trip goes normally, it is the service you receive when there is a problem. Most airlines make it a point to make sure that they handle customers carefully in these cases. It has been my experience that British Airways is not one of those.
As I describe the problems I had on my trip, let me first say that none of these are earth shattering. I did arrive safely, and most of these issues would not even have registered as anything unusual if I was not already angry when they happened. The combination, however, was amplified by the indifferent disinterest in resolving them shown repeatedly by British Airways. As a customer, I am left feeling that I did not get what I paid for.
What follows is simply a litany of things that made me angry during the trip, and my attempts to resolve them. If that doesn’t interest you, feel free to stop reading now. You won’t be missing anything exciting. I post them here so that anyone considering flying BA in the future can decide if this is what they want from an airline before buying the ticket.
The boring details:
As someone who travels to Europe a couple of times a year from the U.S., I’ve struggled to find a comfortable and affordable flight option. Over the years, economy seats have gotten both more narrow and closer together and have reached the point where my shoulders are now wider than the distance between the armrests even on international flights. To make matters worse, I am entirely unable to sleep on airplanes, which makes “red-eye” flights extremely uncomfortable for me.
For my flights to Europe, I chose one of the very few options that seemed to make sense to me. British Airways operates a flight out of Boston early in the morning that arrives in London in the evening. This is unusual because between the flight duration and the time zone change, flights from most of the US to most of Europe cannot leave early enough in the morning to arrive early enough in the evening so as to avoid noise abatement rules limiting airport use.
I spent several hundred dollars more than I would have to travel on another airline in order to take advantage of the morning flight. It allows me to arrive in London, overnight at the airport, and take a morning flight the next day to wherever in Europe I’m trying to go. By doing this, I avoid the jet-lag and loss of sleep from the red-eye flights. To me, this is important enough to spend a fair bit of extra money for the flight.
I had planned to spend the night in Boston at the airport, get on the early morning flight, have an evening in London, and then fly on to Germany. All the tickets were purchased, hotel reservations in place, and I had even followed the British Airways instructions, checking in online 24 hours in advance in order to select a good seat and avoid being stuck in the middle for several hours.
About 5 hours after I’d checked in (19 hours before the flight) I received a text message from BA indicating that they had cancelled my morning flight for “Operational” reasons. This was not a weather related cancellation. Something about the way the airline had scheduled, maintained, or managed the flight caused the cancellation. This is where British Airways utterly fell down on the customer service front.
I called the number given on the text message and spoke to someone barely comprehensible in one of their East Asian call centers (Employee ID #N448669) and was told the flight would not be delayed or rescheduled; I would have to choose another flight. He could not provide any details as to the reason for the cancellation. The next flight he could put me on was late that evening. This would be an overnight flight 11 or so hours late. I explained first of all, I’d paid a lot of extra money to avoid a red-eye flight because I find them very uncomfortable, and second that if I were that late I would miss the hotel reservation in London, miss a night’s sleep, and arrive in Germany exhausted without time to prepare for the work I needed to do. No solution was offered. I said that they should put me on another airline’s flight in the morning, or put me in the business class cabin so at least I could get some sleep, and was told this was not possible. There was no interest in any accommodation. Finally, I asked to be put on the flight the night before (just 6 hours away by this point) so that at least if I rushed to the airport (a 2+ hour drive) I could get where I was going in time to catch up on sleep before my business day.
It was at this point that, as Mr. N448669 was supposedly scheduling my flight for that evening, when he told me he could not assign a seat. No seat could be assigned until I got to the airport, which would be just before the flight. When I said that I’d gone to some effort to pre-check in for the other flight to avoid the problem of getting stuck in the middle, he simply said there was nothing he could do. I asked to speak to a supervisor, and Mr. N448669 argued with me before finally transferring me to supervisor number 7374. Unfortunately, Mr. 7374 was just as unhelpful and uninterested. According to both men, there was a problem with the record and there was simply no force on the planet capable of assigning the seat. It could only be done at the airport. I was given a customer service number I could call. I finished the call and rushed to get packed, cancel my Boston hotel reservation (which meant paying a large penalty), and get to the airport. The customer service number was wrong, but I eventually found the right number – only to learn that British Airways customer service in New York was only open from 9am to 4pm on Monday through Friday. Apparently, they don’t have issues at any other times.
Luckily, I was angry enough to call back. Thinking maybe I could speak to someone with a brain and authority, I called back while on the way to the airport. It’s a good thing I had, because Mr. N448669 had actually booked the wrong flight. He’d booked the one he originally offered me, a day later. After getting that mess straightened out, I again tried to get a confirmed seat and was again told that no force on the planet could accomplish this task prior to my arrival at the airport. He even had the gall to tell me “Don’t worry; there are plenty of open seats available right now in that class”. Needless to say, two hours later when I got to the airport the only seat available to me was in the middle. How’s this for customer service? Having paid at least $400 more for a day time flight, plus $200 for a hotel room at Heathrow, I was now stuck on a red-eye flight in a center seat next to someone would sleep the entire duration of the flight, ensuring that to use the restroom I’d have to wake him up. An uncomfortable and annoying situation I was now over paying for. Once again, lots of people at British Airways were sorry, not one of them was interested in doing anything about it.
Think that’s the end? Nope. The poor service continued.
I submitted my complaint to British Airways Customer Service, but got back nothing but a case number (13423618) and note saying they’d get to me in turn but they were very busy.
Four days later, 24 hours before my return trip, I attempted to check-in online so as to select a seat and avoid the same discomfort on the way home. The site would not let me check in online, saying I had to call the airline. When I called the airline, I learned that the record was still broken and I would be unable to check in online until I got to the airport. Temper rising, I arranged to be at the airport in Germany four hours before the first leg of my flight – 8 hours before the flight from London to Boston – and was told there were no longer any good seats available. I would have another long flight in the middle of the section. This time for 7 hours because flying west takes longer. Once again, they were all very sorry while also being entirely unwilling or unable to do anything about it. The people on BA’s twitter account were also very sorry and also singularly unhelpful.
Insult to injury
Continuing with this very expensive and uncomfortable trip, hours later I boarded the return flight from London to Boston, to discover that this “Premium Economy” center seat that I was to be trapped in for many hours was on the 747-400 that time forgot, having not been updated in at least a decade. The padding long since worn to a rock hard bench, no in-seat power, and a tray table so loosely bolted to the armrest that it would not stay up unless I balanced it on my knees, raised up by using my toes on the ground while I ate. Any time I tried to relax from that position, anything on the tray would slide forward onto the floor. Try sitting in a semi-reclined chair and using your tip-toes to hold your knees up, balancing a tray for half an hour or so and you’ll understand what I mean.
As if they needed to try even harder to make this a miserable trip, British Airways boarded this return flight before the plane was ready to take off. A mechanical problem delayed us at the gate for nearly 90 minutes after we’d boarded, extending the discomfort from 7 hours to 8 and a half.
The final straw
Remember that complaint I submitted? Complaint number 13423618 took British Airways six days to respond to, and the response in summary was that they were very sorry for the inconvenience, were not legally responsible for the hotel cancellation, and that I was due no compensation of any kind under US or EU passenger laws. My feedback as a “Bronze” level frequent flyer was greatly appreciated.
My message to British Airways
I’m sorry for any inconvenience my review of your service causes you. I hope my feedback will be more important to other business travelers than it was to your organization. I paid a lot of money for a morning flight that you failed to provide, and for a service class that was supposed to be superior and was not. You caused me to incur expenses, to lose time, to lose sleep, and to endure your uncomfortable and outdated cabin service for far longer than necessary. I hope others can learn from this an choose another airline in the future.
Updated 3/24/2015 :
Several days after writing this story and sending a link to BA, I received a follow-up email. It was incredibly sarcastic, declaring that it must have been a big hardship to arrive early. Additionally, it seems that under EU law I was entitled to some partial refund. The refund would have been as much as three times as much if I'd take the flight they wanted to put me on that night, but since I arrived early rather than late, it was considered no big deal. Missing a day of work has no value. I'm looking forward to my credit of half the cost of that one way portion of the trip. It will just about cover the hotel reservation cancellation.
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