British Airways customer failures part 3: the implications

British Airways customer failures part 3: the implications

Summary: In this last part I pull all the previous threads together and suggest some ways BA can resolve its service issues.

TOPICS: Travel Tech

In part one of this saga I talked about process problems associated with ticket locator/e-ticket issues and the arbitrary cancelling of flights due to 'no show.' One commenter says:

As a regular BA patron of some 40 years (BOAC, Concorde etc) I can honestly say they are overall one of the better airlines out there. Maybe not perfect but in the environment they now operate (Middle Eastern airlines, Low costs airlines etc) they do very well and are an asset to the nation.

That's brave.

In part two I detail some of the areas of failure in integration between the website and the back end systems. In this part I move on to the implications but before doing so let's step back.

I initially wanted as many segments as possible covered by BA because that provides continuity of service and allows me to easily deal with the kind of baggage loads I carry. On this occasion though, the system, its process and people have all failed me in some way or other.

As we stand right now, I booked a new flight to Malaga from London Luton airport with a different operator, incurring £240 in flight costs plus £89 in hotel costs and a further £18.70 in train fares. That exclude all meal costs. That still beats BA's offer of flying me for some £877 having decided that 'may' cancel' equals 'will' cancel for a no show and confusion around the e-ticket issue. By any measure I have done all I can to mitigate my position. BA says I should have been aware that a no show might end up meaning a ticket cancellation and should have informed them. They have a point but only up to a point.

Relying on pages of T's & C's that no-one ever sees until they're in trouble is a poor effort at bootstrapping their own actions. Perhaps the agent who booked it should have advised me of this possibility as a matter of course? Given the complexity of my travel arrangements on this occasion there is a case for saying this represents an outlier. That would be generous.

British Airways has been having a rough time in the face of aggressive competition from the low cost airlines. The competition is different for long haul. Today, BA is in the midst of spending £20 million on a new campaign with the strapline: 'To Fly, To Serve.' It is an attempt to get back to the company's service roots which my commenter so admires. According to a Guardian article on this topic:

"People don't just buy what you are, they buy who you are," said Abigail Comber, head of brand engagement at BA. "We believe [the campaign] will resonate with viewers, customers and our staff and will reignite real pride in the British Airways brand."

That's all very well but as we know, in a hyper connected world, brand has to be matched by alignment with people and processes. Nowhere does that matter more than when things go wrong. While in the hotel last evening, a training crew from one of the low cost airlines was in the bar area. We got chatting, I explained some of my woes and they all looked aghast. "You should have flown with us," they said. Except they don't do long haul and in any event, low cost airline flying often means putting up with your flight being little better than a trip to a shopping mall only with hidden extra costs.

Posting a message talking about the issues, @juliacb says:

@dahowlett hating #British_Airways. Need to change ticket for medical emergency? Nope. Emergency surgery not urgent enough...only death.

That says more to me about the gap between marketing and reality than all of my experience.

Large organisations and established brands of all kinds are facing extraordinary challenging times. Many of their systems are antiquated and attempts to shoehorn shiny new websites and mobile applications to these systems is bound to throw up issues, some more serious than others. The old saw: 'new wine into old wineskins' seems appropriate.

Is it not time for a fundamental rethink about what these systems deliver? Is it not time for some of the mega brands to recognise that what served them well in the past will no longer cut it?

Despite what BA says about renewed confidence, I met staff who were jaded and admitted problems that management is not seeing. They are doing their best but faced with the same problems I experienced only magnified and repeated on a daily basis. This is what happens when the people at the top are too far distant from the action and insulated from reality by layers of management whose main interest is to retain their jobs, status and pensions.

Some companies are making a genuine effort to reach their customers and influencers in positive ways. I heard last week that Oliver Bussman, CIO SAP, has contributed towards €100 million in revenue as a direct result of his multi-channel media outreach. @British_Airways only seems interested in happy talk. There don't appear to be any alert systems in place when things go pear shaped. There is for example no recognition of the fact I've recently flow over 30,000 miles with BA in less than three weeks and have another 10,000 booked going forward. What should BA do? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Stop treating all passengers as equal. They're not. Divide your business into at least three segments:
  2. Those who fly infrequently as holiday makers you wish to woo through lower add on charges. Tailor your services accordingly.
  3. Those who fly moderately frequently on short haul. Provide them with fast track in and out of airports.
  4. Those who fly a lot of long haul and pay at least the equivalent of premium economy. Give them access to your airport lounges (which by the way are usually very good) and ensure that their on the ground experience matches what is otherwise good service in the air.
  5. Decide what your ticket cancellation policy is and amend your T's & C's. Be transparent so that passengers clearly understand what they're in for. If you want to stay with what you have then at least give service agents discretion to rebook a flight. Most passengers will treat you fairly if you do the same.
  6. Eliminate process errors in the back end systems that allow for confusion over ticket references and ticket locators.
  7. Clean up the problems with the website. Much of what it does is OK but once again, when things go wrong, it becomes a mess.
  8. Get your call centre correctly manned for peak loads. Undertake an audit of how the call centre operates so that you can become lean, mean and purposeful. Ensure your call centre agents have discretion to solve problems rather than leaving them to be escalated to another road block, the knowledgable but powerless supervisor.
  9. Get those passengers who believe in the brand to love you again. That requires all of the above. Nothing less will do if BA wishes to return to sustainable profitability.

And just to put a final nail in this particular coffin: BA managed to lose my camera equipment case on the final flight leg. The short hop from Frankfurt to London City. 30 hours later and there is still no sign of its whereabouts. As I said to one of the call centre people: 'Do you honestly think that after this debacle I plan on flying with BA again?'

Topic: Travel Tech

Dennis Howlett

About Dennis Howlett

Dennis Howlett is a 40 year veteran in enterprise IT, working with companies large and small across many industries. He endeavors to inform buyers in a no-nonsense manner and spares no vendor that comes under his microscope.

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  • Brave ?

    The airline industry has been through ten years of hell. In the case of BA I was told by a crew member that the airline has had to basically run a skeleton service in order to merely survive all manner of issues out of its control...the price of oil, terrorism, the capacity issues at Heathrow, apd etc. BA is no worse but is in many cases better than its (non-sheik funded) competiiton. As a regular BA user I stand by what I said and humbly suggest you consider what I have said for under the circumstances the airline (BA) has done well. Indeed out of the 3 big European groupings (AF, LH) they were the only one to post a net profit for 2011.....(actually I suggest you sample AF and LH if you have not and see how BA fares in comparison)
    • Fares are not an issue - it's about service

      I don't doubt your experience but as someone who travels extensively between EU and US I find the things that matter to me are not well served.
  • the trigger -- no show, no notice

    A BA Executive Club member and self-described frequent flyer really doesn't know that missing the first leg of an itinerary subjects the itinerary to cancellation? As Mr. Howlett puts it, that "beggars belief."

    Now that in no way invalidates the points that: websites should be more refined and apps should be better integrated into the syste; T&C's should be clearer; reps should be nicer; and call waits should be shorter. All of this is true, important and valid.

    But a four-part blog that ends with a "wink wink nudge nudge" invitation to BA for some freebies in return with a follow-up blog discussing how BA went the extra mile to make up for the error of their ways?

    Disingenuous at best.
    • I don't want...

      ...any freebies. I only want a decent service with processes that work. And nope, I didn't realise that a no show could entirely void a ticket with other legs. Why was the second ticket apparently voided on the Sydney>Frankfurt leg when the evidence suggests it was not part of the original problem? Where is the logic in that?
      • No

        How could you not realise that a no show voids the rest of the reservation?? That is a fundamental in aviation! If you're booked on separate itineraries, then a late flight into your connecting airport puts you in exactly the same situation as if there was a traffic jam on the M25 and you didn't make it to Heathrow on time for your first flight. You aren't protected unless your trips are linked together. Flying on separate itineraries carries this risk on every airline - indeed some are more amenable when this happens, but they don't have to be. BA aren't and are totally within their rights not to be.

        I've been in this situation with missed connections and it is frustrating and upsetting, but it was my own fault for not building in a long enough connection when flying a separate airline.

        Just to comment on some of your suggestions, mainly regarding lounge access and fast track - these are provided for frequent travellers who have status with BA which is not difficult to achieve if you travel a lot, even in economy.

        You are looking for someone to blame for your own ignorance. It is your duty to fully understand the conditions of your ticket(s). I'm sorry you experienced these problems, and while BA is not completely without fault here, the majority of the blame falls upon your shoulders.
  • If you have a problem with BA then

    go fly American, and then let's have a rant on that airline....if it is still flying
  • "all that's messed up in modern day IT development"

    (from the first post).

    Nothing very "modern" here (or maybe something old masquerading as modern).

    Well the most likely cause for the inconsistency is that the data for the no-show is not available in real time to other systems.

    So when you board in London the no-show isn't in the target system, when you attempt to board in Sydney the target system has finally been updated.

    I guess the target is updated over a batch process or an enterprise service bus (logically they are much the same thing), which means that the data in the target system are out of date and queries against it are therefore wrong. You can think of a polite euphemism for wrong (I believe eventual consistency is popular in big data circles) but wrong is still wrong - as you found out.
  • BA Nightmare.

    Last time I flew BA, it was a simple itinerary London -> Mumbai -> London, with a 10 day stay in Mumbai. When I checked in at Mumbai (four hours before departure) I was told. "I am sorry sir, you did not call within 48 hours of departure to verify your reservation". Of course all the first world airlines had dropped the call in to "verify your reservation" policy a decade ago, but apparently not in India. On top of that, I seem to remember the phone in to verify policy only had to be done for the first leg of an literary which I made clear to the agent. I added that as a regular BA customer to other destination, I had never once had to call in to verify my reservation.

    Long story short I informed the agent that I would not be leaving his line until he handed me a boarding pass. The agent proceed to call forward the next passenger as he intended to handle the next customer even if I was standing right there. I intercepted the passenger half way to the podium and asked "did you call in to verify your reservation within the last 48 hours" The next passenger replied "no". At that point I said to the agent "I guess you wont be able to give this passenger a boarding pass either". At that point the agent went back to my itinerary and printed my boarding pass.

    I was not surprised when the flight was fully booked and to this day I believe the agent was simply trying to get people with booked tickets off the flight without financially compensating them for the BA's overbooking.
  • A thinly disguised rant does not good journalism make.

    The whole series of articles comes across as a (albeit detailed) rant against an airline who are just implementing their publicly-available policies.

    I had to laugh at these suggestions though

    [quote]Stop treating all passengers as equal. Theyre not. Divide your business into at least three segments:
    Those who fly infrequently as holiday makers you wish to woo through lower add on charges. Tailor your services accordingly.
    Those who fly moderately frequently on short haul. Provide them with fast track in and out of airports.
    Those who fly a lot of long haul and pay at least the equivalent of premium economy. Give them access to your airport lounges (which by the way are usually very good) and ensure that their on the ground experience matches what is otherwise good service in the air.[/quote]

    FWIW, BA do all of this - they have three tiers of the Executive Club which reward frequent fliers by giving them, amongst other things, fast track access at airports including T5 at LHR and T7 at JFK and lounge access even if you're travelling in the cheap seats (incidentally, the author does not appear to hold ANY status with BA, as he didn't manage to earn any tier bonuses on his EC statement he showed us in part 2, so he can't be that much of a good customer - maybe that's why he's upset.)

    And if you want to get in a lounge, you need to fly Club or above, not Premium Economy I'm afraid. The clue is in the name of the cabin!

    FWIW, as a Gold card holder on BA, I think their treatment of valued customers is great and their web services are second to none. If you want a clunky website, try Cathay (who have just gone through a tortuous migration to Amadeus with call centre meltdown...the number in Singapore still hangs up without letting you go on hold it's so busy!). If you want a clunky website that doesn't even work, try Singapore Airlines - another airline who have just gone through a horrific system upgrade which their frequent fliers are up in arms about.

    Basically, if you're pretending to write about this sort of thing with authority, go out and do some research before you start painting the object of your rant as the worst in the world at something.
  • I will never fly BA if I can help it

    My family, friends and I have have had so much trouble with BA in the last 5 (!) years that I can certainly say: no more BA for a group of at least 15 ppl. Lost bags (19 days trashed along Terminal 5), cancelled flights, delays of 5+ hours at LAX which made me miss my flight to Frankfurt and the hysterical agent, screaming to a 80+ lady that even though the US-UK flight allowed her two carry-ons (a purse + medicine bag) she cannot possibly have those items on her connecting, UK-internal flight. A small lady's purse for documents and a small medicine bag for a diabetic. And you are talking about them cancelling your trip? That's one airline whose management I would love to see fired. And all my emails/calls/faxes to get compesation for the 3 lost bags? I went as far as the London office of customer relations, still have the return receipts for all the mail I sent + receipts for all items purchased in lieu of the lost bags - you guess, nothing. Zero, nada, niente.
    And to @mackieap - I am glad you value your experience with BA. You must have won the lottery or are a part-owner of the company. Can you help me get compensation for the money spent chasing the bags and purchasing shoes and underwear and tooth paste and parfume and socks and shirts from January 2010? No? Hm.. For my July trip to the UK, I paid more just to be with Virgin America.
    • Hmmm

      I think you mean Virgin Atlantic as Virgin America don't fly to the UK. So you are clearly someone who knows what they are talking about...

      You, like the author, are someone ranting against BA's advertised policies - the conditions and baggage allowance for a domestic ticket are different to an international ticket.

      BA are generally really very good at offering compensation - something has clearly gone wrong here which is inexcusable on their part. I hope you made photocopies of your receipts!
      • You tell me..

        Yeah, I meant Virgin Atlantic and not America, thanks for the correction. I have the photocopy receipts from all the purchases. I also have the copies from the on-line form which you need to fill out. I also have the emails which state "your case is such and such and we'll contact you later". I have a printout from the phone calls made to BA within the US and the UK (some are exceding 1.5 hrs!) I have the return receipts from the packages I've mailed to both the US addresses (NY, NJ) and the one to the UK. As well as originals from faxes and copies of those. We are talking close to $500.00 here - still nothing. Nada. The lady that got yelled at and pulled over shared a flight with me from LAX to Heathrow. Then I was onto Frankfurt and she and her husbant were onto a further domestic (to the UK) flight - the behavior of the attendant was just reprehensible. That's also when our flight was delayed for over 5 hours from LAX, causing me to miss my FRA connection and basically caused other issues. On that leg of the flight they also lost one of my bags but it was located and delivered back to the US within 2 weeks. No compensation was offered since I was almost got back at the same time as my bag. But the following year, Jan. 2010 - the loss of the 3 bags for 19 days - the entire luggage? Family members who were visiting from Germany via LON lost their entire luggage. In stead of my relative getting on with this first semester at USC, still living at a hotel until housing could be arranged for - he and i had to go shopping for shoes, socks, underwear, etc. 2 years later I just have the mocking emails and a pile of paper work - and no compensation. So yeah - we've warned everybody else - DO.NOT.FLY.BA - unless of course you are first class. Oh, and I forgot to mention - once the bags made it to LA the next month, their condition was beyond horrible. Broken handles, one had a huge tear in the material and items were hanging out and smaller items were missing, some medicine had gone bad.. Yeah, adventures.