British Airways customer failures part 1: broken processes

The airline's uncanny ability to bungle even simple tasks beggars belief, yet it stands as an exemplar of all that's messed up in modern day IT development.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

This is part one of a three parter. In this part I talk about process failures in communications and the ticket locator/e-ticket systems. In part two, I talk about the website. In part three I talk abut the broader implications for development and customer relationships in a hyper connected world.

Those who drift between this weblog and my personal site will know that every now and again I launch a tirade against some aspect of travel. The latest target for my ire is that icon of self deprecating failure: British Airways. Its uncanny ability to muff even common day tasks beggars belief yet it stands as an exemplar of all that's messed up in modern day IT development. Here we go...

I've been on a near round the world trip the last few weeks. Kicking off in London, I ventured west to Houston, then back to London, on to Sydney Australia, round to Frankfurt and then back home. All in 17 days. All booked under different ticket locators with BA. Except as I write this I am not back home. I am sat in an airport. still not home and a day late.

Due to scheduling issues, I was a 'no show' at one leg that connected to lots of other legs of the journey but under the same ticket locator. Little did I know that because of the no show, my itinerary was at risk. Nobody told me. Nobody pinged me to find out what was going on, less still call up or send an inquiring email. I didn't realise the gravity of that situation until late in the day.

Arriving off a red eye from Houston, I immediately rechecked bags and obtained my next ticket which was to Sydney. All is good so far apart form the fact I had been a no show on an inbound to London from Malaga. This was because the Houston flight was a late addition to the overall schedule and conflicted with the outbound from Malaga. This was the triggering event for what followed.

When I returned to Sydney airport, the check in agent could find no record of me. Holy crap - I am standing there with a confirmation loaded into TripIt and she has no clue about me?

A quick run over to the Qantas desk revealed that because of the Malaga no show my itinerary had been voided. A clatter of keys by the sales agent and I am on my way as intended, complete with a fresh itinerary showing what I thought was the correct e-ticket number. What I didn't know then but came to realise later is that I was booked on two e-tickets for the same itinerary i.e. Malaga>London>Sydney>Frankfurt>London>Malaga.

Arriving at Frankfurt I made a beeline for the BA desk and ask them to check me - or at least get me a ticket at least as far as London. According to their records, my ticket to London is open but the final leg to Malaga is missing. Confident I can get it resolved in London I journey onwards. It was only when I arrived at London that things went really pear shaped. It turns out my ticket from the UK (remember the no show thing?) back home is voided due to the no show. BA tell me that to get on this flight will set me back an extra £870 or thereabouts. That's not going to happen.

Arguing with the call centre is pointless and horribly time wasting. Two calls that tell me wait time will be more than 15 minutes, a wait time of 9 minutes followed by a fruitless call with the agent and another 22 minutes wait before speaking with an agent who at least empathised with my situation did not resolve the situation.

According to BA's Ts & Cs: 6c) You must check in by the check-in deadline

If you do not complete the check-in process by the check-in deadline, we may decide to cancel your reservation and not carry you.

This is not the same as 'will' cancel, a fact I pointed out to the empathetic agent but which got me nowhere. All of this is really a prelude to the various places that BA's systems fail in the value delivery chain.

  1. The call center is understaffed. Four calls over a period of 12 hours during which the wait time is at least 15 minutes on all calls tells me something. Where are the systems that predict call loads?
  2. Part of the problem seems to stem from the fact that the original booking agent organised two e-tickets albeit under the same ticket locator. Right now it is unclear which of the tickets BA voided although from the printed information I have, it sounds like the Malaga>London return. Where are the processes for reconciling ticket issues in these circumstances?
  3. It doesn't make sense that there was a bowling ball effect onto other e-tickets i.e. the Sydney>Frankfurt leg and as yet no-one can explain what happened. BA allows this confusion to occur. Why?
  4. At the very least there is confusion and conflicting information at BA and communicated to me. That should never happen. BA should always be in full possession of the right information. It is a security issue. If the agents are confused then where is the escalation process to help them out?
  5. At no time did anyone advise me that a part of my itinerary was at risk. Given the fact there were two tickets under the same locator reference is it beyond the wit of man to at least insert an IF>THEN SQL statement into the workflow so that a communication can be instantiated? This cannot be an uncommon issue.
  6. The interpretation of 'may' to 'will' is not made clear to customers. That is palpably unfair.

On to the BA website. This is where things really get screwy.

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