After Hours

British Airways customer failures part 3: the implications

In this last part I pull all the previous threads together and suggest some ways BA can resolve its service issues.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor on

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 BA.com 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?'

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