This airline annoyed me deeply. It wasn't Southwest

It seemed like an innocent email. It was the start of a pitiful customer experience.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Aisle of an airplane

Customer service? Hmm, not so much.

Getty Images

We were looking forward to it.

This was what airlines are now calling a bleisure trip. Some business, some pleasure and, who knows, some unexpected joys.

My wife and I were flying to Lisbon via London's Heathrow airport with British Airways.

We were mostly packed. We were ready to go. 

We were even vaguely excited at hearing a soothing British pilot's voice again.

Important information? Well, kind of

On the morning of the flight, I woke up to an email from the airline. The subject line read: "Important information about your booking."

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Those kinds of subject lines usually mean that you need to fill in your passport information before your trip. Or, at least, that's what I thought on this particular Monday.

I almost didn't open it, but then dark thoughts invaded. This was an airline. Airlines haven't been treating customers well lately. This could be quite bad.

And indeed, this particular email flew in an errant direction. It began: "We're really sorry that your upcoming flights have been canceled."

They have? This was news to me. When did this happen? It was as if British Airways was assuming I already knew. But how could I?

At that very moment, I felt an urge to talk to the person who'd composed this email. I felt the urge to use certain specific vocabulary.

Why, for example, had they not offered a reason for these flights being canceled? Why was this email so oddly anodyne?

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There was an offer to fly the next day, in infinitely worse seats and no suggestion that any price difference would be refunded. 

Please forgive us, we'd booked this one overnight leg in business class to get some sleep -- it was a very good deal, booked months in advance -- and now BA was offering to fly us the next day in coach. For the same price, apparently.

"If you're happy to travel in this cabin," said the email, "You don't need to do anything." Aw, that's nice of you.

Customer service? We're generous with that

What are you supposed to do in this situation? Well, in a fit of mistaken hope, I called the airline's customer service. And actually got through.

The agent offered a formulaic, "I'm sorry about that."

He didn't, however, know why the flight had been canceled and explained that this wasn't really his problem. He was there to rebook us at another time. Would we like to just, you know, change all our plans because our flight had been canceled because of who knows why?

He even offered to fly us two days later with a one-time free flight change, as if the free part was somehow was ineffably generous.

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Please forgive me, but I wasn't impressed. Instead, I felt the same annoyance that hundreds of thousands of passengers have felt toward airlines over the last couple of years. And even more so recently. (Hello, Southwest.)

So I canceled our flights and gambled that we could somehow fly out that day with another airline, as we had meetings to get to.

It was now entirely my problem.

I managed to book us flights on a Delta codeshare with Air France. It cost more, with no flat bed for the night, but it would fly on that day. First-world pain, that. But the planes flew -- they were even on time -- and the customer service, both at the airport and on the plane, was truly excellent.

Technically, we're not very good

Yet the British Airways attitude continued to bug me.

I can accept change. It's harder to accept annoyance and brand indifference. So I contacted the airline's PR representatives to ask the sorts of questions every customer might ask.

For example, why was there no reason offered for the cancelation? Why didn't BA try to accommodate us on another airline?

This was the response I received: "I'm really sorry that you had this experience and for the inconvenience it caused. For your background, the flight was canceled due to a technical issue with the aircraft and there were limited options to rebook customers."

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Which was deeply reassuring, of course. Yes, BA gave us our money back. This didn't compensate for the painful inadequacy of its customer service.

Somehow, being told the truth would have helped -- if, in fact, the technical issue was the real reason for the cancelation. Being told any sort of truth would have helped. Being treated like, you know, a customer would have helped.

But the utter indifference -- and even obfuscation -- of the email communication left plenty of sourness around my teeth.

Why not offer the subject line: "URGENT: YOUR FLIGHT HAS BEEN CANCELED. WE WANT TO HELP"?

Too honest, I suppose. Too much of an overpromise, too.

BA managed to strand many passengers all around America and elsewhere around that time, because of some sort of technology failure. I understand a possible cause was the outsourcing of said technology and an internal network infrastructure that is, perhaps, less than perfect. (Does that remind you of any other airline?)

Also less than perfect was, oh, look, the customer service. British actor Liz Hurley, one of the stranded, offered on Twitter: "@British_Airways Stranded at Antigua airport with no food or water, taxis or hotels offered yet. Plane delayed 20 hours."

You'll be stunned into sackcloth when I tell you that BA's explanation for the disruption was "a technical issue."

Perhaps one shouldn't have huge expectations of customer service -- and certainly not airline customer service.

Recent events have shown that 4-hour wait times just to get through to an agent are somehow normal. Yet if my wife and I decide to take another trip to Lisbon -- or anywhere in Europe -- BA just delivered a brilliant lesson in how to annoy a customer and persuade them to fly Air France -- which seems a little careless.

I'd blame Brexit, naturally.

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