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british airways

I’m back again (after a very long gap – my apologies: where does time go?!) with another rant about customer services and yet again the shambolic customer services in question belong to an airline. I wrote about EasyJet’s appalling customer service in April of last year, but this time it was British Airway’s turn to fall well short of the mark. As a service provider myself, I’m only too aware that how we treat our customers is vital: being a good translator is all very well, but if you treat your customers like dirt, you’re unlikely to get repeat business. Once again, though, it seems to be the biggest companies that think they can get away with murder, forgetting that customers are actually the ones who dictate their profits at the end of the day.

I’ve recently arrived back from a wonderful holiday visiting my son and daughter-in-law in their new home just north of Boston. They moved out in February of this year after getting married last July and doing a mini gap trip through Hawaii, New Zealand and parts of Asia before leaving Europe behind them and moving out to start a new life in Lauren’s home country. Six months is undoubtedly the longest time I haven’t seen my son, so you can imagine how much I’d been looking forward to this trip.

The first bombshell came on Friday 23rd August at 8.20 in the evening, as I was unsuspectingly finishing off my work and gearing up for a weekend of getting ready to fly out to Boston on the Monday afternoon. Who sends texts bearing bad news at that time of day, just after the customer help desk has closed for the evening, no doubt hoping that people will be out enjoying themselves and won’t notice? British Airways, that’s who. Cleverly timed to be just outside the 14-day period for claiming compensation too – the curt text gave no reason, just announced that my return flight on 9th September had been cancelled. They left it to me to look at the news and find out that my flight was one of the many affected by industrial action caused by striking pilots – gee, thanks. The text also said that they would contact me – ha! Chance would be a fine thing – or gave a freephone number to call. Thus started a very long and panicky evening of trying (in vain) to get through on the number they’d given, but being constantly cut off due to heavy call volumes. Time and time again.

By this time I’d also received an e-mail containing the same information (again no reasons), but giving a link to a website where I should be able to manage my booking and rebook on a different date. Again, dream on! Their website was clearly overloaded and while it offered different dates, clicking on the suggestions inevitably led to a long-winded process culminating in an unknown error message – so frustrating! The default flight option it offered me was on the Saturday two days before my intended return flight, which I definitely didn’t want. My son has only recently started with an American company and has very little holiday entitlement as yet – to lose two of the precious weekend days we would have together was quite simply not an option!

By dint of staying up, tearing my hair out, until the early hours of the morning, I eventually managed to book online when it suddenly offered me a Sunday evening flight, whereas before there had been none available. By this stage I’d decided that losing one day was just about tolerable – it wouldn’t let me book anything even a couple of days after my return flight, so I was clutching at straws. So, at nearly 3 o’clock in the morning, I had a new flight, just over a day earlier, but it seemed like my holiday was back on course. I won’t say that I slept well for the rest of the night, but I’m pretty sure I slept more than I would have done if I hadn’t managed to rebook…

Of course, I’d celebrated far too soon. Having spent the next morning regaling family with my tortuous exploits of the previous night, blow me down if I didn’t receive another text at 11.30 that same morning, advising me that my replacement flight had been cancelled too. Who would believe it?! Cue countless more attempts to get through on the ‘phone, all in vain, and likewise via the website. What sort of company allows its customers to flounder helplessly while offering no assistance whatsoever? I’d tried tweeting, likewise to no avail. Even direct messages via Twitter went unanswered, often the frustrated consumer’s last resort. In the end, I decided I might as well get on with what I had to do, as it was obvious I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I went out and took out my frustration on the garden/allotment – it’s amazing what a bit of hard physical labour in the fresh air can do for your sanity!

Sunflowers et al.JPG

That evening, having tried again and still made no progress, I happened to be glancing at Twitter, and specifically the huge and angry thread under the British Airways hashtag, when I saw a tweet from a journalist who had managed to get through to the BA call centre, not by trying the number BA suggested, but by calling the Executive Club No. and then selecting the Book new flight option rather than Change an existing booking. By that stage, of course, the call centres had closed for the evening (despite BA saying they were open for longer hours), but I tried the next morning and after waiting a mere (!) 1 hr 20 minutes on the ‘phone – bingo! In next to no time, the lady I spoke to had offered me an alternative flight, albeit on the 10th, one of the strike days, a day later than I should have been flying back. When I expressed my concern that this was still technically a strike day, she assured me that some of the pilots were still flying and they were using partner airline, so all should be well – but I have to confess I wasn’t ever entirely confident that it would fly as scheduled! (Spoiler alert: it did, as it happened, but another BA flight just before it was cancelled at the last minute according to a fellow passenger on my return journey.)

In fairness to the Customer Services staff, I have to say that all the assistants I spoke to when I did manage to get through were extremely apologetic, helpful and efficient – but what a shame that the system itself was so deeply flawed that it was virtually impossible to speak to an actual person in the first place.

You might think that my story ended here, but no, fate had another twist in store. Having managed to reinstate my return flight 24 hours later than planned, what did I receive at midday on the Sunday, just a couple of hours after I thought I’d resolved the problem? Yes, you’ve guessed it – another text, this time telling me that my outbound flight the following day had been cancelled! Quivering with rage, I called yet again and actually got through to an operative within 20 minutes this time. However, I was so shaken by the whole fiasco that I could barely string a sentence together when he picked up the ‘phone! Heaven knows how an elderly person or someone with a more nervous disposition would have coped with the whole turn of events…

frustrated

The operator couldn’t explain why that flight had been cancelled (no industrial action this time), but did say I would definitely be eligible for compensation, and offered me a flight the following day.  The cancellation e-mail had automatically rebooked me on an American Airlines flight from Heathrow at 7.45 in the morning, changing in Chicago, and landing in Boston at 3.30 the following afternoon. There’s no way I can get to Heathrow at that time in the morning without paying for extortionate airport parking, staying in a hotel overnight or getting an expensive taxi from home at an unearthly hour, plus the whole point of a Boston flight is that it’s relatively short – why on earth would I want to change in Chicago and extend my travelling time? Of course, the time difference meant that I couldn’t check with my son whether the proposed new time suited them to pick me up, so I accepted, only for my son to say that the later arrival time wasn’t ideal as they had a very early start the next morning. Back to the drawing board: I called again, getting through in 10 minutes this time (yay!), and explained my predicament. Once again, the very helpful lady I spoke to offered me a flight at the same time as my original flight, but a day later, although that hadn’t been available when I ‘phoned before. I did suggest at this stage that it might be nice if they upgraded me because of all the stress, but she was adamant that it wasn’t possible. Sigh.

By this time, I’d wasted so much of the weekend trying to sort my flights out that I was severely in need of a holiday. I’d also had to coordinate with my dogminder to make sure that she could have the dog for longer if necessary (she could). At least I was in the fortunate position of being able to change my days without too much hassle: being self-employed, I knew I could work on holiday if necessary. Anyone tied to fixed holiday dates would have been in a far worse situation, as would anyone who had accommodation booked and would presumably lose any nights they didn’t take up.

The final jolt to my over-extended nerves came on the Tuesday morning when I woke up in a panic having remembered that I was supposed to check in online the previous evening. Why do BA only let you check in 24 hours before?! I’d forgotten with all the stress of everything else. I leapt up, dashed to my laptop and tried to check in, only to get the message that I wasn’t able to check in and to please call. Aaaagh! Visions of the ‘plane being overbooked because I hadn’t checked in early enough came to mind. The magic number worked again and this time I spoke to another very pleasant lady who announced, to my very great surprise, that I had been upgraded after all and that’s why I couldn’t check in online. Phew! I would still rather not have had all the hassle in the first place, though…

The upshot of my story – and apologies for rambling on! – is that big companies really can’t afford to rest on their laurels where customer loyalty is concerned. Ironically, I’d chosen British Airways for this flight precisely because I felt they offered a more pleasant experience than other airlines on previous transatlantic flights. Next time, I probably won’t feel the same way! As service providers on a much smaller scale, we freelancers are so much closer to our customers and therefore need to go the extra mile to make sure we provide good service. I find it quite noticeable if colleagues don’t respond to e-mails, or are abrupt or rude in their communications or in online forums, and would certainly be put off dealing with them again. A customer services disaster on this magnitude would be incomprehensible for a small company, but just goes to show how easy it is to lose a good reputation by failing to communicate effectively.

I did have a fabulous holiday in the end, no thanks to BA for the stressful weekend preceding it, and I have put in my claim for compensation* – but actually, I would rather not have had to go through the anguish at all. Here’s hoping they manage to resolve the dispute soon and can offer some reassurance that they’ve got appropriate measures in place to deal with future such events: a functioning website and the ability to speak to a real person in real time would be a good place to start. Colleagues, please note: keeping the communication channels open is vital for good business relations!

Me on jetty in Maine

*There’s actually a form you can fill in online on the British Airways website, which allows you to request compensation specifically if you are claiming under the EU flight cancellation/delay ruling. It outlines what is and isn’t covered and should in theory be easier than writing separate letters and risking them not going to the right department. We shall see… You can also claim any extraneous expenses incurred as a result of flight delay or cancellation in the same form.