BA, your privilege not to be allowed to fly on them

January 19, 2007

I should have been writing this from Zurich, but thanks to BA I delivered an address by telephone from home, drove to Heathrow and back twice for no purpose and suffered 1.5 hours of mobile phone costs listening to music and advertising with promises that an agent would be with me shortly. Now I have long avoided British Airways. Unless you are in First (and I never have been) you generally get the impression that its your privilege to be allowed to fly with them rather than the other way round. The contrast with service from American Airlines and Singapore Airlines is extreme. There are the odd exceptions, one checkin person who went well beyond the call of duty last year when I turned up with 30 minutes to go in the wrong terminal, but she was the exception that proved the rule. Anyway I need to vent off steam so if you want to read the full tirade read on ….

Yesterday I got the Heathrow to discover that my flight was cancelled due to the storm. Now this happens and I measure customer service on how people deal with this sort of thing, for which they cannot be held directly responsible. What became obvious is that BA is a company driven by process. I no longer had a valid ticket, so along with several hundred others I stood in a queue at a ticket office with no additional staff on duty (this storm had been forecast all week). An agent came free and I walked up to his slot only to be sent back as I had not been “called”. After he had twiddled this thumbs for a bit I was allowed to approach the presence and was contemptuously (I choose my words with care) given the offer of a flight to Basel instead of Zurich. He told it was a twenty minute train journey from Basel to Zurich but BA would not meet the cost. Now I know its half an hour to the station and at least a hour but never mind, thats OK I accept the ticket and head for the lounge. The flight is called and I go to the gate. For the next hour we are told that we will board in ten minutes, every ten minutes, until finally we are told that the flight is cancelled. We then have to collect our bags, go through immigration and guess what – back to the ticket office which now has a queue estimated at two hours. One person spoke up in the lounge (mildly) to the effect that we were not be treated well and was told that he was “not a happy bunny”. When he got a little angry at such patronizing language he was asked if he wanted to talk about it. He said no but that was deeped unacceptable (I think BA employ ex Nannies) and he was hectored in public about his lack of appreciation of the problems BA were having (as I say its your privilege to be allowed to fly with them.

In any other country or with any other air line they would have set up something for each plane, but not BA; if you do not have a valid ticket you go to the ticket office regardless. After half an hour they went down the line and suggested that if we would prefer to fly the next day then we should go home and phone the BA call centre who would place us on another flight early in the morning. Trains were also delayed so I hired a car and drove home. Every ten minutes on the way home I phoned the BA call centre and was not even placed in a queue but had the call terminated due to their high call volumes. Finally late that evening I got through and listened to music and adverts for around twenty minutes. Then I got told that I was too late to get on a direct flight until late PM which would be too late (so the promise that we were been reallocated was a false one designed to reduce the queue). I suggested (not the BA call centre) going to an alternative airport and was told that Basel was possible. Given that the times would mean me arriving 15 minutes late I asked them to hold the flight and phoned the conference organizer to see if they were happy. No one in BA told me that they would close the call centre at 2000 so when I phoned back I could not confirm the flight.

So I go to bed, get up 0400 pack and set off for the airport. At 0600 on the dot when they open I phone and get put in a queue. For the next hour and twenty minutes as I drive up the motorway I hear that music but get no human contact. I arrive at Heathrow and the queue for the ticket office is longer than it is possible to get through before the flight leaves, so I drive home.

Now this is a nonsense. In effect BA have cost me a hire car for two days, petrol, the best part of two hours of phone calls. So probably £3-400 in direct cash costs before we think about lost fees and opportunity cost of two days spent getting frustrated.

Things go wrong, I can’t blame BA for the bad weather, but I can blame them for the complete lack of flexibility in organisation and staffing. A system designed to take on the day bookings and handle minor variations was expected to cope with over 100 cancelled flights. No one thought to think differently, not one thought to help or assist their customers.

Rant over, tomorrow its Quantas to Canberra via Sydney and I am going to wear my Australian Rugby Shirt (I normally reserve it for when Australia play England which is the only time I support them), however on this occasion I do not want anyone talking about the cricket so I am donning camouflage and dressing like a native.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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