British Airways: When a “drip, drip” of small problems builds a negative experience

Last week I suffered a frustrating experience at the hands of British Airways. None of the flights were late or cancelled, my luggage didn’t go missing. But there was a constant “drip, drip” of small niggles that were enough to take the shine off, and create an overall negative experience.

On my outbound journey to Johannesburg, I enjoyed a good airport experience, pleasant check-in agent, managed to snag a good-value upgrade to Business Class, had an easy passage through security and found a nice place to sit in the lounge.

When I boarded the plane, even before we set off, I pulled out the tray table so I could check a few things on my laptop. It was wet and sticky, there was a blob of some sort of sauce on it. Yuck. There was also some sticky residue on the seat surround and the armrest. As I look down to my feet, there are salt & pepper sachets left from a previous flight, tucked in a nook.

Despite the plane having been on the ground for five hours, it was obvious that there had been no attempt to actually clean the table or seat area.

Fortunately one of the crew responded quickly when I told them, and fetched some damp cloths. She and I cleaned the dirt up together.

On the return trip, there were more niggles.

Firstly, the seat was dirty again. This time bright violet rings from spilled red wine on the side bins (this was upstairs on the A380). The toilet smelled pretty bad, of stale urine, even before takeoff, and we’ve got an 11 hour flight to go. Sadly, the aircraft had spent almost the same amount of time as the flight on the ground in Johannesburg, but it seems no attempt is made to use this long down-route layover to give the plane a good scrub.

I felt really lucky to have an empty seat next to me on the flight home, meaning I could spread out and get to the aisle without troubling a neighbour. But this was a double-edged sword when it came to cabin service.

I got passed over more than once and had to remind the crew I was there when they were serving drinks and food.

“Excuse me. Hi, I think you just skipped over me? Just some water, please.” A half-filled cup of water – probably about two mouthfuls – was thrust at me. I wasn’t offered any snacks, unlike my neighbours across the aisle, before the trolley scooted off.

There were other in flight service shortcomings on this flight as well.

On arrival back in London, having waited about 20 minutes in the baggage hall, a message comes over the PA that our checked baggage was trapped in the hold of the aircraft, but engineers had now managed to open it and bags should be arriving soon. It was another 10-15 minutes before the first bags arrived from our flight, and another 40-45 before my own bag put in an appearance. I had been waiting around an hour in the baggage hall.

My trip ended with a flight back home to Manchester later the same day after freshening up and attending some meetings in London.

On boarding that flight, there was a discarded sticker, bright high-vis orange, stuck on top of the armrest of my allocated seat. Obviously some charming previous occupant left it there, but it takes just a couple of seconds to peel off and throw away. So why wasn’t it?

But that wasn’t all. The inside pane of the window at my seat was loose – the beading around the window was not attached properly, but hanging off, and the inner window pane that it should retain in position had dropped, leaving a gap to the outer pane. Now I know it has nothing to do with the pressurisation of the plane, it’s part of the cabin trim rather than structural, but it still looked shoddy.

Then we were delayed leaving Heathrow because, according to the flight deck “the cargo department has left behind some trucks, blocking us on the stand”, and we had to wait around 10-15 minutes for those to be moved.

The final niggle for this trip came on arrival at Manchester when it took around 30 minutes to get hold luggage delivered to the belt, from the plane which must have only been 25-30 yards away: it must have taken all of 90 seconds to walk from the plane to the baggage reclaim belt, that close. The infuriating thing was the way the bags came in little trickles.

It was possible to see through the curtain at the end of the belt what was happening. A tug would arrive with a truck carrying a single baggage container. That would be unloaded onto the reclaim belt, about 15 bags or so. The tug would then drive off, returning around 10 minutes later with another single container with another 15-20 bags. My bag finally showed up on the third trip.

My point is that most of us were waiting for our bags for the same amount of time as the plane was in the air from Heathrow to Manchester.

It’s all well and good saying “Don’t check-in a bag” – but I had no choice on this occasion, both with the size of the bag and contents that couldn’t go in the cabin.

These were all little niggles that taken in isolation wouldn’t really seem like much of a problem. But when this is the experience of one individual on one journey, it feels like a drip, drip of problems that take the shine away. You begin to wonder if this is actually what “normal” looks like for a journey with British Airways?

To their credit, BA did try and communicate with me after I raised these points on social media.

However, that too was a disappointment. I ended up having a deeply frustrating phone-call with a member of the BA team that could only apologise and offer excuses, rather than give me reassurance or answers.

All the person could say is: “This shouldn’t have happened. This will be referred to the appropriate teams.”

Sadly, I’ve been told that before, but a dirty or defective cabin environment happens again and again.

I asked how it’s referred up the chain. It’s basically rolled up into some generalised stats, trends and metrics. Those who can directly drive change never get to see an end-to-end “story” of a negative experience.

No wonder these shortcomings never get corrected.

I appreciate the call was probably equally frustrating for the BA staffer too. They couldn’t answer my questions. They couldn’t reassure me that this wouldn’t happen again. All they could do was offer apologies which they also knew that I viewed as empty platitudes. In the end, I told the BA person that I wanted the complaint logged as 100% unresolved to my satisfaction and that I wanted to end the call.

Afterward, I asked myself what I wanted from the call. I wasn’t looking for Avios (BA’s frequent flyer currency) as “compensation”. I wanted BA to know they fell short, they underdelivered, and to feel heard not just as part of the wider BA passenger collective but acknowledged as an individual with their own story. I wanted BA to recognise the investment I’ve made in them by choosing to fly with them, and more than anything, I wanted them to show they had some pride. Instead I felt stone-walled.

Right now my biggest complaint has to be cabin cleanliness and maintenance. It seems to happen at least 50% of the time that I find myself sat in a dirty or somehow deficient or broken seat when travelling BA, especially long-haul.

I know this sounds like a “first world problem”, but at the end of the day BA are not a cheap airline. They are actually quite expensive, and having paid for a service, is it not fair to expect the basics to be delivered as advertised?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some sort of dirt-phobe, but by the simple expedient of saying “Sit in this dirty/broken environment for the next X hours” the message BA sends is that I’m disrespected as an individual. That it’s okay for me to have to sit in dirt, or have a bit of the product (e.g. leg rest or foot rest) not delivered as advertised.

The lackadaisical handling of the bags and blocking the plane in with cargo trucks sends the message “Your time is not important to us”.

These are surely the basics of an airline experience, that your airline is competent, that they get you from A to B, without undue delays, and that you aren’t transported in unpleasant conditions?

The best analogy I can draw is that if BA were a restaurant, my choice of food would come on a chipped, cracked plate, with an expectation to eat from it using a fork with congealed egg stuck between the tines.

Apparently, according to @gogo and @AmericanAir this blog is adult themed.

Well. If you ask American Airlines or GoGo Inflight Wifi, this blog is blocked because it contains “adult-and-pornography”…

Apparently, you're looking at pr0n
Apparently, you’re looking at pr0n. Right now.

A reader just contacted me from Flight Level 330 to let me know he couldn’t read my blog. (Well, I suppose people need something to help them sleep…)

Looks like it’s the attack of some overzealous content filters, or maybe GoGo Inflight didn’t agree with my opinions on implementing event and public wifi?

UK ATC Delays – a case of “Computer says No”

Many folks will have read about the ATC delays being experienced in the UK today.

Sadly, a lot of the explanations have been rather technical, not surprising since they are coming from industry experts or from those working for ATC or airlines who have a good understanding of the industry and the jargon that goes with it (e.g. “sectors”, “flow control”, “slot restrictions”, etc.).

Air Traffic Control Principles: To maintain a good margin of safety, an air traffic controller can only manage (“work“) a certain number of aircraft at the same time, taking into account the amount of communication they need to make on the radio with the planes they are working and the phase of flight those planes are in (e.g. takeoff, landing, climb, descent, cruise).

To manage the amount of traffic the UK airspace needs to handle on a daily basis, the skies are carved up into areas known as “sectors“, slotting together like a big 3D jigsaw.

Sectors: A sector handling traffic which is “in the cruise” – has taken off, finished climbing and is in level flight in the general direction of it’s destination – can generally handle more aircraft than a sector which is working traffic that is descending toward it’s destination.

For example, it takes more work to direct an aircraft to line up with the runway in order to land (several radio transmissions over 10-20 minutes), especially in the cloudy weather we get in the UK, than to tell it to fly in a straight line for 200 miles (one radio transmission in half an hour).

As an aircraft goes on it’s journey, it’s handed off from controller to controller.

The pieces of this jigsaw are set up for the “worst case scenario” – the busiest time of the day, when the most aircraft are flying in the UK and the most Air Traffic Controllers are needed on duty.

Control Positions: The consoles you see the controllers working at, which include screens with radar displays showing where the planes are, and display output which helps the controllers organise the traffic they are responsible for, make a record of their decisions, and communicate with neighbouring controllers. This includes the “telephones” and the VHF radio system for speaking to the aircraft, which are integrated into the console at the control position.

Merging sectors (Band-boxing): At night, when less planes are in the UK’s skies, the traffic is less dense, and fewer controllers are needed. These sectors are combined together, known in industry jargon as band-boxing.

The radars, radios and telephone lines for all the different sectors being combined are re-routed to the control position working the band-boxed sector. This is done using control software, and I suspect it’s this control software which has suffered a failure and become stuck in “night mode”.

It can’t “un-bandbox” the sectors, and re-route the radio and telephone lines to the right place in the control room.

The Net Effect: Because of the failure, it’s not possible to un-bandbox the merged sectors, and delegate control of the airspace to a greater number of controllers. Going back to my first point, a controller can only work a certain amount of planes while maintaining an acceptable margin of safety.

If it’s not possible to have more controllers working the traffic, they simply have to make sure there are fewer planes in the same bit of sky at the same time. To do this, ATC uses a process known as Flow Control, which consists of setting very specific (to within a few minutes) take-off times for aircraft. Because we know a plane is going to fly at a certain speed, at a requested height, along a known route, ATC can work out where a plane should be at a given time, based on it’s take-off time.

If there is too much traffic expected in the same place at the same time, ATC will work out the soonest it could safely work the traffic and then work that backward into take-off times for each plane – the slot time you hear pilots refer to.

Therefore when you hear a pilot talk about missing our slot, they don’t necessarily mean missing their time to use the runway at the departure airport, but their allotted time through some point in the air, maybe a couple of hours into the future.

Obviously, when something like this happens, the flow control and slot restrictions become more severe, also you can’t just go on delaying flights indefinitely. Airlines must also try and do their bit to reduce the strain on the available ATC resources, and they will therefore start making tactical cancellations – for instance reducing the number of flights on a given route, especially if it’s a high-frequency route with a plane every hour or two. Maybe they will cancel 50% of the flights and transfer passengers to those planes which will still operate. This frees up a slot in the airspace to be used for a flight which runs less regularly and makes sure that route is still served.

Where airlines have a fleet of planes of different sizes, so these are the larger carriers such as BA, they may try and combine two flights together on one single larger aircraft (e.g. two Airbus A319s onto a single Boeing 767). Again, this makes more space in the skies.

If you’re travelling today, I hope you get where you’re going eventually. You’ll need a lot of patience though, and resign yourself to being delayed. Sadly, being delayed is one risk you take whenever you travel, and by whatever method you choose.

If you don’t really need to make your journey today, contact your airline and offer to travel another day, they may appreciate having one less person to carry and you will release your seat for someone else that might really need it.

First A380 Experience

In some ways, I’m probably a stick in the mud. Years of experience with networks and systems make you wary about the early adopter of “point-zero” software releases, and if you can, wait until they shake the bugs out.

So, despite being a bit of a travel addict, I still managed to not go on an Airbus A380 until last weekend – they didn’t work the routes I’ve been flying and weren’t operated by many airlines I regularly fly.

That changed last week when I flew on British Airways’ new A380 to Los Angeles.

The overall impression I got was how quiet the plane is. It’s seriously quiet. On takeoff, you basically just notice a change in engine note and a bit of acceleration. During the flight, it’s so quiet that you can hear a person snoring a couple of feet away.

While there were one or two rough edges on the service because the aircraft is still fairly new in the BA fleet, such as things taking a little longer than usual as the crew get used to the new equipment, it’s pretty impressive stuff, even though BA chose not to have “bling” elements such as inflight bars, lounges or showers. They chose to try and ensure consistency in the long haul product, keeping a similar look and feel to existing aircraft such as the 777-300, but behind the scenes, the galley equipment is new and different from that flying on the majority of the older fleet.

One thing I noticed was that even on the A380’s upper deck, you don’t have that same exclusiveness of the 747-400 upper deck, often sought-after among frequent fliers. It’s not quite the same on the 380. It’s definitely spacious, but as there’s more of you up there, it doesn’t feel quite as special.

BA’s Heathrow Lounge Food, Pt 2: The Lord of the Flies?

Following on from my recent post regarding a rather poor Environmental Health Report for BA’s “exclusive” Concorde Room, Hillingdon Council, the local authority responsible for Heathrow, have conducted further inspections of BA’s lounge operations at the airport.

This time, the largest lounge in T5, the “Galleries Club South” scored 2 out of 5, like it’s neighbour.

The report for this lounge highlights a number of basic food hygiene failings that seem to indicate a real lack of care.

Continue reading “BA’s Heathrow Lounge Food, Pt 2: The Lord of the Flies?”

BA’s Heathrow Lounge Food: Past it’s sell-by date?

Something of a first world problem admittedly, but it’s recently come to the attention of the various frequent flyer circles that BA’s “flagship” lounges at it’s Heathrow hub, the T5 Concorde Room and First Class Lounge recently only scored 2 (out of 5) on a recent food hygiene inspection.

The low score places this “exclusive” venue (to paraphrase BA), reserved specifically for it’s “top customers”, into the bottom 10% of food service premises in the UK. This is something of a last straw for BA’s loyal frequent flyers who have already been upset by a perceived reduction in the quality and service offered by the lounges since the contract for running the food service operation at all BA’s UK lounges were switched to a new operator earlier this year.

There have been complaints of less choice, simple service failures such as grubby cups, glasses and plates put out for customers to use, and used, dirty pots not being regularly cleared away, food not being cooked through properly, and a previously reasonable hot buffet being replaced with troughs of stodgy “gloop” – unpleasant wet food.

Thanks to a Freedom of Information request, the local authority responsible for the inspection, Hillingdon Council, have made the full contents of the report available, highlighting a catalogue of basic food safety disasters:

  • Out-of-date food in the kitchens
  • Multiple food preparation areas being sufficiently dirty to be in need of immediate cleaning
  • “High-risk” food such as prepared sandwiches and cooked meats being insufficiently chilled
  • Hot buffet food being kept at a sufficiently low temperature to increase risk
  • Cross-contamination between raw and cooked food
  • Kitchen maintenance problems such as holes in the walls and floor
  • Inadequate documentation of staff training

BA have so far been tight-lipped on the matter, anecdotal reports suggesting that senior BA figures consider this just to be some “noisy people on the Internet” which probably highlights that they don’t get it and have their head firmly in the sand. Does this indicate a level of disrespect within BA for it’s customers?

To their credit BaxterStorey meanwhile have issued a statement which, while conciliatory in tone and recognises the failings to some extent, largely seems to fob the problem off on needing to “refurbish” the kitchen.

This really isn’t a brilliant response. Remember, we’re talking about BA’s flagship lounge at it’s flagship airport.

In terms of apologising, what should BA do?

One of the questions among the frequent flyer community has been over BA’s handling of this. While BA’s sub-contractor has decided to issue a statement, there’s been nothing from BA to the most regular lounge guests, it’s frequent flyers.

It’s my opinion that there’s only one way BA can approach this:

with openness, transparency, responsibility and accountability

I know that’s probably a tough ask of a large multi-national corporation with a slick PR machine which is used to deny accountability for everything from delays to lost luggage.

You may ask why the frequent flyers care so much about getting a response from BA, or why BA should care so much to communicate in an frank and honest way with it’s customers?

The frequent flyers care about getting a spin-free honest reply, because they have made a financial and emotional investment in BA. To earn the magic Silver and Gold cards to get them in the privacy of the Galleries lounges, they have spent a lot of money and time with the airline.

They’ve been good, regular customers, demonstrated loyalty to BA, and so have a built an expectation of being dealt with respectfully and fairly in return. That trust has been betrayed by BA and BaxterStorey.

To feed them spin is likely to just increase the levels of angst and venom. The frequent flyers are actively looking for a reason to forgive.

The more honest and fair BA are with their response the more likely they are to be forgiven by it’s community of regular passengers.

See this as an opportunity to set themselves apart from their competitors. It’s not a disaster that must be avoided. Approach it head on.

You’ve been let down, we failed to meet your expectations. We’ve let our supplier take their eye off the ball. We’re sorry. You deserve better. We’ll do better. Here’s how…

Be honest about the mistakes that led to this, and what’s going to happen to make it better.

Most importantly, mean it then do it.

Latest Security Theatre: Please Remove Your Glasses

Heading back home from giving a talk at the INEX meeting in Dublin on Friday 20th September, I came across a fairly ridiculous piece of security theatre.

Welcome to Dublin Airport, by forzadagro on Flickr.
Welcome to Dublin Airport. Now remove your dignity, please.

My frequent flyer status with BA entitled me to go through the Fast-track security lane and avoid the 15-20 minute queue of glum-looking Ryanair passengers. There was a chap in front of me who had just checked in for the same BA flight.

Without seemingly flinching, the security officer supervising the loading of belongings into the x-ray machine asked the man in front to remove his spectacles and put them through the machine! I was stunned to hear this, and I think, so was he. In over 15 years of regular flying, this is the first time I’ve ever heard this be asked of someone wearing spectacles (i.e. not sunglasses worn inside). Good for him, he politely declined this seemingly random request, explaining that if he did that, he would be unable to see.

Being as blind as a bat without my glasses, I was ready to similarly decline if this security lady had any ideas about asking me to give up my glasses. Fortunately, I think she’d realised her seemingly random and possibly frivolous request had overstepped the mark, she didn’t ask me to do the same.

Now, I personally would find such a request undignified. Unable to see where I’m going clearly, I would be placed at increased risk of having an accident. It’s likely I would need to be helped through security, and helped to find my glasses once through the X-ray machine.

I don’t really see how it’s different to making a person with a prosthetic leg remove it for inspection and hop through the magnetometer arch on one leg, and I don’t see airport security guards forcing people to do that.

I put it down to poor staff training and the general ridiculousness that this security theatre is “good for us”, but I’m still pretty shocked that such a loss of dignity could even be contemplated in the first place.

I will be contacting DAA and asking them to respond and explain what their policy is regarding screening of people wearing glasses.