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.