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.

How did we do? Tell us, tell us, puhleeeze…

…or “The rise of the post-purchase survey”

It seems you can’t buy a product or service anymore without receiving a survey about some aspect of it.

I’ve recently done a fair amount of travel, and my email or SMS inbox has been cluttered with pleading survey invites from:

  • Holiday Inn
  • Mercure
  • Sofitel
  • Premier Inn
  • Eurostar
  • Virgin Trains

Usually within 24 hours of you having consumed the service, you get a mithering “Please tell us what you thought” email, which links to a survey.

These organisations must think we have all the time in the world to respond to a load of tedious questioning which, at the end of the day doesn’t capture our personal journey with them at all, despite what they promise.

They can’t read all the survey responses. The data is just rolled up into spreadsheets and charts that help them make (or miss) their “key performance indicators”.

Usually, each survey normally takes around 10 to 15 minutes to complete. That’s 90 minutes of my time that these companies are asking me to give them, for the privilege of buying a service from them.

Yes, I know I don’t have to fill them in, and I’ve largely stopped completing them.

With credit to Holiday Inn, Mercure and Sofitel, they all have a link to “unsubscribe” from receiving future survey invitations. Though I’ll have to see if these actually work. I remain sceptical.

However, this isn’t the case with the last three.

Premier Inn are one of the worst. They send email survey requests with no unsubscribe link. The surveys are long, too. Often 15-30 minutes.

Virgin Trains are slightly better, at least they usually only ask you one question, but I still don’t recall there ever being a way to unsubscribe from their surveys.

Eurostar was just downright baffling. On the way back from Paris, the moment my train left the Channel Tunnel I get this:file-10-02-2017-11-54-44

Followed by these questions, coming from a completely different number:

The first question, I’d have actually liked to score a “N/A” on, as I didn’t actually interact with any Eurostar staff Gare du Nord at all. There were a lot of them standing around with radios looking like they might be important, and occasionally “hustling” late arrivers through to their train, but that was it.

I already had my ticket. I just scanned it on the turnstile and went through the various border and immigration formalities. They did an okay job of marshalling the queues. One of them sort of stood in my way with his back to me at one point, but I didn’t otherwise talk to them nor really have any need to. That’s why I gave it a 5. Neither impressed nor unimpressed.

The second question is more baffling. They have sent me the question about whether I would recommend Eurostar before my journey is complete. I can’t actually answer it yet, because for all I know the train could yet be delayed, or even explode in an enormous fireball, though I think I’d probably only give them a 1 if the fireball happened.

The third question just confirms my suspicions that no-one really reads this stuff. It’s all just parcelled up into a dull spreadsheet. They must send thousands of these a day, and must at least get a few hundred responses.

They are asking this stuff “because they can”, not because they actually care about our individual experiences. These surveys are just providing a barometer of whether there is an upward or downward trend, whether things are meeting an arbitrary target or not, and at their most cynical, providing a means for fat-cat managers to receive bonuses.

The best way to judge how your business is running is to get out on the shop floor. Actually talk to your customers. Listen to your staff. They are your bell-weather.

Also encourage your customers to give direct feedback, then and there. Hilton have recently done this with a “Make it right” policy which lets customers know that they should make their feelings known then and there to the hotel in question, and give them a chance to deal with any shortcomings in service. It also empowers the hotel operators to take corrective action on the spot.

Compare that to a situation at Premier Inn a few years ago where the disenfranchised and under empowered staff member was “Meh, here’s your money back. Take it up with management if you like. Here’s the URL of the complaints form.”

Finally, what’s more annoying to me with these sorts of surveys is that at the point of purchase, while there is usually a means to opt-out of marketing email, there isn’t a means to opt-out of this sort of mithering, because it isn’t considered “marketing”.

So, here’s what I plan to do, should I respond to these:

Write something totally outrageous in the free form text boxes, along with an invite to contact me if someone has actually read what’s been written. That will at least I might get a feel for how many of these are seen by humans!

Post-script: While I was writing this, I got another survey mither from where I ate on Wednesday night, this time from OpenTable on behalf of @HawksmoorMCR. I’m really surprised by that because it’s so orthogonal to their non-corporate house-style when you go and eat there.



#didsburydoubles – How many trams do Metrolink need each day?

Just a quick post this evening.

Did you know that the main Monday to Friday service pattern running today, and the service pattern we had back in June, when we had through trams with a single-line operation through the St Peter’s Square worksite, with double trams on the Didsbury line, actually requires the same number of trams to be in service?

That’s 86 trams.

Out of a fleet of 119. That’s 73% availability. Hardly amazing by today’s standards.

Compare that to Alstom’s Pendolino fleet working Virgin Trains West Coast services. That currently requires 50 of the 56 sets to be available for traffic. That’s an amazing 89% availability for that fleet, which is now over 10 years old.

I guess what I’m saying is that for Metrolink to double the Didsbury – Shaw trams, it would require an extra 12 trams each day, which they do seem to have, and it would still only need 82% availability from the fleet – less than Virgin’s Pendolinos.

These are modern trams, some of which are brand new from the production line, and still being delivered, there will soon be a fleet of 120. They should not be maintenance intensive. Indeed a Manchester Evening News article a few years ago said that the current fleet has an average of 20000 miles between breakdowns, known in the industry as MPC – “Miles Per Casualty”(this doesn’t mean the tram runs someone over, the “Casualty” in this case is the tram itself!). That compares with only 5000 MPC for our old trams.

I surmise that the actual mileage being accumulated under the new timetables is less, because previously there were double trams out all day on Bury – Didsbury, Altrincham – Etihad, and Piccadilly – Eccles lines. Now there are only doubles out on Bury – Altrincham, but only during the main part of the day, and not first thing in the morning or later in the evening.

So it seems there is not a lack of resources preventing double trams being provided where there is clear demand. There is something else going on here. Quite what, I’ll leave up to the reader.

#didsburydoubles – PM Peak 5/9, AM Peak 6/9

A quick round-up of the continuing Didsbury double tram mither.

Here’s one from yesterday morning:

Metrolink did at least respond with an apology, but no real offer to do anything about it.

5/9 PM Commute:

Yesterday evening was very sultry in Manchester. Quite humid and sticky. I can only imagine how awful it must have been. One of those days when I was glad to be working from home.

Meanwhile, Metrolink continue to spin the 6 minute headway to Deansgate as an improvement:

Looks a bit hot and sticky on there, doesn’t it?

6/9 AM Commute:

Slightly less public moaning this morning, maybe people are getting used to their lot of packed sweaty trams, and Metrolink continuing to hold their ground, or they have given up and gone back to commuting on the bus?

Right to Reply:

Yesterday evening, Councillor Andrew Simcock, who I yesterday said seemed to be behaving as a TfGM apologist, chose to leave a comment on the post.

I’d like to go on record to thank the Councillor for using this right of reply to clarify his position.

While he reiterated his point of view that the 6 minute service was an improvement, it still seems terribly out of step with what I’m seeing social media, and out on the streets of Didsbury.

The Councillor also stated that he hoped with continuing TfGM investment in Metrolink, double trams may once again be provided in line with demand in the future, so this is positive.

Nevertheless, the Councillor has invited unhappy East Didsbury constituents to raise the issue with him at his regular surgery, which happens this Saturday morning , 11.30, at Didsbury Library.

If you are at all dissatisfied with the situation and Councillor Simcock is one of your representatives on the Council, please take the time to attend and make your voice heard.

I live in the Chorlton Park constituency, and have already raised the issue with my local representatives.

#didsburydoubles – the current state of play

So, the weekend has passed and the kids are back to school. I’m working from home today so haven’t experienced the Metrolink this morning.

Travelling in last Friday…

Following that tweet, I was told by Metrolink social media that they can’t discuss the matter over social media and I should put my complaint regarding the withdrawal of double trams in writing to TfGM’s “customer services”.

Over 24 hours later, while I have received an auto-reply acknowledging receipt, I’ve yet to get a case number or any other correspondance from TfGM.

Over the weekend I noticed that the advertised Double tram service Bury – Altrincham was running as single trams. I contacted Metrolink about that too. They say that Bury – Altrincham directs are now reduced to single trams at weekends and their own timetable is wrong!

What on earth is going on at TfGM and Metrolink towers?

I do wonder if the running of lots and lots of double trams (Bury-Dids, Alty-Etihad, Eccles line) during the period of “contraflow” on Mosely Street while St Peter’s Square was closed has actually caused the fleet to accumulate mileage quicker than anticipated, and the operation of single trams now is what is known in the industry as mileage conservation – stretching the period of time between planned examination and servicing by those affected trams running fewer miles.

This is also common in the aviation industry, where aircraft undergo checks based on hours flown – an aircraft approaching a major maintenance check can be put on restricted use, so it’s only used if absolutely necessary, until it’s place in the hangar is assured.

Back to the main subject, the loss of the much needed double trams from the Didsbury line, it seems people are still experiencing unpleasant journeys on overcrowded trams.

Here’s a quick scan of social media from this morning:

It’s also not just the Didsbury line. Eccles line users are grumpy too. Both about the basic quality of the service, and the fact that Eccles line trams don’t serve MediaCity UK for the majority of the day, which seems like a total chocolate teapot.

One can only imagine the answer to the question below:

What seems to be getting people’s hackles up further is the way we’re being talked down to by TfGM and Metrolink. The tone of the replies is like a parent trying to placate a child having a tantrum, rather than accept and acknowledge there has been a service delivery failure and that something positive will be done:

I don’t blame the people running the social media accounts at TfGM and Metrolink. I accept their hands are somewhat tied by the decisions of their bosses. But they need to stop talking down to us. We need to see there is some action being taken, rather than head-in-sand apologism.

However this particular exchange seems at least churlish, and possibly out-of-order, especially for a public servant talking to a member of the public they are meant to be working on behalf of. Maybe it’s a chink in the armour, showing that tempers are even getting frayed at Metrolink HQ, behind the calm veneer of the “Shush, shush… Everything’s okay, it will be all fine once 2CC opens” party-line:

What seems to be worse still is that at least one Didsbury councillor is acting as a TfGM apologist rather than representing their constituents:

Evidently, according to Andrew, we should just shut up and be grateful that we even have a tram:

This goes on to the extent that he’s openly disagreeing with other Manchester City Councillors from neighbouring wards who agree with residents that the new single tram service is a retrograde step:

Why would you change at Cornbrook and St Werburghs if you had the choice of a direct tram? The above feels like a load of old tosh. Also note that Andrew’s tweets there were sent from outside of Manchester, so it seems that he can’t have experienced this new single tram overcrowded fiasco for himself recently if he’s been out of town.

I’m honestly glad I’m not in the East Didsbury ward if that’s the standard of representation I can expect.

So what next?

Metrolink wish we would put up and shut up.

TfGM wish we would put up and shut up.

Now, one of our elected representatives also seems to wish we would put up and shut up – rather than doing what he’s been elected to do!

Remind me that we’re meant to be living in a democracy? Remind me that public servants are meant to be accountable?

A former BBC journalist friend said “Don’t give up. Keep kicking off. Make as much noise as you can until they open a proper two-way dialogue with you.”

We need to make as much noise as we possibly can until we are listened to on this issue:

  • Please tweet about your overcrowding experiences, and use the hashtag #didsburydoubles, so the trend is visible.
  • Tweet Metrolink every time you experience an overcrowded Didsbury line tram.
  • Please retweet what others say as well so we’re reaching as many people as possible.
  • Write to TfGM – – request that a formal complaint is opened.
  • Write to your Councillors – use

#didsburydoubles – What might it take to put doubles back on the Didsbury line?

I’m a transport geek. I find stuff like timetables absolutely irresistible.

So thanks to the working timetables exposed in the FOIA request I took a look over lunch to find out what extra resources would be required to provide double trams once again on the Didsbury line.

Firstly, the notionally “busier” Cross-City services – the Didsbury-Shaw trams.

The Didsbury-Shaw 12 minute frequency service requires 12 trams on a circuit to operate it – i.e. it takes 144 minutes for one tram to complete a full round-trip.

There are two Metrolink depots, the original one at Queens Road, and the newer and larger depot at Trafford.

The duties for the Didsbury-Shaw service are split between the depots, 5 duties are provided by Queens Road, and 7 by Trafford.

So, to increase all the Didsbury-Shaw trams, that would require all 12 duties to be double trams, an extra 5 trams provided by Queens Road, and 7 from Trafford.

I don’t know what sort of spare resources Metrolink has around. I can usually see more than 8 trams sat stabled at Trafford depot when I go past in the morning – though I accept they could be stopped due to a fault or awaiting scheduled maintenance such as a planned servicing.

Secondly, the Didsbury-Deansgate service.

This is a much simpler operation, composed of 4 single-tram duties from Trafford depot, on a self-contained “shuttle” operation between Didsbury and Deansgate.

It is therefore theoretically simpler to double, requiring an additional 4 trams to be supplied from Trafford.

To provide double trams on both the Didsbury-Shaw and Didsbury-Deansgate services would require 16 extra trams to be available for traffic.

We’ll assume providing all 16 trams is a non-starter, that Metrolink simply don’t have 16 spare trams available on a daily basis for the moment.

There are three options, as I see them, assuming no significant service changes:

  • The least resource intensive is for Trafford to provide an extra 4 trams each day and convert the 4 Didsbury-Deansgate shuttle duties to double trams.
  • The other is to double all the Didsbury-Shaw duties, which requires 12 extra trams, a somewhat tougher ask.
  • The slightly more radical option is to cancel the Didsbury-Deansgate shuttle, and revert to a 12 minute headway. Use those 4 released trams to strengthen 4 of the Trafford Dids-Shaw duties, only requiring a further 8 trams to be provided, 4 from each depot.

Right now, it seems that the path of least resistance and possibly most rapid solution is for Didsbury-Deansgate trams to be doubled. It feels less than ideal, as the notionally busier trams are the Cross-City ones. But this might at least encourage some passengers to choose to change at Deansgate rather than wait for the direct tram and alleviate some pressure on the Didsbury-Shaw.

However, I feel all doubles on a 12 minute headway used to work okay before. Do we want to go back to that?

#didsburydoubles update – Metrolink Working Timetable via FOIA request

Thanks to Twitter follower @ppixx I’ve been pointed in the direction of a FOIA request which resulted in the release of the Working Timetables currently in use (as of 28th August 2016) on Metrolink.

The “Working Timetable” is the hidden “technical” timetable that Metrolink staff use to manage and maintain the service. As such it contains movements of empty trams, like workings to and from depots at the start and end of service. It’s not written to be read by mere mortals.

In terms of what’s happened with our Cross-city Didsbury line commutes, the useful information here is the sequence of trams through the network. This is the bit of information I told you in my last post we didn’t readily have, yet need, to help us make decisions whether to wait for the direct tram or take the first tram and change.

I’ve done the hard work so you don’t have to: What it shows is that if you are travelling to a point beyond Deansgate from the East Didsbury line, during the 6 minute headway period, you may as well almost always wait for the direct tram.

By taking the Deansgate tram and changing, you will have a 4 minute wait for the Altrincham – Bury tram to continue toward Market St, Shudehill and Victoria.

By leaving 6 minutes earlier – because we’re assuming for this example that the first tram is the Deansgate tram – and changing, this is reduced to a 2 minute advantage by the time you get off. The direct tram has almost “caught up”.

However if you are travelling to St Peter’s Square, Piccadilly Gardens or Piccadilly, it makes no significant difference which tram you take from the Didsbury line, both the Deansgate and the Shaw trams have good connections into Piccadilly-bound trams at Deansgate. Both are good options.