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.

#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 – customer.relations@tfgm.com – request that a formal complaint is opened.
  • Write to your Councillors – use www.writetothem.com

Driving in Malta – signs of madness?

Number two on the list of things not to do in Malta, according to my guidebook, is drive.

To a Maltese driver, it seems that road markings, signs, signals, and speed limits are advisory rather than mandatory. This means you need your wits about you.

That bit I actually found easy to cope with by reading the road, anticipating well ahead and driving assertively myself, or assertive as I could be in a tiny Kia with a sewing machine of an engine. Hills, of which Malta has many, meant changing down to 2nd and flooring it, thanks partly to the two suitcases in the boot. Fortunately, many natives also go for the small car too, so you know they are almost in the same boat as you. However, the locals have one big head start… Continue reading “Driving in Malta – signs of madness?”

Third Runway, or not Third Runway?

Hot news today is Heathrow Airport’s third runway plans. It seems there’s some realisation that a “Boris Island” won’t be built early enough to satisfy the needs of the South East’s demand for landing slots, and something needs to be done now rather than in 20-odd years.

There is a perception that London lags behind Amsterdam Schiphol, Paris Charles De Gaulle or Frankfurt, in the sense that it’s not an “airline hub” of the same magnitude, and dear old London Town is being left behind.

If anyone has been through any of the above airports recently, I’m not entirely sure that being like them is something we should be aspiring to!

I’ve already made my views known about Frankfurt‘s recent redevelopments, trying to make it less painful than before, and still managing to miss the target.

Anyone who flies to Amsterdam often enough will have experienced the mind-numbingly long taxi to or from their relatively new runway, which far enough away to be built in a completely different town to the airport itself. You would be forgiven for thinking you’re driving to the UK, as the taxi time is often as long as the flight itself, unless you’re lucky enough that the prevailing wind lets you take off and land closer to the terminal.

As for Charles De Gaulle… I’ll just give you a Gallic shrug.

While Heathrow is BA’s “hub”, it’s not really a hub operation in the sense of a US air carrier. Flights don’t arrive and depart in deliberately orchestrated waves, purposely designed to connect, such as Delta’s operations in Atlanta. BA’s hub operation is more by accident, because of the sheer volume of the operation, rather than schedule design. Flights “happen” to connect, rather than do so by design.

Following the effective breakup of the BAA, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are now owned by different operators, and from reading this BBC article each of them seem to be vying for a bit of the cherry, while Boris would like to demolish Heathrow entirely.

What it’s left me wondering is why there is a complete lack of joined up approach?

Danger Will Robinson! Radical thinking…

In terms of land and environmental concerns such as noise, a 2nd runway at Gatwick seems to be an easy win when compared against putting a 3rd runway at Heathrow.

Given that we’re seemingly hell bent on building HS2 (let’s ignore the fact that less than half of the money being spent on HS2 could revolutionise rail in the North of England) , wouldn’t it be eminently sensible to extend it such that it touches Heathrow and extends South to Gatwick? Use the train as a complementary form of transport to the train, rather than as a competitor.

It could then serve a dual-purpose of making it more convenient for those in the Midlands to access Heathrow and Gatwick, while also handling connecting traffic between Gatwick and Heathrow.

What would the Gatwick to Heathrow travel time be on such a train? About 20-25 minutes? I know some airports where it can take just as long to transfer between terminals, or to get from departure lounge to gate!

Might it even be possible to provide trains, or designated sections of trains, for “sterile transit” between the airports, without the need to officially enter the UK?

Yes, this will involve taking on the fearsome NIMBYs of Surrey, but isn’t it all for the “greater good”?

Should we ever decide to build “Boris Island” or devastate Hoo with a big International airport, it’s close enough to HS1 to be hooked up to that. We can offer fast train connections into Central London, and maybe even to France or Brussels from the airport. Just think, it might be preferable to fly in to Boris Island then get the train, if you’re travelling to Lille!

But, as I say, that would require some joined-up thinking. Something we need to get better at.

Looking at the “back” of a city

Anyone else notice how a train journey in or out of a city such as London, is a view of the “back” of the city?

The view from the windows is almost always of the “back” of things. Backs of houses, back gardens, faceless backs of warehouses, shops, offices, interspersed with car parks, yards and allotments, with glimpses of the “front” peeking through the gaps.

Shine a light!

Or, go somewhere really cold and be astounded…

Abisko Aurora

I’ve just come back from a fantastic weekend in Northern Sweden. Inside the Arctic Circle. Landing and taking off from a snow-covered runway at Kiruna Airport. Mostly eating reindeer.

Looking up from time to time, so I’ve been able to take amazing photos like the one above.

I’ve learned how to ride a snowmobile. I’ve also learned how to crash a snowmobile. Fortunately, landing in a couple of feet of snow is a cushioning experience, and the only bruises I came away with were to my pride, and to my wallet because a small plastic fairing got broken.

I’ve glid across deserted frozen rivers, almost silently, moved by nothing but dog power.

I’ve spent a (very chilly, -29C!) evening with top Aurora photographer Chad Blakley, picking up tips on how to get the best out of your Aurora photography, and how to set up and look after your camera in freezing conditions.

When the temperature gets down below about -15C, ice forms on any exposed hair (such as eyebrows and facial hair), up your nose, and in my case, sometimes on my glasses, as the moisture from your breath freezes.

The whole experience has been fantastic, and everyone we dealt with has been friendly, welcoming, and shared their love of the amazing area around Abisko.

We arranged the trip through Weekend a la Carte, who gave us first class advice in terms of being prepared for the Arctic, and put together a seamless experience for us.

What an amazing experience. Brilliant. Coming home to a damp 11C feels positively balmy.

Lapporten IMG_7912.jpg

“Snackboxes”: Cutesy, yes. Wasteful, probably.

I’m just heading up North on a Virgin Train (thought I’d better try one while I still can).

I ended up going 1st Class because it was cheaper than Standard, when booking in advance. Not that uncommon actually, and sometimes it’s even worth doing if it’s a couple of quid more expensive, because of the inclusives: light refreshments such as tea and coffee, and wifi access at no extra charge. Basically, you can sometimes get good value for money, and Virgin (and other train companies) get to put bums on 1st class seats which would otherwise go empty off-peak, and it reduces the pressure on the cheap seats.

In common with most train operators, the weekend 1st Class at-seat service is a shadow of it’s midweek counterpart: limited to tea, coffee, water and snacks. This used to be things such as (normal-sized packets of) crisps, nibbles, and biscuits.

Today, this has been replaced with “A little box of snacks” – about 2×3″. Now, it looks cute. There’s no doubt about that. There’s a childlike feeling about opening one for the first time.

But the contents are distinctly underwhelming:

  • The smallest bag of pretzels I’ve probably ever seen (and if you don’t like “sour cream and chive”, you’ll be left feeling a bit sour)
  • A micro-flapjack that would leave a hobbit’s tum rumbling
  • A pack of cream crackers and soft cheese
  • A continental “speculoos” biscuit for with coffee
  • A bit of Valrhona chocolate (yum)

I had the pretzels and the chocolate, as I didn’t really fancy the rest of the contents. The rest will no doubt go in the bin.

While I’m in no doubt that it makes inventory control much simpler (and may well be cheaper), it is effectively a reduction in choice for the passenger, and surely increases waste in an era when a huge part of companies’ social responsibility is dedicated to reducing their environmental impact?