When British Airways Customer Service Says Two Different Things (Tales From the Field)

British Airways is kind of a funny airline. I really like flying the airline, and I think the crews do a great job onboard. But from a travel agent perspective, BA can be a pretty tough airline to deal with. We found this out once again with a frequent client of ours who is also an elite member in BA’s Executive Club.

This client, we’ll call her Bella, was flying back from the US home to Italy via Dallas/Ft Worth and London. Her first flight on British Airways Tales From the FieldAmerican went fine, and then she got to Dallas and her connection on British Airways seemed fine as well. She departed on time and it should have been smooth sailing through London as well.

But of course, this is London we’re talking about, so after some circling, she landed about 15 minutes late. That gave her only 45 minutes to connect. As a passenger traveling in Club World, this should have been fine, though admittedly tight.

Tangent: BA’s Wildly Optimistic Minimum Connection Times
This might be a good time to split off on a tangent here. BA will tell you that you can connect from the US to points beyond London with only 1 hour if you are connecting within Terminal 5. This is technically true, but if you are in coach, you are probably more likely to miss your connection than not. In premium classes, it’s still tight.

This particular client, even though flying in premium cabins, almost always wants a longer layover in London. We failed to catch that this was so short when the trip was booked. It was a perfectly legal connection but that doesn’t mean it’s the best plan. If you’re flying through London, it’s best to give yourself more time. (Or just don’t fly through London.)

Back to our story. You can guess what happened next, right? She got off the airplane and raced across the airport to make her flight. It wasn’t going to happen. She was held up at passport control because they said she wouldn’t make it. That was a lie, and she would have made it, but the result was that she was stuck.

The next flight a couple hours later was completely full but they put her on standby. They confirmed her on a flight much later in the day. So she sat, and waited, and was eventually given the very last coach seat on that next flight.

Naturally, she wasn’t happy about any of this (and I don’t blame her), so we vowed to get in touch with BA to try to get her some compensation. After all, she’s an elite member in their program who pays for premium cabin tickets. You would think they’d want to keep her happy.

Technically, BA may not have owed her anything. She still received her business class seat over the water, and a short haul downgrade may not have changed the fare, but that wasn’t going to stop us from trying. So we called the British Airways preferred travel agent account desk and tried to figure out what we could do.

Tangent: BA’s Sub Par Call Center Agents
For those have had to call BA lately, you know the pain involved. It used to be that BA routed their calls to a call center in Florida. While the agents were never particularly flexible (per BA policy, I can only assume), they were certainly competent and usually friendly. In the name of cost savings, BA ditched that and now sends calls to, I believe, India. I have never really received a good answer when I’ve had to call BA since they made the switch. The agents are trained to know basic information. Otherwise, they put you on hold to try to get answers, and if they do find an answer, you might as well be reading a website. They generally just parrot the rules and don’t think for themselves. That’s not a good thing when you’re working on a preferred travel agency desk.

When I called this time, the agent was certainly friendly. She informed me that we could not do any sort of downgrade compensation on our own. The client would have to contact BA directly through customer relations. She even gave me the link to the website. Ok, fine.

One month later to the day, Bella gets a response back from BA. They did offer her bonus miles for her inconvenience, but then they threw us under the bus.

For the refund of the difference in fares, I would request you to contact your travel agent, as you purchased your ticket from them. They are better placed than us to help you.

Seriously? BA has long had a reputation as being somewhat unfriendly to travel agents, so this isn’t surprising. You can’t have your travel agent support staff tell us that the request has to be run through BA only to have the BA agent tell the customer that it’s the agent’s problem. It not only makes the travel agent look unprofessional and stupid, but it just pisses off the traveler even more. It would have been far better if BA had simply said no further compensation was possible and we could have ended it there.

Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the end of our story. The ticket was fully used and we don’t have the ability to do anything else with it at this point. But even if we did, it was not likely to result in a lower fare. Arriving a couple of hours late in a lower class of service may not be the end of the world, but the way it was handled left a bad taste in just about everyone’s mouths.

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19 Responses to When British Airways Customer Service Says Two Different Things (Tales From the Field)

  1. DC says:

    They made her go through passport control even though she wasn’t entering the UK and instead flying on to Schengen? Seems pointless.

  2. kt74 says:

    BA is awful at IRROPS, just abysmal, but this is well known, and it is the gamble you take for booking a 60 minute connection at LHR (schoolboy error!)

    If your client was prevented from going directly to her next flight, then she must have arrived at the boarding pass check less than 35 minutes before her flight. Like it or not, the widely-publicised 35 minute rule (often flexed down for connecting passengers) has massively improved on-time performance at LHR. Yes, it does irritate some customers (including me) who know where to go, aren’t waylaid by duty free, and know exactly where to go for their flight, but in general it has been A Good Thing

    Assuming she missed this “conformance” deadline, then according to its Ts&Cs, BA will re-accommodate on the first flight available in the paid class. In accepting a seat on an earlier flight in a lower class, it looks like she’s forfeited her right to compensation. It wasn’t an involuntary downgrade (i.e. it does not qualify for the very generous EU downgrade compensation), it was 100% volunteered; she lost her main bargaining chip to get compensation when she accepted the economy class boarding pass

    Therefore the ex-gratia offer of Avois seems generous. The misinformation about getting compensation from travel agent is very poor though. Did you try calling the Gold EC line? The UK Gold line is routed to a UK call centre during UK opening hours, so it’s odd you got passed through to India

    • CF says:

      kt74 – Yes, thanks for correcting me on the conformance check vs passport control. I wasn’t trying to argue with what happened, just pointing out that short connections are not a good plan there. My biggest beef is with how the customer service people handled us as an agent. Most agents who deal with BA will probably echo that sentiment.

      Thanks again for all the detail here.

  3. Brian says:

    You still have to go through transit passport control to continue on in the UK. I believe this is true in almost every country except Schengen areas because if you are airside you could theoretically just exit the terminal and be landside without crossing any passport control (there is no passport control “split” in the middle of the airport like a Schengen airport).

    I had a mediocre experience on BA F award ticket last year, and just sent them an email about it, expecting maybe 10k miles back. The flight out my girlfriend’s original seat was broken so we couldn’t sit next to each other (but they still sat someone there, even though the divider would not go up), and the return flight had a 3 hour delay for a mechanical issue (which we ended up sitting in the Concorde Room for, even though it does not live up to its name as a lounge there are far worse places to be for a delay). Without any push from me other than my note explaining my disappointment, they refunded me 45k miles, since we flew out of Boston and on a BA Visa companion ticket, this was nearly half the cost of the trip. I was thrilled with them and in a month we are going again this year in BA F on another BA Visa companion ticket partially thanks to the mileage refund.

    • DC says:

      “You still have to go through transit passport control to continue on in the UK. I believe this is true in almost every country except Schengen areas….”

      This is simply not the case, as Mr. Snowden understands of SVO. Narita, HGK, EZE, and many, many others; and even little San Jose, Costa Rica airport have international transit areas which enable travelers to make connections to third countries without passport controls by local border authorities.

  4. Bravenav says:

    I’ve had to fight the British pessimism at the BA transit desk at Gatwick (back when the US airlines flew there), being told there was no way I was going to make my connecting flight in less than an hour. After some pleading and cajoling, I finally got a boarding pass and easily made my flight.

    I’ve also connected through Heathrow at the Lufthansa transit desk with less than an hour. As DC pointed out, there was no passport control, and I had no problems getting to my connecting flight.

  5. I’ve said for awhile now that the people who know the least about an airline are the employees of the airline.

    You could get five friends and you all call an airline at the same time and ask the same question or related the same problem and get six different answers. Which more then likely is what the airlines want, that way the ‘correct’ answer (wink wink) will always be one that benefits them.

    Wow, does BA really think that once a ticket is used, a travel agent can give a refund.

    Being that the transatlantic was in the higher priced cabin, traveling coach within Europe would not have lowered the fare since Londons premium fares are high.

  6. Austin says:

    I believe in this case there was no passport control (in the UKBA sense), but rather Heathrow and BA’s infamous “conformance check” in Terminal 5 that was implemented after T5 opened and BA was experiencing massive passenger delays. There are plenty of Flyertalk threads on this–but in a nutshell originating passengers need to have their boarding pass scanned at the conformance check, which is before security, at least 35 minutes before departure or they won’t let you through no matter what (for connections, depending on the arrival and departure gates, the conformance time is variable depending on the arrival concourse and departure gate).

    Also, international departure halls at UK airports are set up so that you cannot exit the departures hall (at least without staff assistance, and via immigration/customs) once you enter.

    • CF says:

      Austin – On that last point about not being able to exit departure halls… Heathrow is amazing with that. If you even go out to B or C, you can’t get back to the main gates even behind security without getting a note from the Queen (or something similarly impossible). I spoke with someone who had to get back for one reason or another and it took a long time to find someone who was willing to escort them.

  7. ghpup says:

    Personally, I try to avoid LHR as I’ve never, repeat never (6 attempts originating from either the US or somewhere in Europe like Amsterdam), transited through without my baggage (read golf clubs) being delayed by at least 12 hours. In one instance with a my travels originating at LHR to Dublin, Ireland, my luggage was 14 hours delayed even though they had nearly hourly flights.

    The worst occassion was when I saw my bags being removed from the plane after being releived to see loaded on. I tried to call it to the attention of the flight attendant, but was told “many bags look alike” (these were very unique on purpose) and then heard the pilot announce that they were being delayed so that they could remove bags that were not accompanied by a passenger (i.e.: me)….In this case whatever transit control neglected to alert the tarmac personnel of my timely arrival and transit through all controls….I had more than an hour.

  8. BA does give great service in the air. However, a good trip is more than the time in the air. 1) BA is normally not competitively priced – ESPECIALLY if they try and shuttle you through LHR. 2) If you go through LHR be prepared to pay a hefty airport tax added to your fare and be prepared for at least a 90 minute connection, with the possibility of security, weather or other delays at this high traffic airport. 3) The cold British attitude of NOT accepting ownership of any problem or complaint has only gotten worse with the added use of Indian interface in their Customer Service Dept, etc. The Indian culture, training and lack of authority does not allow for any meaningful action. It is usually a waste of time and a BA method to discourage further action by customers. Historically, the Brits will talk forever about an issue, only not move on the matter. Frustrating – to put it mildly. 4) BA is very difficult to deal with regarding luggage problems. They stone wall your inquiries and rarely do more than listen and take note. Therefore, you are stuck hoping that things will work themselves out. 5) Don’t put to much faith in the EU rules saving you and getting you that illusive compensation promised. I have been waiting for OVER ONE YEAR and have not received my due, yes I have followed up – to no effect. Not even a reply. AND I had submitted a full file of documentation! I had basically done their job for them (EU Commission for Air Passenger Rights).

    Bottom line, I only will fly BA as a last resort and I try to avoid LHR at all costs. This minimizes the chance of horror stories such as what Cranky has described. So, travelers BEWARE!

  9. I have had nothing but great service from the call center located in FLA. On Sunday, I spent an hour with a rep by the name of Alicia who could not have been better at solving my self imposed problem. I was Gold for 10 years with them and never had an issue with a claim for missed flights or lost luggage. However I sincerley hope that BA will not/does not move this function to ndia.

  10. JayB says:

    Just wondering, but if your traveler were making the same trip using another major carrier, would the experience have been materially different?

    Minimum connecting times…no problem, sure!
    Issues affecting the international arrival airport,
    Full connecting flights,
    Assstance, or no assistance from call centers,
    Ease of, or the hopelessness of getting compensation for a disadvantaged client/traveler,
    Company attitude toward travel agents and, if that is really any different from the company attitude toward the basic traveler.

    What you describe, to me, pretty much describes the norm in this industry. By no means have I had the experience you’ve had in observing/participating in this industry, but…!

    Maybe you could identify what is the ideal for all this? Sadly, what many of us are left with is a feeling of helpless in picking out who (if there is someone) really delivers the goods, consistently. So, our decisions are overweighted toward price, which isn’t that clear in every case, and then we’re groused at by airlines for caring only about price! And, the beat goes on!

    • CF says:

      JayB – Good question. Let me answer each:

      Minimum connecting times?no problem, sure!

      You don’t need nearly as much connecting time in most airports as you do in London. Having a 1 hour min connect time really doesn’t make sense there. If you had arrived at any other airport with 45 minutes, you probably would make the connection.

      Issues affecting the international arrival airport,

      You mean the delay due to circling? I think Heathrow is the only place where you are guaranteed to circle before you even take off. Not a BA issue but an airport one.

      Full connecting flights,

      That is most definitely the norm.

      Assstance, or no assistance from call centers,

      Since we are affiliated with a large agency, we have access to some very good call centers. In particular, the Delta people are fantastic. United does a good job. And I’ve had Virgin Atlantic really help out clients before as well. BA is just a whole different animal.

      Ease of, or the hopelessness of getting compensation for a disadvantaged client/traveler,

      The issue wasn’t getting the compensation here – it was more about the misinformation that made us look incompetent to our client. The 10,000 miles was a nice gesture for her, and I think everyone would settle for it here.

      Company attitude toward travel agents and, if that is really any different from the company attitude toward the basic traveler.

      It can be a lot different, especially when you’re part of a big agency that sells a lot of high dollar tickets. You’d be amazed at how helpful some of these guys can be.

  11. mharris127 says:

    I haven’t ever flown through the London airports but I guess the moral of the story is that you never take a connection unless you have at least two hours to make your connecting flight. That way if your first flight is delayed you have a snowballs chance in you know where of making your connection. Actually that is a good rule to follow for any airport, especially one that you are not familiar with. This also gives you a chance to get a meal at one of the airport restaurants behind security (assuming your connecting flight uses a terminal accessible without leaving the secured area) if your flight does happen to arrive on time.

  12. Theo says:

    My experience with BA is that in-flight is fantastic, everything else is awful.

    I do not have the time to go into the MYRIAD of issues I have had with BA over the years–some really disastrous and one that had be file a small claims suit (they settled).

    Suffice to say that on the ground–it is unchallenged as the World’s Worst Airline.

  13. Donal says:

    I find that if you make a connection when there is little time availbale your bags don´t.

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