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

British Airways, 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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29 comments on “When British Airways Customer Service Says Two Different Things (Tales From the Field)

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

  2. 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

    1. 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. 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.

    1. “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. 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.

    1. Sometimes yes. If the ticket was issued by the travel agent they might have a contract that allows it.

  6. 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.

    1. 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. 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. 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!

    1. 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. 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. 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. Good day all.

    I was one of the Florida BA agents terminated/furloughed/shown the door/given the opportunity to explore new horizons/however you’d like to categorize it when the US contact center closed down in late December. (I think they chose December because the first two letters in “bah-humbug” is of course, BA)

    I was on the agency desk for years and was on the preferred agency desk for 3 years. (Preferred agency defined as those who did 3 million dollars worth of bookings or over year-on-year). As someone who enjoyed their job and the agencies I dealt with, I can tell you that we were appalled, infuriated and downright hurt when the Preferred Desk (Sales Support) first left in December of 2012 only to be followed by the announcement of the total closure a few months later.

    CF was right. We were severely limited by BA policy and had very little room for for critical thinking or even common sense thinking. The environment was driven by one thing and one thing only. Money. Now, I realize that the airline is a business. However, when a business places it sole focus on money, at the expense of everything else, there is a problem. When customer service suffers, there is a problem. When you do things that deliberately alienate your most valued customers, there is a problem.

    When I asked in a center-wide meeting announcing the closure (this took place 26March13) “Surely we have done extensive market research to see what the impact of the decision to offshore the calls will be, right?” The answer was no. “Well, we talked to our colleagues at Delta and Dell, and Hewlett Packard and others who have done this only to bring it back to the States, right?” Again, the answer was no. “Ok, if we haven’t done either one of those, certainly we have consulted with our own people in NYC to see what effect this is going to have on the agency community and how much market share we are prepared to lose, right?” Once again, a stoic no.

    Please don’t read this as sour grapes. A great deal of the Florida reps cared a great deal about doing a good job, treating our customers well and doing the right thing. Closing us down was a bad business decision, period. Leaving the human aspect out of it, it was simply bad business to close down a well functioning, profitable center that was doing well in order to save a few pennies in the short run.

    What saves you a quarter very well may cost you a dollar later on.

    (P.S. Gerald Hansen–you are exactly right about Alicia–although it was actually Alisa. We both worked on the agency desks for a while and towards the end we were doing everything. She is incredibly helpful and a great person. I’m glad you got her when you called.)

    Thanks for letting me rant, everyone.

    1. Dear BA Rep., Unfortunately the past actions of BA only confirm your comments about the thinking of that airline. Management is blindly driven by the “Bottom Line”. We can only hope that they learn their lesson of “Penney Wise, Pound foolish” sooner rather than later.

      As an example, when BA purchased IB they immediately cut about 25% of the employees. They also cut routes or changed service from IB to BA. Their actions were merciless and IB customer service went from bad to worse. It has become almost useless to resolve any issues with IB in a reasonable manner.

      As I have noted in previous input, BA forces travelers to connect through LHR in order to reach final destinations almost all the time. It is more expensive (highest airport tax) and stressful going through LHR as it is well over its planned/designed capacity. If possible, I try avoiding flying BA/IB and LHR for these stated reasons.

      And finally, what has happened to the loyal staff impacted by cuts/changes at BA/IB will certainly be repeated at AA/US Air as CEO Doug Parker & Co.continues to digest his new possesion (AA). His cuts and down sizing will be as ruthless as BA. Don’t believe me? Watch and see. The traveling consumers and loyal employees will be paying Big Time for this competition killing Mega Merger.

      With less competition in the air the airlines have less reason to maintain good customer service, let alone those special departments and benefits dedicated to Frequent Flyers or high revenue customers. Air service has basically become a “Take it or leave it” industry.

      1. Had they not purchased that resource-sucking, revenue-draining shell of an airline we would still be employed today.

        If they were to re-open here in the States, I’d work for them again in a second. But only if they let me run the contact center.

      2. I too was from the JAX center and saw many changes. And yes, most of them were money driven by the airlines. But this is what ALL companies do, sell much and prosper. it is either that or fail and fall. So to say that all they care about is money, again, that is what business’ do to stay afloat.

        Now on the flip side of that coin, what about the number of reps on site that wanted to make the same kinds of money as you Bulova counterparts? All they ever did was gripe about how they didn’t make the same pay as others at New York, without even stopping to consider the obvious drivers that separated our pay from theirs. Biggest example:

        Yes, the average “Bulovite” made close to or exceeded about $100,000 a year, but they had about 20 – 25 years on the job and signed up for tons of overtime. You may have had 13 years max under your belt, but I clearly remember that most wanted that kind of pay from day 1, and and even tried forcing the union’s hand to get it. If they closed NY down because of high payroll, why would they bring that same problem here?

        The average 13+ year agent made about $17/hr, which in this city is good pay.
        If the demands for larger increases at each negotiation were more moderate, the office would still be there and the $25/hr would have come over time. But the time spent negotiating over new contracts for 12 months and beyond and the use of the legal team working it alone had to cost the airline thousands.

        And, lets think of all the perks you got from the company, but fail to acknowledge. Before BA ever came to Jacksonville, Most of the reps had never held a passport or ever been off the continental U.S. Had it not been for BA staff travel, most would had never gone to the places they been. Now lets ask ourselves, if we had to pay for all the travel most of us took advantage of, how many (or little) traveling would you have done over your tenure at BA? And to really drive that point home, how much did ti cost the company for the cases of those discovered using these benefits while on FMLA, while they were supposed to be at home getting cured? Have you considered how much the company spent on those instances?

        Yes, money was indeed a major factor for them making the decisions they made. However, it was also a big factor on many reps minds too. In the end, when now you don’t have enough, later you have nothing and you wish you would have paced things sensibly for longer lasting relationships.

        I really think that people that have NEVER owned or run a business, and had to make decisions should criticize those who walk that tough road.

    2. Hi
      Is it OK if I PM you? – I have a question about a connecting flight that I don’t want to be public. Thanks, Boo.

    3. Have spent the last few months trying to change a name on a ticket. Excasperating process. Speaking to someone india who didn’t fully understand. Why does the Worlds favorite airline not employee people whose 1st Lamguage is English. Next time I will choose Air Lingus

  14. The other thing that killed JAXBA was the internal theft. How many times can HQ overlook such things? Let’s not even get started on the FMLA abuse.

  15. Sounds like there are alot of different opinions on the closing of Florida call center. Sadly that was not the issue of this vine. Does seem FORMER BA TOO though might have been some type of management that was in charge of denying compensation, as those points were stressed in few letters I received regarding my past issues with BA, just saying.. As was pointed out , in the air they are great, if your on an updated plane, on ground and over the phone , they definitely need more training , basic common sense and compassion at times. Remember karma ,it will bite them when they least expect it.

  16. The bottom line is BA did not want to pay US wages with US benefits and US taxes. They benefited from the Corporate Tax breaks and subsidies that they receive and then the decided to move all to India. Bad move…. As Americans we as taught critical thinking and problem solving. We learn to go over or around obstacles– bend the rules…don’t break them. Our Indian replacements are taught culturally to follow the rules. No deviations. And they cost a WHOLE LOT less than American workers. What BA failed to calculate in this decision is the fallout from the public. Just look at Delta and American Express. Both sent their calls to India and quickly reversed themselves when the market share was impacted. BA on the other hand accepted that a 7-9% drop in travel agent market share was acceptable. The market share from all other US Base travelers (internet etc.) will also drop was a non-consideration. The lions share of profit comes from the US market. Tickets departing from the US are priced higher than tickets from Europe, Africa, India etc. The US market pays the highest change fees…Starting at 275USD up to 750USD…while other markets change fees are far lower. The bottom line is US base market is the worlds most profitable routes for BA and they seemingly have little respect for the American flying public that they are systematically in the process of “killing the goose that lays the golden egg”. As an American I refuse to do business with any company that sends my calls to India, Africa, Philippines etc. in an effort to contain costs. If I purchase product or services in the American market I expect to be serviced in the American market because, after 8years in international travel, I have learned that the rest of the world thinks that lousy customer service is the norm, while we in the USA have higher expectations and are accustomed to and expect quality customer service. I realize that the overall business environment is driven by the bean counters….. however the bean counters can not quantify loyalty, customer service, and other intangibles that truly drive the bottom line.

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