Digital fail: An awful customer experience with British Airways

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez May 16, 2014

BA plane
Most technology journalists travel a lot – some more than others - but I would say that I make the trip across the pond to the United States probably five or six times a year. That's a lot less than the likes of Dennis (his post on a bad experience with British Airways is also worth a read), but when you've been doing the job a few years you know what to expect from an airline's customer experience. In fact, as a frequent flyer you make an effort to ensure that the entire journey is as seamless as possible and you do everything that the airline asks. You check in online, you choose your seat in advance, you give them your phone number, you turn up three hours before departure, you're at the gate when you're supposed to be etc.

I've been through this process a fair few times and I can't think of a single time when it has been horrendous enough to complain to the airline, or even send a Tweet for that matter. However, I am currently flying over North America with British Airways on a flight from San Francisco to London, following a few days with NetSuite in San Jose, and I can honestly say that I'm astounded by British Airways' incredibly poor customer service.

I really want to emphasise that I don't typically feel the need to complain about irregular customer service – a flight delay for example – because things go wrong and not everything can work perfectly all the time. However, British Airways really pushed the boat out today and it's end-to-end experience really proved why traditional systems and CRM don't have a place in this digital age.

So, let me start from the beginning. Given that I'm 6 ft 7 I always like to make sure that I check in online 24 hours prior to departure, as soon as it opens, in order to get an aisle seat – given that it is about a 10 hour flight. However, on this occasion I was moderating a panel at SuiteWorld when the check in opened, which meant that by the time I got to my laptop I was 45 minutes late. After scrambling to find my booking reference number and expecting to be disappointed I began the check in process. I inputted my name, told the system how much luggage I was checking in, accepted the terms and conditions and then when I tried to move on to the next step I was told that online check in was not available for my flight.

Erm, what? I literally can't remember the last time I turned up at the airport without checking in online, so I tried again. Same response. I tried a different browser (because you never know) and again, got the same response. I gave it a go on my Android mobile, again same response. Reluctant to call the customer service line and given that I was flying premium economy on this rare occasion, I decided that I would have to just knock back a few red wines if I got stuck in a middle seat and hope for the best.

Computer says no...

The next day a group of us turned up at SFO at about 2pm for our flight, a good few hours before departure. I know that the check in assistants get arsey if you don't have a boarding pass when you hand over your luggage at the counter, so I went over to one of their Point-of-Sale systems to try checking in there, only to find the touch screen wasn't working (on all of them) and so I couldn't progress on that front. Fail number 2. 

USA_passport_with_immigration_stamps_from_Austria,_Germany,_Singapore_and_the_US_-_20120708

So I headed to the queue and decided I'd try the old fashion way, checking in from start to finish with a person. At this point I'm feeling a bit annoyed by the poor quality of my digital experience and just want to get my boarding pass, find out where I'm sitting, head through security and down a couple of drinks in the bar. I should be so lucky. I was then told that my 4.40pm flight was, and I quote, “massively overbooked”, and that customers were being 'involuntarily downgraded'. So having booked a premium economy ticket, I'm now at the airport with a few hours until my flight and being told I am being put in economy (I've only flown premium economy once before in my life so was kind of looking forward to the treat).

I'm also told that first class is being downgraded to premium economy and economy passengers are being bumped completely, so I should be lucky I have a ticket. So I agree and ask that can I at least have an aisle seat – given my height. Nope, apparently not, I've got a window seat. Then the British Airways employee asks me if I am willing to catch a flight later on in the evening (five hours later) because they will give me a few hundred dollars compensation. Given that I was in no rush to get back, and I'm a poor journalist, I told her that I would possibly be interested, but inquired as to whether I would be in premium economy on the later flight as per my original ticket?

She had no idea. She looked at her computer on her desk, tapped a few keys, and then told me she's not sure because the system isn't telling her. So she picked up the phone and rang operations – operations turns out to be a woman named 'Karen' – who pretty much said the same thing, that I would be on the next flight but that they couldn't guarantee that I would be premium economy. Fine, given that I was going to be economy anyway, I decided to take the cash and spend a few extra hours in the bar with a fellow journalist who had come to the same conclusion.

However, we were also told, having confirmed that we would give up our seats on the earlier flight, that we would still have to go to the gate for the earlier flight because we were on a 'waiting list' and wouldn't 100% be bumped to the next flight. So at this point I haven't been able to check in online, I couldn't check in on a system in the airport, I was told I had been downgraded, and then told that I may or may not be bumped in exchange for a few hundred dollars. I'm reluctant to make a 'cheap whore' analogy but it was starting to feel that way...

So with basically no idea what was going to happen, which flight I would be on, where I would be sitting, we headed for security. After a couple of drinks in the bar we went to the boarding gate to see if we were going to be on the earlier flight – which we soon found out we were not, they needed the space and we were going to get put on the next flight with a cash card for our troubles.

I then, however, asked if I was going to be premium economy or if I could get an aisle seat in economy. The first person I spoke to told me I'd have the same seat number as I would have had on the previous flight (window, economy). Then someone else said no that was wrong, so they tapped the computer, apparently couldn't find anything useful, so decided to phone operations – the ever helpful Karen. At this point I probably had three or four British Airways employees trying to figure out where I would be sitting on a flight – hardly rocket science. I have no idea how long this went on for, but

+big fail2
throughout the whole debacle I heard more than one person say: “Argh, this computer just hates me. It just doesn't like me”.

Then, thankfully, an incredibly helpful woman came over who seemed to understand the basics of the British Airways booking system. She told me that I would in fact be in premium economy on the later flight (grateful) and that I would be receiving my few hundred dollars in compensation. At which point she then left the other employees to top up my Visa card with the money – cue another disaster.

For some reason the system was then loading the cards with double the amount it was meant to, which British Airways HQ would obviously not be particularly happy with. Again I waited and waited and waited and watched the employees scramble, make calls and generally look dismayed with the computer screen. Eventually the same helpful woman came over and knew what the problem was and managed to get the card loaded with the correct amount and gave me my boarding pass.

Hallelujah!

Verdict

  • This just showed me how frustrating it is to offer customers a digital option (online check in), which then just doesn't work. Especially when there is no explanation of the problem or what I could expect when I checked in in person. They had my email and my phone number, where was my message to let me know what was happening? In fact, wouldn't it be more efficient to email passengers the day before asking them if they would mind catching a later flight? This would have avoided all chaos at the airport.
  • I fly a lot and 99% of the time it is a perfectly acceptable experience. However, this just highlights that when something goes wrong – in this case being “massively overbooked” (who's fault?) - the processes and workflows go to shit and no-one knows how to work the systems or what the hell is going on.
  • It is also evident that there are still power users in companies that know the systems inside out, whilst others are completely in the dark. Are we not past this? I expect that when I'm dealing with a major brand like British Airways that they know how to work seat allocation on their systems. Apparently not.
  • I tweeted British Airways too complaining and am yet to get a response, so you can add social fail to the list too.