22 February 2010

Jim Collins recently sent me his latest book, How The Mighty Fall, which I have not managed to prise off my wife yet. If he’d written a British version of this book, it would have to feature BA. British Airways. How on earth has the greatest British brand fallen out of the skies to such depths of despair?

I asked a couple of members of the BA staff, does BA stand for Bloody Awful, after the worst experience I have ever encountered of substandard behaviour by representatives of BA.

I was checking in proudly to my first class seats at the BA counter in Manchester, when I met the second rudest woman I have ever had the misfortune to meet. We had telephoned the night before just to ask advice on the recently introduced ESTA. (An official government document required if you are flying to or through America.) The advice we were given by BA was “don’t worry about it, arrive at check-in in the morning and we will deal with it then as technically you don’t need one as you are not staying in the US.”

We trusted the advice and when checking in, told the lady at the First Class counter why we had not filled out the ESTA as per our instructions from the BA staff the previous night. At this point she categorically refused to check us onto the flight and promptly blanked us. I asked for help, and pleaded with her for someone more senior who could assist.

Enter (stage right) the rudest woman I have ever met. She arrived with a plastic smile that she maintained for the best part of 45 seconds before laying into my wife who was beautiful in her calmness. The BA official told us we should have filled out the ESTA online and that we should have and I quote, “put that you are staying in Miami in the destination box.” I explained that our final destination was the British Virgin Islands, I didn’t dare tell her it was Necker. “we advise people who are traveling through the US to the Caribbean to put down they are staying in the Continental in Miami.”

I explained that this would be incorrect and that this was a US official immigration department document!

Without another word the 2 rude BA staff disappeared.

We were kept waiting 40 minutes. Powerless and no other members of BA staff were prepared to help. When we asked for help, they said, “we are not getting involved.”

It really was like a farce. And if she hadn’t made my 6 year old burst into tears I’d have have been laughing in disbelief. We had turned up to enjoy the first class experience.

Enter Simon, a scruffily dressed man in jeans and a creased polo shirt.  “Because of the delay at check in and that my staff members had not known how to deal with the ESTA, we are able to board this flight to Heathrow, but unfortunately it was now too late to attach the luggage to the connecting flight.”

He advised us that he had personally seen to it that the plane to Miami would wait for us. He apologised for the behavior of the 2 staff and he assured me we would be met by ground staff and hurried through at the other end.

It was clear this man just wanted rid of the situation. He was working on the principal, Out of Sight Out of mind. (perhaps a new management course BA are running)

My 6 year old asked me , “Daddy, why was that lady so rude?” and I was unable to defend her.

This farce had actually delayed the plane leaving Manchester and stressed 100 or so other people also connecting to Miami and other destinations.

On arrival at Heathrow, there were no ground staff waiting to assist us between the planes. Luckily everyone else just managed to get their flight to Miami, but no surprise, we missed ours waiting for our luggage.

I saw the striking BA logo with the words CUSTOMER SERVICE in massive letters. Fantastic I thought. I’ll pop over and get some help.  The 2 ladies (who reminded me of Les Dawson’s characters) with folded arms grunted back at me when I politely said, “I don’t suppose you can help and tell me where to go, we have missed our flight.”

“We’re baggage.” I continued and the other one piped up, “have you a problem with your baggage?” “No” I replied, “well we can’t help you then. Like my friend told you we are baggage” They carried on talking and I couldn’t help pointing out the irony in how they described themselves.

Walking away I pondered, does BA stand for Bloody Awful. It should do!

Eventually after a series of equally idiotic encounters with various Bloody Awful staff I found someone who was lovely. She was kind and called Jeanette. However the damage was done. The brand was dead in my eyes.

She did start quite hard like the first Bloody Awful staff in Manchester, telling us that as we had missed the flight and it was more than likely non refundable. First class tickets can be as much as £9000 each I didn’t dare ask Gail how much she had paid. I must have turned white with the sick feeling. 4 tickets wasted. 3 demoralised girls, 2 hours extra waiting and 1 missed flight! Jeanette quickly realised what had happened.

She explained the check in staff in Manchester were all agency staff. She fixed the ESTA issue in a few minutes putting “IN TRANSIT” in the destination box.

She went on to explain they had not had a pay rise in 2 years and that they had no idea if their jobs would even be here tomorrow. “The spirit is dead, and I am so sorry you have had all this trouble.”

Every cloud has a silver lining. And thank God, Jeanette booked us on to a Virgin Atlantic seat. One of our daughters, the 3 year old had some sort of anaphylactic reaction on the plane and needed emergency care. 2 doctors on board helped out giving her adrenalin injections, oxygen and salbutamol. Nikki, the Upper Class Senior Cabin Crew team leader was amazing, along with her team particularly Ross and Sacha.

We sat on the floor of the cabin outside the cockpit. The captain regularly came out to check on our 3 year olds well-being and after nearly the entire flight she recovered miraculously as kids do!

So how does something so great, become so Bloody Awful? Fancy not rewarding your staff and undermining them so they don’t know if their jobs are safe. I can’t imagine the people at the top have had similar pay problems?

British Airways is overweight in some areas and anorexic in others.

In our business if you have a potential weakness in an area you invest in it, and you allocate the best, strongest most aligned individuals. You certainly don’t cut back.  The problem with BA is they have multiple areas of weakness, so as fast as you build relations with the likes of Jeanette you have sledge hammer Customer Services or disconnected agency staff with their own challenges. Invariably you destroy the brand value.

I think one of the issues BA also has is whilst they are busy infighting, arguing over pay and bureaucracy, the Virgin Atlantic team is taking conflict very seriously indeed. Going about their business with the Sun Tzu approach.

“He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.”

Well, in my mind BA does stand for Bloody Awful and although I have enough free airmiles to fly around the world 7 times, I’d sooner pay to fly a proper airline. Britain’s best airline Virgin.  And I wouldn’t swap our seat on the floor next to the loo for a BA Experience.

Lawrence Jones

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