ATW Editor's Blog

Customer service lessons for British Airways, Heathrow and all airlines

by Karen Walker
Dec 12, 2017

A final update on my journey out of the London Heathrow chaos, along with a few takeaways that the incident made me think about, not just for the airline and airport directly involved, but for the wider industry.

The reticketing process was treacle-slow; most of the time there were just three re-ticketing desks open … and this was for BA/oneworld priority customers (I have oneworld sapphire status) – heaven knows what they were doing for their “non-priority” customers. Given the time we had on hand, however, some of us in the queue made it an entertainment to time how long it was taking each passenger to be reticketed once they actually reached a desk. The BA guy at check-in desk H12 won our prize for most entertaining: he came on duty at 5am and by 9am was still working his second customer. We quickly agreed that should we get to the front of the queue just as H12 got his second passenger rebooked, we’d pass to the next in line and wait for another agent.

When I reached the BA re-ticketing desk after five hours of queuing, the check-in agent was polite and professional, but no acknowledgement of what her customers were going through… no “sorry you’ve had such an awful wait/night”. She just got right into finding a new flight, which was fine by me but not an endearing BA moment after nearly 18 hours of Heathrow hell.

She was, however, the hare to H12’s tortoise. Thirty minutes later and she told me she had secured me a seat on the 5pm direct flight to Washington Dulles – the same flight I was on the previous day until its APU bust.  Great news! But then she looked again at the screen and was clearly troubled. I figured the flight had just been canceled (there were many additional cancelations on Monday). She got on the phone to someone in the BA system and started talking code. Finally she told BA system guy “thank you so much for fixing that: sorry – my mistake”.

Then she turned to me and explained that she had accidently put me in a business class seat, but “you aren’t business class, so I had to fix that. But it’s okay, all fixed.”

Fixed indeed and firmly put in my place to boot!  I mean, the seat was clearly available, so even if it was a mistake, here was an opportunity to deliver a “we are so sorry, but please enjoy an upgrade”. Even more fundamentally, from a customer service perspective: you made a mistake and can’t allocate that business seat, but please don’t tell me about your mistake! Keep me in blissful ignorance of my unimportance.

In my carry-on was a jar of blackcurrent preserve and a jar of mustard pickle; treats I had bought at a gourmet store in T5 duty free after going through security the first time. As BA still had my checked bag (somewhere, but nowhere that I was allowed to know of) and I had to go back through security, I would have to throw away both jars because they would not comply with the 3oz gel rule. So it was at this point I contemplated unscrewing both jars and pouring them over this woman’s head. Instead, I politely told her this had been the worst travel experience I had ever been through, took my boarding pass and threw the jars in security’s trash can.

Flight 293, a 747, did leave the gate this time and I arrived at Dulles, sailed through Global Entry to a very welcoming US Customs & Immigration agent and – praise be – was reunited with my baggage.

So here are my takeaways:

Lessons for British Airways and Heathrow:

  • This was an event for which there was at least 24 hours preparation time. The sleet/ice was forecast; the airport and airline knew there would be delays caused by the weather, de-icing etc. They should have coordinated across the system to ensure extra officials/agents were on site. They should have been providing information – by agents on the floor as well as over tannoys. Information is what people crave most when there is a major change in their planned travel. BA was accused of giving no information to its customers after its IT meltdown earlier this year. It did not look like the airline has learned anything from that.
  • Don’t make promises you don’t keep. We were specifically told by the BA cabin staff on our aborted flight that we would be given our bags, met by BA ticketing agents and given a hotel room. None of those promises were met.
  • When your customers are queuing for hours and spending the night on a terminal floor – many of them having just come from long-haul flights, some with young kids or elderly relatives – get your staff on duty and get out there. Even if it’s just to sympathize. Better still, to distribute bottled water, maybe juice boxes and crayon packs for kids? Even better, coffee; blankets or some wet wipes.
  • Acknowledge your customers’ pain. BA ground staff, when they came on duty at 5am, must have known what their customers had been through and they were still anxious about when they would get to their planned destinations. A small but genuine “sorry” goes a long way. Most of the BA staff I saw simply chatted among themselves, several with their backs to us.
  • Make your online systems and self-serve kiosks work, even in a crisis. Especially in a crisis. did not work. My ticket was with American, but if I entered my BA flight locator into, it said there was a technical issue and I needed to contact a BA agent. The telephone helplines for both airlines did not work. The kiosks didn’t work. Yet on Monday, as the queues lengthened, BA kept announcing over the tannoy that people who needed to re-book should leave the airport and go to To go where? To use a site that didn’t work?
  •  Don’t blame the weather. Even if the weather caused the initial operational upheaval that led to delays and cancelations, it was BA’s and Heathrow’s  inability to cope that turned a disruption into misery.
  • Why couldn’t people be allowed to stay airside? They would have been more secure and there are at least lots of seats and bathrooms and electronic charging points – all of which are very sparse on the terminal’s landside. If there’s some rules that prevent this, BA and Heathrow need to work to change those rules. All those hundreds of people on the floor of T5, just inside the main doors, were not just uncomfortable – they were a conspicuous target.


Lessons for airlines generally:

  • If your hub airport messes up, customers will try to avoid that airport in future. I heard many passengers, from all round the world, say they would not go through Heathrow again. They have hub choices. And if they avoid your hub, that could well mean they will avoid your airline. So airlines need to work and coordinate with their hub airports to ensure everyone has a system for disruptions and is customer focused.
  • It may not be your airline that messed up, but it doesn’t matter.  The best service-orientated airline in the world is only as good as its worst-service partner.
  • This is why the LCCs are growing their market share and making inroads in the long-haul market. At the end of the day, both promise to get you to your destination safely. But if you are a major legacy carrier and that’s all you can deliver, the LCC will win on price and honesty.
  • This is why airlines get regulated. In my work, I champion for the airline industry to be market-driven and for governments and regulatory bodies to get out of the service side. But for as long as airlines inflict this type of awfulness on their customers – particularly when the initial event was forecast and fairly minor – the more likely it is that lawmakers and travelers will be able to justify legislating how airlines deliver customer service.

Karen Walker


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