TO FLY TO … DISAPPOINT
Promises and expectation versus Customer Experience reality on a British Airways flight
For many years, I was a loyal customer of British Airways. With all ups and downs our “relationship” was always special. Even when their former motto of ‘the world’s favourite airline’ was replaced with the company’s coat of arms and the words: ‘To fly, to serve.’ I was quite sure that my trips in a BA aircraft, business class will always stay the same: comfortable, on time, good value for money and a very “British service” both on board and on the ground. Big mistake.
After all the social media waves created by the fact that British Airways will in future charge for food on short-haul flights, via a commercial tie-up with the upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer, I was wondering if the product in premium cabins will be improved and in Economy BA will lower the flight price to compete with the real low-cost carriers of the world.
Now if you have an ex-budget airline CEO running the ship – as BA does with ex Ryanair and Vueling managers – the company will be taking the leadership from someone who could think this is ‘evolving the brand’ (to a model he is more familiar with?) And the reality is that the BA value proposition can stand the increase in cost and reduced service experience that we passengers will be treated to in future and BA will see a little bit more (quite bad) profit!!
OK, the background to ‘my experience’ is a trip to Bucharest on the 1st of November in Club Europe. I booked the flight choosing to fly BA as it is a full service carrier, which I prefer to the low-cost alternatives, connecting flights with Lufthansa or KLM or a direct flight with the Romanian airline TAROM (as the timeframe was more convenient with BA).. My expectation, based on hundreds of flights with BA over the years, was that it would be better from a safety point of view i.e. a relatively new and well maintained aircraft; sensible seating with a decent leg room; plus, perhaps, a nice gastronomic experience during the 3h flight and a luggage allowance. My expectation was based not only on previous experience but the company’s own advertising (http://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/information/travel-classes/business/club-europe)
After my arrival in Heathrow T5 I was surprised to see that the check-in area for Club Europe was clearly marked and separated for the rest of the check-in lounge and a host was guiding you to the check-in line. I didn’t care the host was hosting on her face a grimace difficult to be called a “welcoming smile”. What I did care about is that after saying hello to the host making my way to the check-in line I was stop by the Lady Cerberus with an unpleasant “Excuse me, this is business class”. Like a naughty school boy I returned to the lady and show her my boarding pass which allowed me to access the “exclusive area”. Check-in was smooth and I was airside in under 20 minutes. Enough time for some duty-free shopping in an airport already decorated for Christmas in case you will forgot the BIG DAY still placed in my calendar on 25th of December. But you can start your Christmas mood in November after placing in the attic the Halloween mood.
Finally, having enough time before boarding I made my way to the Business Lounge, the Galleries Club Lounge located at the same level with the Security Control which was always a little bit quieter than the others.
BA promised on their website that “when you enter our Galleries lounge you are greeted with calm and tranquil surroundings” and the “lounge is a haven of peace and quiet”. Even the photo on http://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/information/travel-classes/business/club-europe give you the temptation of stopping in the lounge. But the reality was quite different. The lounge was very busy with a 10 minutes waiting to have your boarding card check. Don’t hope for a quiet place to work or to relax…the lounge give me the feeling that I was the victim of teleportation and I was sitting in a dirty train station lounge during the rush hours. And the smelling not very clean toilets were present too.
Being a little bit hungry I was looking for the “light meals or snacks (…) especially prepared for you” and “drink from our World Wine bar” as BA promised again on their website. The only discovery was some sad sandwiches (hope not M&S, I am doing my shopping there and I can’t cope with two disappointments in one go) and after checking 4 empty bottles on display I found some warm French white wine. Therefore, I decided to cut my time spent in the “comfortable private lounge” and treat myself with some Costa coffee and some nice tasty ITSU sushi in the terminal.
The flight departed from Satellite B, which is easy to reach if you manage your time properly: 10 minutes to gates B and 15 minutes to gates C. At the gate, 5 minutes before the official closing time an announcement was made and informed us that the crew is not ready yet with the security checks and the boarding will be delayed 15 minutes. Finally, I found my seat 2F in a new Airbus 320.
On boarding the Purser was busy making coffee for the flight crew so I was greeted with a quick basic smile but No.4. The new Airbus 320 was identical with the one used by EasyJet, the same thin seat, quite uncomfortable, giving you the “chance” to feel all movements of the guy behind you, the seat in the middle blocked with a kind of a tray, and the same old over used magazines in the seat pocket. Exactly like EasyJet; the colour was different and of course the price!
Before departure the Captain. didn’t mention anything about the delay but mentioned that the airport is busy so we must wait 15 minutes before push-back and assured us that we will arrive in time because the flight is shorter due to a shortcut given by the Air Traffic Control. it is good to give your crew, particularly captains and flight crew, the words to use when things go wrong, but they also need to be smart enough to adapt what they say when they know that passengers are going to suffer because of a delay. Platitudes/insincerity only serve to inflame the situation and it was interesting to see that our captain failed to stand by the door saying goodbye to the unhappy passengers, choosing instead to remain locked away in his cockpit!
Finally, in the air, anxious to see what else BA changed in a Club Europe service. In the last 5-6 years, the product changed so much and so often, sometimes in good sometimes in bad that my excitement had a reason.
First a hot towel and a pre-dinner drink; I decided for gin and tonic and the “must have” nuts, which was always a nice touch when you fly Club Europe.
I was waiting for the promised menu which “features irresistible meal options crafted to perfectly match the time and duration of your flight”. Couple months ago a tasty plate with canapés was offered to passengers in Club Europe. In the London-Bucharest flight I was offered the eternal option “beef or fish” with, indeed, a nice polite smile from the Purser. The tray looked like an Economy tray on a Tarom or KLM flight to Bucharest. No salad, an overlapping end-of meal option of cheese and lemon merengue and a fish which was the blandest food I ever had on-board. When I was still looking for my “very British experience” the tray was taken away. Coffee and a second round of drinks were served shortly after the main meal service was finished. I couldn’t stop wondering where that smooth, stylish service from my last flight went. Of course, the crew was polite and nice as much as they can, shaping their enthusiasm according the product offered to passengers. And another odd element: no other drink service; you needed to ask for another drink as the crew was busy to stop the Club Europe toilet in the front from leaking and flooding the entire front galley.
During the flight I overhear a innocent crew conversation and felt sorry for the regrets regarding their previous airline and service. Were they talking about BMI which was “eat” by BMI couple years ago? I don’t know, but I missed for 2h and 40 min the old BA Club Europe.
I think the only genuine smiles were of the staff at the arrival gate in Bucharest. That wiped the bad experience of the “priority” bags arriving in the last lot on the luggage belt.
If BA wants to maintain a premium brand position, it needs to reconsider adopting the practices of low-cost carriers. You are paying a very low fare and then know what to expect. BA, however, should not cut all possible corners in Premium cabins. It is a full-service airline, with high entry cost of a ticket, that now wants the product structures of a low-cost provider with “premium cabin” option, like Norwegian or Air Europa. Is a kind of a Vueling “business class” product, but at a far much higher price. That is a commercial decision and while it might generate a few more pounds, will cost the business in the long run. It is no longer acceptable to mislead and compromise that experience, hoping that, firstly, no-one will notice and, secondly, they will not call you out on social media or old-fashioned word of mouth for ‘cheating’ on the expectation.
I planned for December a trip to Dubai and taking now in the account the experience in Club Europe in a London-Bucharest flight I am considering very seriously to look somewhere else where for the same price I will get a better business class service. And Emirates as a direct option or Gulf air as a one stop flight sounds better.
For sure after this experience I am not happy to pay a premium price and flying on a low-cost carrier service style. I think that should be close to illegal and, certainly, an awful brand experience. Rather bizarrely, the over used BA High Life magazine was in the seat pocket – attempting to suggest how a BA experience supposed to be, truthfully, only serving to emphasise what you were missing.
To be honest I don’t expect any reactions from BA. For sure that “To Fly, to serve” is a big umbrella which can cover any alteration of real British customer Service practices polluting it with Ryanair and Vueling (obviously) strategies. Of course, the impact in the mid-term for them is less business from me and the knock-on impact of me relaying this story, therefore undermining the tens of millions the company spends on brand advertising.
But who cares about that?
To fly … to disappoint!