Saturday, May 20, 2017

British Airways F'ed Up Online & Customer Support System

For the past 14 hours, I've been wrestling with the British Airways online system, trying to correct a problem that their system created. In the process of attempting to correct the seating assignment, I've learned a few things about their system -- and about why you might want to avoid booking flights with them. Put simply, their system is not designed for customer support or customer satisfaction and I've now been told repeatedly that, "if you have an issue in the 24 hours before your flight", your fucked. Harsh words, I know, but British Airways "customer service" people say that they can't do anything in that 24 hour window. If you had one person tell you that, you might attribute it "a bad apple" customer service rep. But when multiple customer service people tell you the same thing, then you know that this is a business strategy.

When you're checking in for a flight, there are many aspects and errors that can go wrong. It's especially challenging for international flights because you have an added layers of documentation and permissions, concerns about connections. Tensions are higher because the costs are higher -- your $1000+ flight is not equivalent to a $100+ domestic flight. You might expect that in this environment, there would be added pressure on an airline to do things right -- or to make things right when things don't go according to plan. This is what makes British Airways system unusual. Rather than being engineered to make things right, the system seems designed to generate customer frustration.

Here's the story of my experience with British Airways and some insight into the underlying mechanisms in their system that appear to be optimized for frustration.

My wife and I booked trips on British Airways about a month ago. My wife needed to go to Helsinki for a business trip and I decided to accompany her and take the time for tourism. Because of the different purposes of our trip, we had to book our tickets separately. Hers through her work travel system, and me selecting the corresponding flight directly from the airline. She opted for the American codeshare version of the BA flight because AA is one of their preferred corporate airlines and she already has a lot of American miles. I opted for British Airways because I'd already flown on them a couple of months earlier on a trip to Brussels.

Our frustrations started with navigating British Airways ticket pricing, which I already wrote about and you can find more about here.

So, one aspect of British Airways default ticket is that you can't select a seat until 24 hours before your flight. Should you choose to, you can pay something like $30 to select a seat in advance, but the default window is 24 hours before. We opted not to pay this as it would be an upcharge that my wife's work would be unwilling to reimburse -- and having one assigned seat without it's mate is kind of stupid.

In a discussion with customer service (either through her travel agent, AA, or BA), my wife was able to address the issue of us traveling together and get our two seats grouped. When we went to check in, it assigned her one seat and me the seat next to her. Unfortunately, when I went to create my online boarding pass, British Airways system counted it as a second check in and relocated my seat (and hers) to an entirely different location. The first one was better, the second one seemed to be triggered just a few hours before the departure, and those seats weren't very good. After spending some time on the phone with British Airways customer support, they assured as that everything was fine. But when we went to the airport service counter to get boarding passes -- you guessed it, they were messed up and wrong. Eventually the service counter people just manually moved us to the original seats that we had together -- but they acted rather pained to have had to do that. They also gave us the explanation that "they'd changed planes, so that probably messed up the process".

On the return flight, the leg from Helsinki to London is a codeshare operated by Finnair. As we ticked off the time, trying to get into the system right after it opened, we hit a couple of roadblocks as British Airways system seemed to struggle with the record exchange with Finnair. Eventually, we were able to both get checked in -- and change seats since the first leg of the flight was only about half full. I say change seats because, despite many empty rows, British Airways auto-seat assignment software assigned me a middle seat near the middle of the plane. It also assigned me a middle seat for the second leg of the trip, the transcontinental flight back to San Jose.

No matter how I tried, I couldn't change the BA seat assignment. I couldn't access it. And they stuck me in a middle seat. Despite trying to check in right near the start of the 24 hour window, British Airways stuck me in a middle seat.

So I reached out to British Airways and Finnair customer service on Twitter. The Finnair customer service team responded quickly, and when I provided them with my flight details, they told me that the couldn't access the British Airways seat assignment system. They couldn't change it. I would need to work with British Airways to change that seat. So I continued to reach out to British Airways -- that all started at about 11:00 in the morning.

My wife and I speculated that we might be able to access the BA flight once the 24 hour mark for that flight arrived. Meanwhile, I continued to try and reach out to British Airways. When the 24 hour mark before the second leg of the flight came and we still couldn't access our seat assignment, I attempted to call the airline. I'd tried calling earlier, but the local customer support number was only good for Monday through Friday, so the only number "for travel problems within the 24 hour period" was an international number. When I called that number, I waited on hold for 12 minutes before a woman from their customer service team took my info, then told me that she couldn't make any changes during the 24 hours before the flight. I told her about how my wife had tried to purchase an upgraded meal, but the transaction didn't seem like it would go all the way through. She said she couldn't fix that because it was within the 24 hours before the flight. In short, it was a 15 minute international call -- at my expense -- to learn that British Airways could not help me. They were unwilling or unable to make any changes within the 24 hour window.

So I continued on to post complaints on Twitter. Eventually, around 6pm local time, British Airways Twitter support team responded to me. After sending a direct message to them with my flight details, an hour or so later, they finally responded with this:
"as you're due to travel within 24 hours, we're unable to amend your seat. The airport have control of the flight and seating. You'll need to make any amendments to your seats at the airport. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused."
Somewhere in all of this (perhaps on the telephone), it became clear that it would never have been possible for us to edit the second leg seat assignment. Whatever we were assigned, we were assigned and their "24 hour lock" on the system meant that, for your second leg seat, you were essentially hosed. Suddenly it made more sense why, on my return trip from Brussels, I was stuck in a middle seat in the back of the section despite aisle and window seats still open. And how, when I'd tried to change my seat online, their system wouldn't let me.

Keep in mind that my wife and I travel on airlines frequently. We often manage our seats using online the online interface after check-in has opened. In fact, my wife has sometimes made multiple changes. I mention this only to underscore a point -- while many airlines block out a wait time and only allow check-ins 24 hours before a flight, most flights will allow you to manage and change your seat up until the time you're at the airport getting on the plane. As long as there is space available. Unless you're attempting to change class -- where they'll upcharge you. So this limitation in the BA system is both unusual and bizarre. It's also a giant FU to their "customers", the people who are paying for seats on the plane.

This experience comes on a flight that is supposed to transport me into "bronze" status in British Airways frequent flier program. Another special British Airways surprise for me was that I fully expected to have already achieved status on my flight to Helsinki. However, surprisingly, the fare that we purchased for these tickets meant that the "points" value for my transcontinental flight on the carrier was only 20 points, what looks to be the minimum value. My previous one hour flight from London to Brussels was actually worth more "points". Yet another FU to their customers.

This is truly "Customer Lip Service".

While we can never be certain of what the future holds, despite my "frequent flier" status that I will have earned after this flight, I won't be rushing to rebook another flight on British Airways and, as I mentioned in my previous blog post about the business, I would advise anyone considering doing business with British Airways -- Caveat Emptor!