Downgraded on British Airways – Here’s what needs to be done

British Airways downgradedDo you believe in Friday 13th? I must say that, ordinarily, I don’t. About 3 months ago, however, I booked and paid for a business class flight on British Airways from London to Austin Texas, to enjoy another fabulous SXSW conference. Having booked so far in advance, something (let’s call it misplaced intuition) made me feel as though I had first dibs on the seat I had purchased. It thus seemed ironic when, upon arrival at the airport on this fateful Friday 13th March, I was told that I had been downgraded for the upcoming ten-hour flight.

downgraded on british airways

This was a first for me. After literally over a million of miles of flying on international flights, I have never been downgraded (or even bumped off a flight). Granted, plenty of those miles were flown in Economy. But, this downgrade was definitely not what I expected on this frightful Friday. Yes, there are worse things in life than getting downgraded. Safety first, by all means. Nonetheless….

CHECK-IN

check in - british airways downgradeI would describe the British Airway’s agent’s manner at the check-in as a cross between matter-of-fact and mildly apologetic. According to company policy, there wasn’t much she could do to make the pill smaller, except to say that “maybe you will get your seat back or they will make it up to you at the gate when you are boarding.” I asked if I were still allowed access to the business class lounge, not without a little cynicism. To this, she replied, “Well, you paid for it, so yes.” To which — and I kept it to myself — I thought about how I had also paid for the business class ticket.

THE LOUNGE

So, for the hour or so I wiled away in the lounge, I was left to fume. Special treatment at the Lounge? Nope. Zero recognition. Not that I expected the cleaning lady to smile at me, in particular. On top of that, wifi was spotty in the lounge and all the International New York Times had already been distributed. Hardly a surprise, I thought.

THE TWEET

Testing out the British Airways social media team, I sent out a reasonably polite tweet. You can judge for yourselves.

Result: No response before I had taken off. It took them exactly 1h58 to formulate a response. When I landed, I was greeted with their answer:

downgrade on British Airways

The fact that ^Kay picked up only on the security search is quite remarkable. Let’s just say that the second-degree search itself was just a mild inconvenience. Zero recognition of the real problem.

THE BOARDING GATE

bad-news-in-the-newspaperThe moment of truth at the gate was “handled” by the manager. A nasty role she had, too. For it was she who had to confirm the bad news to me that, having been downgraded on British Airways, “there was no improvement in the seat situation.” What immediately struck me was that she had not collected any data on me (at a minimum about my upcoming trips on BA). In terms of compensation, I was offered a paltry £200 cash voucher. The good news, she claimed, was that they were not forcing me to use the cash to fly on a future BA flight. She asked if I would accept the voucher? But, what was my alternative, I asked? In essence, to accept the money, meant that I needed to sign a document that affirmed I had indeed received it [presumably to ensure that BA is able to account for the money.] She was quick to add that this voucher would not mean that I could not ask for more! She went further to ask me what else she could do for me. Another way of putting this, the onus was on me to determine how to fix this! [I note that the English PGA golfer Ian Poulter was given the same compensation in a similar situation – Daily Mail story]

You know how it is…”

I did not raise my voice. I remained doggedly matter-of-fact about the whole process, because getting all worked up was only going to ruin an already poor experience lying ahead. When I informed her that I had owned a travel agency and work with travel companies today, she was quick to say, “So, you know how it is!” To which, I solemnly quipped, “it’s about maximizing revenues, and screwing the customer.” Yes, I certainly knew how it was. She could but acquiesce. I would certainly have been curious to find out why I was the lucky person to get shafted. In the aftermath, I received a DM message from the social media team who said:

Hi Minter, if downgrades are necessary, they’re usually done randomly by our airport staff. ^Beth

I do not believe for a ripe old second that this was random. Moreover, this was not decided by the airport staff. To begin with, I believe my fate was sealed before arriving at the airport. When I tried to check in in advance via the BA app, I was given a message saying that it was not possible to attribute my seat. I believe that I was singled out because I sat on the low-end of the totem pole in their eyes: Bronze. Nothing like being a member of a “fidelity” program that treats passengers as a random number. 

Overbooking is a very common practice in the airline industry. As such, these type of situations are sufficiently frequent that BA should have managed to come up by now with a better process — that is, if they truly intend to deliver on their promise “The Welcome of Home.”

ON BOARD

Downgraded on British AirwaysNot a word was spoken. Clearly no one on board was aware of my status. I was an involuntary downgrade as my ticket stub identified. But that information was kept in the computer vault. Instead of a token glass champagne, I was served a meal that could, at best, be considered a camp lunch.

WORKING THE CUSTOMER JOURNEY

customer journey shutterstock_85423609So, where did this process go wrong? What recommendations could I provide to a manager to improve such an experience? To the extent that such downgrades are an accepted practice, the real deal is in the way the company handles the situation. {Tweet this!}

The basic premise would be to follow my journey off and online — and include all the personnel involved in the customer’s path.{Tweet this!} If the airline overbooks, it knows in advance. Thus, it should treat its passenger like an adult. Allowing for the surprise to hit the PAX at the airport, when there are no alternatives, is not in anyone’s best interest. The fact that I was unable to check-in in advance (via the app) was perhaps a sign of an issue.

If you ask your passengers to check-in online, identify and proactively manage the priority outliers. The notion of overbooking is obviously not new. Thus, there must be a process of due consideration, that adequately informs the personnel in contact with the passenger. Specifically, I would highly recommend doing some customer journeying to figure out the best path to accommodate the upset passenger.{Tweet this!} Inform the chain of people on the customer journey of the situation. For example, at the check-in at the Lounge, find a way to acknowledge the unhappy passenger. Example: offer a small bonus: e.g. a complimentary massage, glass of superior champagne… If the passenger comments about the situation on social media, reach out to him/her immediately with context. At the boarding gate, the “manager” needs to have more complete information on the passenger. How is it that the manager did not already know about my upcoming BA flights? She had no indication whether or not I have a blog or any particular social following online? No customer knowledge. Basically, she was flying blind when dealing with me. Furthermore, when offering a measly compensation, maybe she could have provided me with an explanation of why they felt £200 was the right amount to downgrade someone from Business Class to Premium Economy? Why wasn’t it £149 or £1000? Extremely arbitrary, is the only answer I have. Zero acknowledgement by the cabin crew. Do they want to placate or let fester? Again, let the chain of people in touch with the unhappy customer be aware and enable them to act in consequence. I could certainly come up with more suggestions.

But, the idea of this post is to show constructive criticism and due process. The key for management is to follow the customer journey and understand how the mix of channels, stations and people need to be involved in the treatment of this type of situation.{Tweet this!

POST SCRIPTUM

I did inform BA that I have two other business or first class trips in the following month, traveling to the West Coast (USA). Having had no outreach from the company, on March 26, I wrote a firm and fair letter to the CEO, Mr Keith Williams. The following day, I received a ‘personalized’ mail saying:

“Please be assured, one of the team will be in touch as soon as they are able to.”

It has been over two weeks and I have received no further communication. They are hardly operating in real-time. As it turns out, on my next business class trip to New York, I was treated as just the most regular of business class punters. Neither person nor system recognized me as a peeved customer. There was a first class cabin on this flight, but the BA system did not see fit to volunteer an upgrade. 

I believe that timing in the treatment of a customer complaint is an important component of how it is handled.{Tweet this!} It has been a month since the downgrade and with over two weeks since my letter, I have not had a single response. Is this acceptable for a “world class” airline? 

Getting customer experience right requires a deep-seated desire to delight your customers and to have motivated, engaged, trained and informed staff that are synchronized and abetted by the various digital platforms and systems. BA definitely has its work cut out. And, whenever possible, I will exercise my prerogative to choose. The dice are rolled.

P.P.S. Added on 19 April, 2015: The official BA response

I finally received, on April 17, an official email back from BA Customer Relations.  Their ‘personal’ letter basically said, lump it and leave it. They say only that they were sorry that I felt that way and that they “have passed on the comments to the relevant departments.” Apparently, the Chairman, Mr Keith Williams, requested a non-standard response. I assume, thus, he stands by BA’s position: don’t give this passenger a thread more!

They acknowledge that they didn’t act proactively (right) and that, in this case, they did get it wrong (right again). And, they just wilfully sweep any notion of a proper compensation under the carpet. Whereas I wanted this particular post to avoid being an outrageous rant and to be more about the real opportunity for BA to take to heart some alternative and improved approaches to such a situation, I must say that I end up feeling like I have been properly robbed. I am left absolutely flabbergasted.

PPPS – Who needs enemies with friends like that? (April 23)

Thanks for the grand support, everyone. In one more twist, the aforementioned note that was mandated by the Chairman of BA, said:

We appreciate your custom as a Bronze Executive Club member and as a frequent flyer with our oneworld partner, Air France.”

BA and Air France (my preferred airline) are, to my understanding, sworn enemies. With all the confusion in who partners with whom, even BA management get confused, too…or perhaps, Mr Williams just let slip out a strategic alliance is about to happen?

Comments 15

  1. When downgrading, all I know as a common practice is that the airline uses the list of passengers, whoever has most miles and better status (Frequent Flyer etc.) will get downgraded last. And agreed, not much effort given as a follow-up. No excuse but … airlines, still (and it ain’t getter better) lack money for proper customer relations. Prices keep going down, competition arises, more and more passengers travel, margins are ridiculous. I am not even sure that you would have received a better treatment with one of the “rich” airlines such as Emirates, Etihad … the best tip I can give is : try to fly with the same airline as often as possible, and reach the highest possible status with them. Then, you will be a “high value customer” and ought to (normally) get the best possible attention 😉

    1. It is a sad statement of fact that this type of treatment is an industry norm, Noel. What’s funny about your tip is that it is like having to hold your nose as you jump into a freezing cold pool… and hoping you can come up for air… ! I have to believe that the airlines that figure out how to allocate more resources around a better customer experience…will win more business over time. However, it’s likely that airlines like BA can “tolerate” the noise because they also have virtual monopolies … Like the direct flight LHR-AUS… Then they feel that they can “get away with it!”

  2. Your two issues (1) prioritization method for bumping and (2) compensation/acknowledgement, are separate. Would you have the airline prioritize differently than Noel suggests below? Would YOU bump off your most loyal customers first? By definition ALL methods will upset someone. Should they instead bump passengers with large blog/social followings? Then all us old guys will get bumped off by the 16 year old YouTubers with 500,000 followers… Or by some reality-show celebrity… Ugh.

    As to (2) compensation – that is something the airline has lots of control over, and where they can offer a lot of value at low cost – bigger vouchers! more champagne! free massage! Moat likely they’ve figured out that no matter what they do, customers will still be upset and ‘ here’s the kicker – will still fly them in the future if the timing/price/routing is still advantageous at that time.

    1. @Ken H:
      re the prioritization, you are, of course, right… except that BA keep reiterating to me, in writing, that the process is “random.” It’s absolutely a nonsensical response. Imagine, as you say, if a GOLD star were randomly kicked off or downgraded! Why not just tell the truth?

      On point #2, I think it does matter HOW / WHAT you do. Some do it better than others (not that I have been downgraded before). But, there are definitely ways to make the pill easier to swallow. As I suggest, they could at least make aware other staff members involved along the way with the “INVOL DWNGD” pax. And yes, you are right that I will still HAVE to fly them because of their dominant position and owned routes. But, in terms of building brand loyalty, that doesn’t sound like a winning long-term strategy. I certainly am feeling a lot more love for Virgin (and old trustworthy Air France…)

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Ken!

  3. The thing I don’t get about this is this is the cost of them treating you like a human being would have been zero and made a HUGE difference to how you felt.

    It seems highly likely they knew you’d be downgraded a few hours before arrival.

    If they’d
    1) Sent you a email to warn you of this beforehand and assure you of what they will be doing about it.
    2) Apologized on arrival, given you a discount voucher and explained that the fare difference would be given to you. Also given you information about how likely it was that you’d be given the right seat. To manage expectations.
    3) Made sure that aircraft crew knew your situation and could also apologize.

    Then for the cost of ZERO and very basic technology, you would have been a loyal flier who understood.

    BA don’t have a customer email, there phone lines are terrible.
    But they do Twitter really fast and have an Apple Watch App.
    They have it ALL WRONG.

    1. My bet, Tom, is that they actually knew the day before since I couldn’t check-in online… You are so right that had they accompanied me along the way, the pill would have been so much easier to swallow. No one (other than the “boss” at the gate) has the knowledge or the authority to do anything about it. On Twitter, they answered only after I had taken off… whoops.

  4. Pingback: British Airways downgrade - BA responds

  5. Pingback: Why is customer centricity so important today?

  6. Pingback: British Airways First Class is more like Last in Class - Minter Dial– Minter Dial

  7. Pingback: British Airways - Part 3 of the British Airways Downgrade Saga

      1. Amazing that that’s not the default offer at the check in! I recall getting near on #200 for a down grade within Europe 20 years ago!

        Perhaps they figure that once they’ve really annoyed someone, they may as well maximize revenue from them in the short term 🙂

        1. I hope they feel that misjudged my case! 🙂 But even the follow up attempt they made was faulty. They will surely have difficulty if they don’t know how to learn from their mistakes.

  8. Pingback: 9 Cases of Fake Brand Building

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *