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ATW Editor's Blog

British Airways, Heathrow & UK Border Force mess up big time


It's 3am, London time, Monday and I'm sitting on the floor of Heathrow Terminal 5.

My British Airways flight was supposed to get me home to Washington DC Sunday evening. However, there was a little sleet and snow around London and the system ground to a halt. As I arrived at Heathrow T5, a lot of flights had already been canceled  (mostly to or from Europe) or delayed. And there were long lines of people waiting to get re-ticketed.

There was not a lot of snow, but weather can quickly have a knock-on effect. Nevertheless, given that snow was forecast, it was surprising to see that BA and Heathrow seemed little prepared to handle the changes and heavier workloads they must have known would be likely.

My flight (an American Airlines ticket operated by BA) was delayed about three hours - first because there was insufficient gates for incoming aircraft as they backed up; then because a passenger's bag had to be unloaded after we boarded; and then for de-icing.

But as we finally prepared to leave the gate there was a bang, it went dark and the captain announced there had been an APU failure. By the time the APU restarted, the captain announced worse news; the crew was now at the edge of its roster time and there was no spare crew. The flight was canceled and we would have to disembark.  We were on the aircraft almost another hour -- because we were waiting for gate agents, they said.

We were told we'd have to go back through immigration, collect our bags, then return to check-in where BA staff would rebook our flights and find us hotel accommodation.

From the moment we de-boarded, however, there was no sight at all of any BA staff. We backtracked through T5's tortuously complicated transit system. This involves two sets of escalators and elevators. The escalators were not working and only two of the three elevators worked, so there was a big backup and crush. But much worse was to come. At immigration, the queues snaked forever. Again, not a single BA or Heathrow agent to be seen. There was no proper signage and a lot of confusion as masses of people from canceled flights tried to work out which was the right place to be for UK, EU or other passports. In the end, it didn't matter. The queues all became one huge clog. I stood for three hours. So did many elderly people and families with small children. There was no one to help or prioritize them.

After three hours, when I at last cleared UK Border Force & Immigration, there was more chaos in the baggage area. Hundreds of bags were piled across the floor in no order and with no signs. And no-one helping anyone to locate their bags. It was now 1am and we finally heard a BA voice (but did not see a BA person), sternly telling us if we couldn't see our bags we must leave the baggage area. We were told there would be no help with hotels; and BA could do nothing more until they reopened at 5am.  BA may have been off the hook for any assistance where weather was the cause of cancellation, but my flight was canceled because of an APU failure and crew unavailability. Nevertheless, there was no one at all to help.

So here I am, at now 3.30am, on the floor of a freezing cold T5. No bags, No ticket, No idea when I'll get out of here. BA.com and AA.com are useless - clearly the system just caves in when there is an unforeseen event, which is precisely when you want an airline's online system to work. There are, of course, lots of miserable, tired, cold people sharing this floor with me. They are all BA customers. But there is no evidence of any BA or Heathrow staff. Even if some are working behind the scenes to try and make tomorrow a better day, there should be staff out here with their customers. But there is no evidence whatsoever that they see themselves as being in the service industry or that they regard these people on the floor as their customers.

Karen Walker karen.walker@informa.com


UPDATE. It's now 11am London time Monday and here's what happened next. There was a single coffee shop open through the night on the T5 arrivals level. I queued 45 minutes  for a cup of hot chocolate. At 4.30am I joined the BA queue to get re-ticketed and hopefully get some news of my checked bags. My queue companions came from all round the world and all were talking about their miserable experiences - many having had long-haul flights into Heathrow, only to sit on the tarmac for four hours before disembarking into chaos and four-to-six hour queues in the immigration scrum. Most people also no longer knew what had happened to  their checked bags. Everyone was talking about the same thing; how there was no sign of BA or Heathrow staff; how families with small kids and elderly people were left to fend for themselves; how there was no information whatsoever and nobody available to provide assistance. And how a stilted apology only was made "for operational disruptions caused by the weather" from around 9.30am when BA started to tell people over the tannoy they should leave the airport and rebook on ba.com. After four hours of queuing and a night at the airport and no sign of their bags, nobody was going to leave the airport. As many pointed out, BA.com wasn't working, not were the BA helplines.

There was also considerable anger when people read morning news stories reporting a "snow storm" had brought Heathrow to a standstill, and quoting a BA spokesperson saying the airline had provided refreshments and hotels to customers. Nobody I spoke to had been offered so much as a cup of water (even though the crew on my flight promised onboard there would be hotels). People noted that when BA staff did start work at 5am, they mostly chatted among themselves and ignored their customers, even turning their backs on us while they chatted. Nobody saw a snow storm at Heathrow - it was sleet and a little wet snow, Enough to cause delays, yes, but there are ways to handle that, starting with looking after the customer. Even more infuriating, the BA staff started a queue system that split those who needed reticketing (the vast majority, who had spent the night on T5 floor) and those who had a ticket but just needed to drop off their bags. The reticketing queue, of course, was much, much longer, but we patiently waited our turn for hours. And then a BA woman started taking some "baggage check" passengers - who had queued for a much shorter time - and inserting them at the front of the reticketing queue. After this happened a few times the reticketing passengers protested. At which point another BA woman started clucking her tongue and talking about "people's attitude". Actually, their attitude had been remarkably tolerant until BA messed up the queue system, which was the last straw.

Eventually, I was rebooked on a flight that leaves this afternoon. Still no apology and the BA check-in agent acted like it was just another normal check in. When I asked her about my checked bags, however, she said there were "no guarantees" they would be on my new flight. So that's a mystery to enjoy over the Atlantic.

Ironically, my colleague Victoria Moores was at an Aero Club lunch in London last week where BA CEO Alex Cruz was the speaker. Victoria points out that Cruz  repeatedly said that BA was different because it will look after you when things go wrong.

I beg to differ; and so do several hundred of my BA traveling companions at Heathrow today.



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