Why I Avoid British Airways

Given the large amount of traveling I have done the past few years, friends are surprised that I generally avoid British Airways when flying to London, even if it means a connection on the east coast, a few extra hours of travel, and a slightly diminished quality of in-flight service between first class service on BA and US Airways.

I’m based in Phoenix currently, so I’ve focused my efforts on US Airways and the perks earned when achieving their Chairman’s status, which means an upgrade on almost every domestic flight, and reasonable upgrade options internationally. So why do I try not to achieve the same status on British Airways? Because I’ve had nothing but bad luck and service with them.

Flash back to 2007. I was excited to fly British Airways non-stop from Phoenix to London. A couple of weeks prior to the trip I had to change my reservation in premium economy from two passengers down to one, and change the return date a bit. BA was actually reasonably accommodating at the time: change fee + difference in fare for me, and a reasonable refund for my companion.

When I tried to check-in online for the flight, I was unable to do so. I called British Airways and they were unable to check to me in over the phone. I arrived at the airport early as I wanted a reasonable seat assignment. The agents at the ticket counter were also unable to check me in for the flight. After standing at the ticket counter for almost two hours while they made numerous phone calls and other efforts, they finally explained that when I changed the ticket, the agent had transposed ticket numbers (translation: NOT MY PROBLEM). The flight was getting close to departure time, and they actually explained that I would need to buy another ticket if I wanted to fly that day. They said they would issue refunds and take care of things. So, another $1800 on the AmEx card, and I was rushed to the security line.

While waiting in a long queue to board the flight, several people asked why I was at the counter for so long and I explained my story to their shock. I then sat down in premium economy and shared the story with the passenger next to me, who was frustrated that he hadn’t been upgraded to business class (he was a high mileage customer on BA).

Less than an hour into the flight, a flight attendant spills apple juice all over his shirt and pants, and his seat. Had I been in his seat, my laptop and trip would have been ruined. I was considering myself lucky, but was also expecting the world-renowned BA to shine at offering customer service. I was wrong.

While there were empty seats in business and first class, it was the most unapologetic response I’ve ever seen. Their answer: pajamas and that he should continue sitting in a wet seat for 9 more hours. The lead flight attendant was equally flippant, basically offering to clean his clothes when they arrived in London (which wasn’t going to work as he had a connection to make on to his final destination).

I was pretty shocked, but not as shocked as when I returned to Arizona. My card had not been credited, and the people at the airport really didn’t know what the next steps were. We called the airline and they were not processing my request. Finally after several unsuccessful calls, we were provided an address to write. So we wrote, and we received a letter back that basically said, this is not the right department, you should contact this other department instead. Seriously?!? Shocked at the passing of the buck, we sent a letter to this other department, and soon received a letter back that basically said, this is not the right department, you should write this other department instead, which was the first department we contacted.

Furious, we were fortunate that we had used AmEx. We called them, faxed them the details, and the full refund was issued faster than I’ve ever seen one issued (less than 24 hours later).

Back to 2009. My fiancee lives in London, and she wants to visit me in Arizona. I don’t want to inconvenience her with having to make a connection on the east coast. With the rumors of BA having financial troubles and trying new programs such as their business grants for 2010, I figure that maybe they are trying to win customers and might be easier to deal with.

She has a successful first visit to Arizona in the summer (other than the heat), so we book her to come visit in San Francisco and Phoenix for new year’s and part of January. She’s been recovering from a foot injury, and the British healthcare system is slow. So after a few months of waiting, late last week they finally confirm her for a CT scan on the foot… during the time of her booked flight to visit.

I contact British Airways to find out how to change the flight and what the change fees are. Well, it turns out that the change fees are 100% of the original fare, minus 5% or so in taxes, plus the new fare. In other words, the $3200 ticket is completely unchangeable at all. They explain that I should have bought travel insurance or a more expensive fare (3-4 times the original price for a changeable ticket). The problem of course is that travel insurance doesn’t actually cover this scenario because the injury occurred prior to the purchase of the ticket.

The people I chatted with on the phone with BA were reasonable and friendly and I was perfectly calm and pleading our case, but they have no authority to make any sort of compromise in this situation (unless she was injured mid-trip). So, the options are basically: a) have Mar pushed to the back of the queue for the scan, or b) forfeit the full price of the ticket, minus tax (about 5% of the ticket price). And this request is not last minute, but rather several weeks in advance.

Because airlines do not allow you to transfer tickets (not for security reasons, but to prevent ticket scalping), you’re locked in. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen an expensive ticket be this inflexible. I would think that an airline like British Airways that is struggling so much would be doing anything they can to appeal to customers willing to pay for business class tickets. But instead they are hoping to make money by not actually flying passengers, which may be lucrative in the short term but has the long term effect of making them not want to ever deal with them ever.

For now, I’ll keep my 100,000+ miles/year on the star alliance. US Airways, hurry up and add non-stop servoce from Phoenix or the west coast to London with your new suite class!

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