I didn’t want to return to the theme of customer service quite so quickly but a recent experience with two of the world’s biggest airlines (both members of the same alliance) should be a case study in how to run a global carrier.

On a Thursday afternoon at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, British Airways’ chief executive was nowhere in sight as the following unfolded.

The setting: The BA first-class check-in area. Behind a curved desk there are five staff and no passengers checking in. All are talking and there’s a general feeling that a passenger could well prove to be an interruption.

The cast: me (the hero), a sour-faced check-in assistant, her very smooth but ineffective manager.

The opening and closing act: Having been caught up in a West End traffic snarl the hero of our story misses his Heathrow Express train connection and has to wait for the next service 15 minutes later. Knowing that things are going to be tight for check-in as he didn’t have time to check in online in advance he positions himself at just the right part of the train in order to sprint to the lift and beat the crowd that will likely slow lift boarding time by a good 90 seconds.

Weaving through the terminal, he reaches the electronic kiosk at the 40-minutes to departure mark. The machine rejects his request to check in and he makes a dash for a compassionate human to put matters right in the calm, curved world of BA’s first-class enclave.

Hero (calm yet anxious about making his connection to Milan): “Hello, I just tried to check in for the Milan Linate flight but the machine blocked me. Can you help me check in?”

Sour face: “Yes, that flight closed about two minutes ago. When you like to fly to Milan?”

Hero: “On the flight I’m currently booked on, please.”

Sour face: “I’m sorry but you were too late for your flight. I’m happy to book you on any other flight to Milan. Which would you like to go on?”

Hero: “I’d like to go on the flight I’m in the process of missing. Could you please ring your colleagues and have them open the flight?”

Sour face: “I can’t do that. I really need when you’d like to next go to Milan, sir.”

Hero: “I’d like to go now, so could you please have the flight reopened. I’m quite able-bodied, have no luggage and will have no trouble getting to the aircraft. Please.”

Sour face: “I don’t like being told what to do and I really have to protest about being made to do this.”

Hero: “Excuse me? No one’s making you do anything. I’m simply asking you to reopen the flight.”

Sour face (punches a set of keys on one of those mystery phones that only exists at airports that no one ever answers): “Hello. I’m calling about the Milan Linate. I have a passenger who’s checked in late. You can’t open the flight can you? Yes, he was late. No, no bags. You can’t open it can you?” (She gently returns the receiver.) “Sorry, nothing I can do.”

Hero: “Pardon me, but you didn’t even try. Did you hear yourself? You did nothing to try to persuade your colleague to reopen the flight. Perhaps you should look at the ticket and the total sum at the bottom? I’m spending close to £6,000 with your airline to fly around Europe and the Middle East for the next five days and you apply the same rules to the passenger who’s flying to Edinburgh for £19? I’d like to speak to your supervisor.”

Sour face (on the mystery phone): “I have a passenger down here who would like to speak to you.”

Enter smooth-but-ineffective: “Hello, how can I help?”

Our hero relays his story fully.

Smooth-but-ineffective: “It’s really a difficult situation since we’ve moved here because even with 31 minutes left now until the flight goes the airport authorities wouldn’t let you through by the time I walked you over. They simply don’t let anyone through.”

Hero: “And why would that be? What happened to passengers having a go at their own risk to get a flight? What happened to being on the passengers’ side? This whole experience is anti-passenger.”

Smooth-but-ineffective: “Punctuality is everything. It’s to everyone’s benefit that we run on time.”

Hero: “I hardly think you’d wait for anyone any more. It’s also clear that you’re not interested in helping me get to Milan on time and have done everything to hamper my travel experience so I think you should remind your chief executive that it’s the premium passengers that do all the work to make him look good when it’s time to issue results and keep this whole thing ticking over.”

Smooth-but-ineffective: “I understand sir. It’s all new here and unfortunately I don’t make the rules. When would you like to go to Milan?”

Stay tuned next week when I try to get on a plane with not 39 minutes to spare but seven! See how BA’s Oneworld partner JAL deals with the situation. Find out what lessons the airline industry can learn from these two stories.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle
tyler.brule@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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