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How do you define a power failure? It’s a question that has been dogging British Airways all week, as the airline struggled to explain the cause of an IT systems failure that left around 75,000 passengers stranded over the bank holiday weekend.
Witnessing images of chaos at airports, I’m glad not to have been one of them. But I went through the motions of making a compensation claim on the BA website this week, just to see how easy or difficult it might be.
After presiding over a customer relations disaster that disrupted the travel plans of so many people, the very least BA should do is make the claims process as simple and clear as possible for those left out of pocket.
In practice, the process is convoluted and misleading — prompting one consumer campaigner to accuse BA of employing a labyrinthine claims system in order to discourage people from claiming.
If you are one of the affected passengers, this column will hopefully save you further hours of angst.
BA’s website directs passengers to two separate claim forms (annoyingly): one for flight compensation, another one for “disruption expenses”, which covers the cost of hotels, meals and telephone calls for which displaced customers have shelled out.
Why they can’t design one claim form that covers the whole lot is beyond me.
On top of the flight compensation, BA has told stranded customers they can claim up to £200 if they had to stay in a hotel (based on two people sharing), up to £50 for transport between the hotel and the airport, and up to £25 a day for meals.
It has also said that customers who called BA’s 0843 number from their mobiles — racking up bills of £20 per call in the case of one complaining passenger — can reclaim the cost of this (in case you’re wondering, the freephone number is 0800 727800).
However, when I attempted to start a claim for non-flight related expenses, the BA website told me in no uncertain terms to claim on my travel insurance first. Before passengers can enter any details of a claim, the site will ask if you had travel insurance for the disrupted journey. I clicked ‘Yes’.
It then asked if I intended to make a claim on my travel insurance. I clicked ‘No’.
A prompt on the BA website flashed up: “You should make a claim with your travel insurer in the first instance. If you have expenses that either you were not successful in claiming or which are not covered by your policy, you may claim for only these expenses in the form below.”
One reason why this is unacceptable is that BA has publicly pledged to pay up. Another is that if I claimed on my travel insurance, I would have to pay the excess (as well as fill in more forms).
If you tick ‘no’, it is still possible to fill in the claim form. But given the strongly worded warning, I called the Association of British Insurers to see what they had to say.
Funnily enough, the industry body had already taken up the cudgels up with BA, and said the message was misleading. “Any cover available under travel insurance will usually kick in only if the compensation is not available from any other source,” the ABI said, adding that passengers should seek compensation from BA first.
When I approached BA, its spokesperson conceded that the airline would “update the wording on the claims page of BA.com to give our customers as much information as possible.”
And finally, on Friday afternoon — 24 hours after our original story was published — the claims form on its website was updated and the ‘tick boxes’ on travel insurance were removed.
BA stressed how sorry it was for the “frustration” customers were experiencing, and promised to “fully honour” its obligations on expenses claims.
If you have already made a claim on your travel insurance, BA said it would also consider a claim to refund any excess you had to pay on your policy.
As the total compensation bill is tipped to reach €100m, complaints expert and blogger Helen Dewdney (you might know her better as the Complaining Cow) has accused BA of making the claims process “as difficult as possible so fewer people will claim”. She has a point.
So what about the flight compensation that you are entitled to under EU law? Depending on the length of your journey and how long you were delayed for, this could be worth up to €600.
If you are making one claim for a group booking, you had better hope that you all share the same surname. If you don’t, the claim form demands “signed confirmation” from anyone authorising you to act on their behalf. Blaming this on the Data Protection Act, BA says this “authorisation” can either be posted or sent by fax.
By fax! Is it any wonder its IT systems collapsed?
As the BA board investigates the reasons for the “power failure”, they should also consider why those in power are consistently failing to make customer service a bigger priority.