This article generated a lot of interest when I published it here. It plays to the heart of the issue with Customer Experience which, in the end, is about delivering on the customer expectation that brands have actively created. Since the original post British Airways have announced formally that they will be charging for food on short haul flights – so I was on the money and have now updated this post to reflect this new information!
It is no longer acceptable to mislead and compromise that experience, hoping that, firstly, no-one will notice and, secondly, they will not call you out on social media or old-fashioned word of mouth for ‘cheating’ on the expectation.
Over the coming months, I shall be producing a series of brand experience ‘road tests’ to challenge and reward, hopefully in equal measure!
Since I penned the original review in September, it was interesting to see it being reported in the press that British Airways will in future charge for food on short-haul flights, via a commercial tie-up with the upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer, unlikely then, one would expect, to be cheap food to buy and now confirmed as being charged at a premium to the Marks and Spencer in-store prices..
Now if you have an ex-budget airline CEO running the ship – as BA does – you will be taking your leadership from someone who could think this is ‘evolving the brand’ (to a model he is more familiar with?). When the food story first broke I thought the idea was that you charge for food, which allows you to lower your flight price to compete with the real low-cost carriers of the world. The reality of this is simple: prices may initially drop a little but then they will creep back up because BA will always feel it is a cut above the ‘bucket airlines’ and deserves a premium. My assumption in September was, as it turns out, too generous in reality now that the Marks and Spencer tie up has been confirmed I understand from Press reports that fare prices will not be reduced to reflect this as clearly they believe the BA value proposition can stand the increase in cost and reduced service experience that we passengers will be treated to in future and BA will see a little bit more (bad) profit!!
What will be interesting is to see if the BA marketing and advertising teams recognise this degrading of the brand position and proactively provide an adjusted expectation for customers… or will they just hope we don’t notice.
OK, the background to ‘my experience’ is a trip to Edinburgh to play an annual golf event that has been running for some 27 years now.
I booked the flight some time ago through Expedia (£215.17), choosing to fly BA as it is a full service carrier, which I prefer to the low-cost alternatives. My expectation, based on hundreds of flights with BA over the years, was that it would be better from a safety point of view i.e. a relatively new and well maintained aircraft; sensible seating with a bit of leg room; plus, perhaps, some food and a luggage allowance. My expectation was based not only on previous experience but the company’s own advertising.
So, how did BA do?
I was thankful I checked in online as immediately I had a rather nasty surprise. When I clicked two bags to check in, I was informed that my ticket was hand baggage only. Even though the Expedia confirmation had a footnote that “The airline may charge additional fees for checked baggage”, my simple assumption, born of all previous experiences, was that as BA is full service I would get my two bags to check in. Apparently BA had introduced three new levels of charging including a basic service that was hand luggage only – that message never reached this loyal passenger with over 4500 tier points accumulated.
When I clicked to check in my ‘extra baggage’, I discovered that BA wanted to charge me another £170. If I had done this at the airport, the price would have been £260!!!! So, the cost of taking two bags, weighing less than 40kg, was more than my entire journey as a fully-grown adult weighing somewhat more than that. Unbelievable and totally unjustified, yet I had no choice, so did the deed.
Now on to the seating. Online, BA offered me a middle seat at the back of the plane: not ideal, so I moved my seat, only to discover that to do that they wanted to charge me another £11 for one option or £9 for another. What? I am now getting more than disappointed with my experience. I decide that the middle seat would do – they were all reasonable legroom, it was only a short flight, etc, etc. How wrong I was!!
I got to the airport, where check-in – unlike my previous experience a month earlier (see my earlier blog post) – was smooth and I was airside in under 20 minutes. Now on to the plane and… what’s this? BA has contracted the flight out to a Danish low-cost airline – Jettime – complete with Danish crew. The plane was old, the seating was so cramped that I had to adopt a very awkward elbows-tucked-in position for the entire flight to avoid pummelling my fellow passengers.
So now I am paying a premium price and flying on a low-cost carrier. I think that has to be close to illegal and, certainly, an awful brand experience. Rather bizarrely, amidst the Danish airline-branded crew and aircraft, the BA High Life magazine was in the seat pocket – attempting to suggest that this was a BA flight but, truthfully, only serving to emphasise what you were missing. To reinforce the ‘this is not BA’ point, the crew constantly referred to our destination as EdinBERG. Hmm :((
Now on to the return leg, which was delayed by over an hour but was a big BA jet, with seven seats across, so a busy flight for a short journey.
About 20 minutes before landing, the crew read out a long list of flight numbers, adding that the passengers on those inter-connecting flights should go to the International Transfer Desk as they had all been booked on later flights. Arghh! Poor people.
As the plane approached our gate, the captain came on the intercom to explain that our initial delay had been caused by having to take the bags of passengers who had not turned up to the flight off the aircraft. This, as we all know, can happen but he then blithely trotted out the script he has been given for just such occasions: “Sorry, I hope you have not been inconvenienced by the delay.”
Now hold on! He knows that a significant number of passengers have just been hugely inconvenienced and faced I don’t know how many hours’ delay connecting and probably other impacts at their destinations!!
Post-flight, I pick up the ‘how was everything for you?’ survey and provide honest feedback, ticking the box giving them my consent to contact me to discuss my answers.
I hold out no hope that BA will contact me (it is now October and of course they have not contacted me) or that they will even consider compensating me for my sub-standard experience. Of course, the impact in the mid-term for them is less business from me and the knock-on impact of me relaying this story, therefore undermining the tens of millions the company spends on brand advertising.
So what can be learned from this experience?
Firstly, someone in BA – no doubt distant for the actual flying experience – took a commercial decision to outsource the BA brand to a low-cost Danish provider. It makes you wonder if they have ever actually sat on the plane that is supposed to represent BA and justify its premium price position. I would think not because if the answer was yes they would have thought it acceptable – which is even worse. Outsourcing is a huge risk for businesses because, in reality, you outsource the experience – and in this case it palpably did not work. As I noted, there must also be a case for fraud through misrepresenting the experience/cost equation.
Second, if BA wants to maintain a premium brand position, it needs to reconsider adopting the commercial practices of low-cost carriers. I don’t mind that Ryanair charges for hold luggage or assigned seating; you are paying a very low base fare and then choosing to bolt on costs. You are in control and you know what you are getting. BA, however, should not expect passengers to pay for moving seat, for putting some bags in the hold. It is a full service airline, with high entry cost of a ticket, that now wants the pricing structures of a low-cost provider. That is a commercial decision and while it might generate a few more pounds, it is BAD PROFIT and will cost the business in the long run.
Finally, it is good to give your crew, particularly captains and flight crew, the words to use when things go wrong, but they also need to be smart enough to adapt what they say when they know that passengers are going to suffer major consequences as a result of a delay. Platitudes/insincerity only serve to inflame the situation and it was interesting to see that our captain failed to stand by the door saying goodbye to the unhappy passengers, choosing instead to remain locked away in his cockpit!
The British Airway Expectation versus actual Customer Experience score 2/10