Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Our adventures in Heathrow Airport (tl;dr, I expect)

On Friday, October 1st, Mrmonkey and I left our house in cheery spirits ready for our two-week trip to Seattle and San Francisco. Not a holiday (as I'm slightly weary of explaining to people now), this is a necessary work trip for the monkey and I'm just tagging along because I can because all my work happens by magic laptop now, so it doesn't matter where in the world I am as long as I have an Internet connection.

Annoyingly, though, when we got to Dublin airport it became apparent that our flight to Heathrow was delayed. Never mind, said Mrmonkey, they'll just stick us on a flight to Vancouver or something when we get to Heathrow, and we'll still reach Seattle tonight. When we boarded the Aer Lingus flight (EI 164, the 12.10 flight, which seems to get delayed a fair bit, in case you're interested, and generates its share of customer complaints), we were told by the flight attendants that everyone who had bags checked all the way through to their destination should go to Flight Connections in Terminal 5, where they would be rebooked onto a later flight to get them where they needed to go. Only those who had NOT checked their bags all the way through should stay in Terminal 1 and go to the Aer Lingus desk. So, off with us to Terminal 5 on the special bus that Aer Lingus had arranged to whisk us there. Oh yes.

We joined the BA queue at Flight Connections. We didn't think there was anything suspicious about this, because, after all, we were on a BA codeshare flight from Dublin, which meant that BA had booked seats on the Aer Lingus flight for their customers, so we were flying under the BA umbrella the whole time, right? After about 20 minutes of standing in the queue, the guy behind us asked a BA staff member if there was a different queue we could stand in. He said that there was, but it was about four hours long. "Four hours!" we all said, "hoo, don't want to stand in that then!"

Four and a half hours later we reached the top of the queue. I won't bore you with the ins and outs of the actual queuing. Yes, someone from BA did give out some phone numbers for BA customer service to see if they could help us, but they couldn't do anything except say "you should stay in the queue, we don't have any information." Yes, after about three hours someone did come along with one bottle of water for each person in the queue. Yes, a pane of glass did get smashed after some people tried to skip the queue and a staff member stopped them. But the important thing is, we made it to the top of the queue without anyone triaging the queue to see if everyone in it was actually in the right place.

The woman who was dealing with the people to the left of us apologised to them for the long wait when they reached her. Our woman said "oh, you're booked on two separate booking references," small sigh, "it's more convenient for us when people are booked on a single reference."

What I didn't say because I didn't want to get booted out of the queue and possibly arrested: "Well, it's more convenient for us not to have to stand in a queue for four and a half hours with no apology or explanation, but hey, we all have our crosses to bear."

The woman then said she could get us on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt on Sunday, but Aer Lingus don't have an agreement with Lufthansa and... you could almost see the hey-wait-a-minute look in her eyes as she said "in fact, you should be talking to the Aer Lingus desk. Your delay has nothing to do with us."

We pointed out to her that it was a codeshare flight and we were booked BA the whole way, with BA flight codes and everything.

"Doesn't matter," she said, "you'll have to go back to Terminal 1 and talk to Aer Lingus."

So we took the half hour bus ride back to Terminal 1 and found the Aer Lingus duty manager. A more sour-faced woman I have never seen outside of a film about the Magdalen Laundries. She listened to our tale of woe and, without a single expression of sympathy or word of apology or admission that Aer Lingus had somehow fucked up, she told us we could fly back to Dublin tonight, go home, and re-present ourselves at Dublin airport at 6am the following morning for a flight to Charles de Gaulle and on to Seattle from there, or we could stay in Heathrow until Sunday and take a flight to Chicago and then on to Seattle. She was unmoved by tears and provided an absolutely stellar model of the new customer service paradigm of staring stony-faced at the customer until they stop talking, before doing the bare minimum required by law.

She wrote out coupons for a cheap hotel in the airport, meals, and the shuttle bus to and from the hotel. "And our bags will be delivered over there tomorrow?" I said. She said no. If we wanted our bags we would have to go back to Terminal 5 and get them. She would not provide bus tickets for us to do that. If we wanted the bags, we would have to pay the £4 each way bus fare from the hotel to get them.

Then Mrmonkey checked the boarding passes she had handed us and pointed out that they were for economy, when we had paid for premium economy seats. She said that United doesn't have a premium economy class, so we just had to have economy seats. So, fuck the extra money you paid for your ticket, basically. Aer Lingus couldn't give a shit. She then presented Mrmonkey with a slip of paper on which was written the mailing address and fax number of the Aer Lingus customer complaints department. There is no phone number. You may not call them.

We went back to the hotel, ate a crappy meal, watched some of Some Like it Hot, (I'm not glad at all that Tony Curtis died, but if he hadn't there wouldn't have been anything at all worth watching on the telly, so thank you Tony Curtis), and went to bed. At four in the morning I had to shout at people in the hallway to shut up so we could go back to sleep.

The next day Mrmonkey set out to get our bags and see what he could do about the flights. There was no point in my going with him, because I would just get us thrown out of the airport, so I stayed behind in the hotel to do work. He left the hotel at about 10am, and returned at 3pm. His tale was one of adventure, more lies and incompetence from airline staff (he went to Terminal 5 to get the bags and was told that they had been transferred to Terminal 1. So he went to Terminal 1 (bear in mind that this takes half an hour each time) to be told that they were definitely in Terminal 5, and he was given the name of the person to talk to. He went back to Terminal 5, and yes, they were there.)

But it was also a tale of hope. It was a tale of one woman, Emma, who wasn't at the end of her Friday shift and therefore the end of her rope. It was a tale of someone who has not yet learned the ways of modern customer service and still thinks that it's about trying to help the customer instead of trying to make the customer give up and go away. She agreed with Mrmonkey that the Aer Lingus staff had, in fact, probably just been trying to get rid of everyone, which is why they sent them over to Terminal 5. She said that all airlines do this. They just try to get rid of you for now, and if you come filtering back like a homing pigeon, well then, they'll deal with you because you're obviously some masterpiece of Darwinianism who deserves to be flown to another destination. She made several phone calls which involved her talking to actual people instead of just tapping on her computer, and she summoned us up two seats in the class we had paid for, on the Sunday version of the flight we were meant to have been on in the first place.
She emphasised to Mrmonkey the importance of going to an actual ticket desk instead of just a kiosk. She might be the greatest human currently working in Heathrow Airport.

The next day, we presented ourselves at Terminal 5 to check in for our flight, and stood in the queue of people. Within seconds, a uniformed staff member came over to check that we were in the right queue. I realised that this level of care was because this queue was in a public part of the airport where customers from other airlines could see us, and where people who might be making flight decisions in the future could see us from outside. The queue in Terminal 5 at Flight Connections, however, is not, which is why nobody cares at all if you are stuck in it for four and a half hours. Everyone in there is already a BA customer. They don't have to buy you flowers, they've already shagged you (copyright ComedyB). Which is also why Aer Lingus sent us there, so they wouldn't have a massive queue of people standing at their customer-facing desks in Terminal 1.

In the end, we were bumped to business class.

"Lucky you," some people said. I don't think we were lucky. No air passenger is lucky anymore. Because this is the real cost of low-cost airlines. Sure, people like Michael O'Leary can crow about all the "frills" they've managed to cut back on, but by choosing to always fly low-cost, people have driven other airlines, like Aer Lingus, to go the same way. So instead of customer service staff you have stony-faced evil nun types who won't even/aren't authorized to even give you a lousy extra £4 bus ticket so you can go and collect your bags when something goes wrong with your flight and you have to be rebooked (never mind having the bags delivered to your hotel within the bloody airport). This is why the queue in Flight Connections is four and a half hours long. If you search for stories similar to ours you'll see that this queue is always that long, because of the number of staff that are working on it at any one time. See all those people in the business class queue who are zipping along and being seen inside ten minutes? They used to be you, before airlines decided that you didn't want to pay for all these behind-the-scenes "frills".

The thing that makes me angry about this whole episode is not that this shouldn't have happened to us, it's that it shouldn't have happened to anyone, but it does, because this is business as usual for airlines now. This is how it is now when anything goes wrong. There's no spare capacity or spare staff or money to pay overtime. It's all bare bones operations, which means that instead of being put on a New York flight while we were still in Dublin on Friday, we ended up in Heathrow till Sunday.

And I haven't even told you about Saturday night yet.

7 comments:

Columbo said...

Yikes. I used to love traveling--the going places part-- and didn't mind the airport part so much. Now it has sucked all joy out of traveling, and life in general when I find myself stuck in an airport.

Dave Berry said...

That's appalling. Absolutely appalling. I assume you will make a formal complaint? Is there an ombudsman or equivalent who you can send a copy of your complaint?

Ray said...

Jeepers.
So, er, that Laurence James Downey bloke? He was a bit of a card, wasn't he?

Queenie said...

I am already stressing about flying home for Christmas... United through Philly.... I must be insane.

accentmonkey said...

Columbo: Yeah, I know, I used to like travelling as well. Now I have to take Xanax at the airport instead of on the plane.

Dave: I will write a letter to Aer Lingus about this when I get home, but nothing will happen. According to other tales of woe I've read, they don't even respond to letters.

Ray: Yes, lovely bloke, good lad. There's a nice Slate article here about the mundanity of mysteries like Fatima:
http://www.slate.com/id/83815/

Queenie: I'm sure you'll be fine. If 99.95% of the flights weren't fine, the whole thing just couldn't function.

Queenie said...

I was talking to someone in work the other day who knows about airplanes and he said that flights in the 11am - 2pm slot are more likely to be delayed or cancelled than any other flight, because they get caught up in the back log of the morning. Better to fly early morning or at teatime, apparently - business commuters see, more important.

Evil Cheese Scientist said...

Ah Ha! So that's where all the out of work nuns have gone to abuse, annoy and generally irk humankind.

That is a dreadful tale of woe, and fully explains how busy you have been.

Photos from North Bend etc were fab though.