Tag: airline industry

Better on a Camel?

June 9th, 2010 — 3:54pm

It has been exactly 99 days since I last posted. Hadn’t meant all this time to pass, but life intervened. So, I’m going to welcome myself back by first looking back 40 years.

If you are old enough – or have an deep interest in commercial flying – you might know that long ago, British Airways used to be British Overseas Airways Corporation. During those days of genteel competition, airlines’ acronyms often became amusing nicknames. BOAC was “Better on a Camel;” industry insiders used this moniker affectionately. Decades later, however, one would truly be better off on a camel than on British Airways.

Why? Three words: People, people, people. BA and its employees are constantly at war. Their mutual acrimony routinely spills over into public and affects passengers. Both sides seem to loath the customers who keep them employed.

In the late 1990s, BA put up signs at Heathrow, threatening to prosecute passengers who were discourteous to its employees. It neglected to tell its employees that they too needed to be polite. And with that omission, they unleashed trouble. At a check-in counter once, I expressed mild irritation that I was not given the seat I had reserved. Red Queen style, the agent literally turned crimson with fury. How dare I complain, he asked? If I didn’t like the seat he was giving me, I didn’t have to fly.

Fast forward a few years to an ever lengthening Business Class check-in line. One of the two agents designated to attend to it was enjoying a long, uproariously funny phone conversation. A passenger left our line and requested him politely to terminate what was clearly a non-urgent call. The agent followed the man back to the line and as the rest of us stood around stunned, began screaming, “Who are you to tell me what work I must do?” His rant lasted a couple of minutes and then, he went back to his call.

Fifteen minutes later, he was still on his call and the line was becoming ever longer. Another passenger screwed up his courage and asked a passing agent to summon a manager. This one also became Red Queen incarnate, “You’re telling me to do something? Who are you to tell me what I should do?” He hadn’t heard the “please” the rest of us did and felt it was completely appropriate to abuse a premier passenger.

I’m not making these up! More recently, a business class counter at Brussels was open, but the BA agent was missing. I chatted with a couple of other waiting passengers. Each of us had multiple such horror stories. One called me “lucky” since I only had to fly to London, while he was stuck with BA till Sydney.

This is one sad, sad airline whose service is worse than even the deficient service (by Asian standards) available in the US. As I am writing this, BA cabin crew are finally on the strike that judges had forbid twice before. Once was last December, but by the the time the judicial edict came down, they had hurt thousands of vacationers during the Christmas holiday period. Another time was last April. I was on a round the world business trip that began in Europe and I actively avoided all BA long-haul flights even though they were theoretically the most convenient. Unable to avoid a short Madrid-to-London flight, I waited with bated breath for signs of trouble. Fortunately, I wasn’t affected.

Some readers might blame such behavior on the presence of unions. Maybe so, but they are, at worst, only partly at fault. To me, the clear onus for such disregard for customers must be placed on management. BA management, it seems, has long believed that “service” means more amenities. BA has generally been among the leaders in introducing new technology – like flat bed seats in business class. But in the far more difficult area of creating a more positive corporate culture, in well over a decade, its management has failed – miserably, in my opinion. Nor has their approach to management created much value for their shareholders. Which raises the question: Why do they still have their jobs? (I know, Richard Branson’s been asking this for a long time.)

Economists point to the virtues of free markets; if enough people felt like me, they say, we could take our business elsewhere and punish BA. In a world of networks, however, that is not true; BA is a key member of the One World alliance and as long as I choose to fly One World, I will have to put up with BA, at least occasionally.

Sometimes, good things have very bad consequences.

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