Sunday, September 7, 2008
Hell in Area E
At Newcastle Airport the security guard checked our boarding passes and held up his hand. “You can’t go through, your flight’s been cancelled”.
It was just before 6am and we’d been up since half past four. We had a vital production meeting in London at 9 o’clock and, ignoring the voice inside me, which warned that the words “British Airways” and “on time” are not entirely synonymous, I’d assumed we’d be safe enough with the first flight of the day.
A rush to Central Station and £300 worth of rail tickets later, we perspired through our first meeting an hour behind schedule. It wasn’t a good start, but we got on with the day, and actually arrived back at Terminal 5 in time for a good dinner in the Gordon Ramsay Plane Food restaurant. At least that was the plan.
The security guard checked our boarding passes and held up his hand. “You can’t go through, your boarding passes have been cancelled.”
“Our computer thought you weren’t travelling because you missed the outbound trip”, said the charming but clueless check-in lady. She rang her superior four times. “I’ve keyed in everything”, she said, “but computer still says no.” Gordon Ramsay’s was running out of sea bass.
After half an hour or so, she gave up. “You’ll have to go to Area E”, she said.
Now I wouldn’t wish Area E on my worst enemy. It’s passenger purgatory: a row of about twenty desks. Behind three of them sat tax collectors, waiting for money for excess baggage. They had no takers, so instead sat idly watching the long line in front of the only other two manned desks, optimistically offering “Customer Service”. However, as each customer was taking around twenty minutes to service, and the computer appeared to be having a bad hair day, the queue was building up at such a rate that a man had to snake it into one of those annoying barrier mazes. Nobody thought to ask the redundant tax collectors to multi-task, so the mood of the queue soon grew grim. There was a New Zealand girl in tears because she was about to miss her flight; a delightful Nigerian man trying to get to New York with his family – the computer had checked him in, but had managed to delete all his children; all down the line there were desperate looks and pleas, but no one around with any concept of customer care.
Jo and I were rescued by BA’s Executive Club, which still has competent people on the end of a telephone. We made the flight only because it was its customary half an hour late. It’s astonishing that BA’s Terminal Five appears to have learnt so few lessons from its public relations fiasco of just a couple of months ago.
As we said goodbye to our newfound international friends still waiting in Area E, I apologised to them for our discourteous national airline. A woman walking past suddenly turned and snapped at me. “Are you trying to say something to me?” She had a British Airways badge on with a long title and a face like thunder. Now there were a lot of things I could have said to her. About how they cancelled my flight without warning or apology; how their customer service department needs a service; how they treat their passengers worse than Mike Ashley treats his fans. But instead I simply said, “No, I have nothing to say to you that you won’t be able to read in Monday’s Journal”.
There is one hope of redemption for BA, though. Next time they’re bringing Mike Ashley back from the States, they could arrange for their computer to delete him somewhere over Greenland. Or leave him and his unwanted baggage of cronies stranded forever in Area E. Now that really would be service.