Opinion: How BA failed the customer service test in South Africa

Opinion: How BA failed the customer service test in South Africa

Andrew Monk is chief executive of investment bank VSA Capital, based in London

Everyone has a story or a flight that has gone wrong and wants to vent their anger.

It happens and will happen again. Deep down, we know we have to accept flights get delayed, baggage gets lost, problems happen.

But sometimes there are things that could have been avoided and you can see they will occur time after time and then people should be made aware.

In this case, I believe agents should be aware that booking a British Airways flight in South Africa is not what is says on the label. In fact, I strongly advise avoiding BA South Africa.

I’ll explain why. Many passengers regularly fly to Cape Town with BA by transferring at Johannesburg. There is more availability, it is often cheaper and, if you are flying back from Johannesburg later, it makes sense.

It looks pretty simple as both flights are BA flights and you get issued both boarding cards at Heathrow.

Now I know and most people know the one issue is you have to go through immigration at Johannesburg, collect your bags and then go to Terminal B to board your next BA flight.

It shouldn’t be a problem, except it doesn’t always work and when it goes wrong it’s a disaster because there will be no one to help you.

So to my story: I was on the Friday night BA56 flight to Johannesburg and we were delayed taking off by just over an hour. So I asked the steward how the transfer was looking.

He said, “Don’t panic, there are 41 of you doing it so I’m sure it will be fine”. There were 12 hours ahead of me so I assumed BA would be prepared.

Little did I know, BA does not actually have any staff in Johannesburg. Did you know? On landing at about 8:20am (the Cape Town flight was due to depart at 8:55am) it was always going to be close.

As we left the aircraft there was a lady saying there would be no flights available to Cape Town for the rest of the day. That was all she had been told to say – not really helpful.

Having sped through immigration by jumping the queue (still no BA rep to help), at the baggage carrousel I was told by a Menzies Aviation rep not to wait for my bag but to go straight to Gate C14 where I could board and my bag would follow. The time was now 8:30am.

I arrived at Gate C12 (the correct Gate!) at 8:40am and presented my boarding card only to be told I had been removed from the flight as my ticket had been re-sold.

Other people were still boarding. The flight was still open. Of course, there were quite a few of us in the same position as there were 41 of us chasing through the terminals.

We were told we had been unchecked and could not be re-checked as the aircraft was now full. I checked later and, in fact, there were plenty of empty seats.

Now bear in mind I am a Gold Card Executive Club member and BA claims to look after its Gold Card holders.

At the BA desk in Terminal B they said they couldn’t help re-book a flight because they weren’t really BA. We had to find Menzies Aviation.

I asked to see a manager from Comair – the franchise partner which operates the so called BA flights - and was told: “I’m fed up with British Airways problems.”

Eventually, back in Terminal A I found the Menzies desk dealing with about 15 passengers in the same situation. There was one lady who did not appear to be very experienced.
I was told the only available flight to Cape Town was two days later, on the Monday morning.

Luckily, I’m a seasoned traveller so wasn’t totally overwhelmed. But there were some elderly ladies who were confused and scared. Also, luckily, I know the area and so was able to re-book from another airport with another carrier.

I’m told now that this is a regular experience. My advice is don’t make it a regular experience for your customers – there are plenty of better alternatives.

Finally, I can also tell you that when you complain afterwards, being a Gold Card holder does not help.

Response from a British Airways spokesman:

We are sorry Mr Monk did not experience the level of service we would expect our customers to have when transferring between flights from Johannesburg to Cape Town.

Firstly, while we fully understand Mr Monk’s frustration at what happened, we clearly advise on ba.com that British Airways-branded internal flights in South Africa are operated as a franchise by Comair.

Secondly, British Airways is not allowed to have a presence before immigration control, so we can’t provide assistance to customers when they disembark aircraft looking to speed through the process.

We concede the process is made more difficult when flights are delayed and customers have to cross from one terminal to the other.

Comair does have a presence at Johannesburg Airport and its staff can provide our customers with assistance when they require it. However, that clearly doesn’t appear to have happened in this situation and we can only apologise.

We will be looking at the questions raised by this incident, in particular, and more generally at ways of improving both the process and customer experience in Johannesburg when transferring to Comair flights.

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