The journey back from the HelpDocs retreat in Panama was always going to be long. In fact, despite being around 4 hours shorter, it felt infinitely longer than the outgoing journey—a result of general end-of-trip fatigue and a lackluster customer experience that felt like pulling teeth.
Our trip was being fulfilled by oneworld Alliance, which consists of 13 national flight carriers around the world including American Airlines (AA) and British Airways (BA). The first leg of the journey—Panama to Miami—was served by AA and the second—Miami to London—by British Airways. These seem like arbitrary details, but I feel they’re important to know for context. They set the scene for what should have been a smooth day of traveling, complete with the transfer from one flight to another.
It’s worth pointing out, I have very low service level expectations of airlines. I’ve heard endless horror stories from friends and family about lost luggage, or double-booking. Most recently, this opinion was reinforced in a podcast that highlighted the capitalist reasoning behind crappy airline support.
I wasn’t expecting much.
But, having already completed the reverse combination of my upcoming short and long-haul flights on the way out—with no hiccups—I figured it wouldn’t be that bad. It should have been plain sailing—if you’ll excuse the oh-so-witty wordplay. 😉
Nevertheless, the trials of our return journey would begin some 24 hours prior to departure from Miami, with the opening of online check-in for the BA leg of our journey.
Meeting my Low Expectations
I’m a cheap bastard. 💸
If I can save money, I will, and booking flights is no exception. Even if it means taking a risk with seats!
Frequent flyers might attest that occasionally airlines allow you to select a complimentary seat when you book a ticket. But for the BA flight, there was a significant fee for the privilege—ranging from £29 to, well, significantly more.
Travel-pros will also know that as soon as check-in opens—usually at least 24 hours before departure—you’re usually able to select a seat for free, thus negating the whole “book your seat in advance” debacle.
My thrifty nature wasn’t something I’d developed while bobbing in a boat on the Panama Canal. For our outbound journey we took the risk and just about managed to get 2 seats next to each other, even if I did have to settle for
battling for sharing an armrest with the loudest teeth sucking human on the planet—the kind of person who frequently leans on the entertainment controls placed quite obviously within said armrest. 🤬
With no reason to believe our return trip would be any different to the outbound one, I made an executive decision. What the hell, says I in the calmest of calm demeanors, let’s just risk it and save ourselves £60.
Because while I wanted to sit next to my wife for the long-haul flight, the thought of spending £60 on crappy seats that you could get for free irritated me no end.
So, we risked it.
And when online check-in finally opened, the inevitable happened.
It’s not that all the seats weren’t booked up. It wasn’t even that we couldn’t get seats next to each other. It was, simply put, that we weren’t able to book seats. In fact, we weren’t able to check-in to the BA leg, whatsoever.
My thriftiness had got us into a bit of a predicament because I hadn’t anticipated that the functionality of the online service would be whipped from under us like a tablecloth in a poor magic show.
What a doofus!
But a furious doofus.
It might seem like a small thing, but when you’re 5330 miles from home and anticipating a tiresome day of traveling through 3 airports and 2 airlines, it’s compounded.
So, in my state of anger and frustration, I did what every sane Englishman does…I wrote a letter.
Well, tweets and DMs actually, to British Airway’s customer support team, in an effort to resolve the issue before getting a few hours of shut-eye.
Side note: I will say one thing for BA, it’s refreshing to see the adoption of both 24/7 service and the use of Twitter as a mainline service communication tool. 👍
After drafting and redrafting the messages 4 or 5 times—I had to remove some of the angry knee-jerk comments, cause I’m trying not to be an asshole to customer support people dontcha know!—I sent the messages.
And around half an hour later, at just after midnight, I got a response from Dave at the BA service desk.
I’m afraid we're unable to help you check in or select your seats. As your flight is within 24 hours, the airport will now have control of your booking. We're sorry for any inconvenience caused.
I mean…what the actual 🤬
It’s fair to say I was confused. Online check-in only opened 24 hours before the flight, and it seemed unlikely a large airport like Miami wouldn’t allow passengers on a flagship carrier to check-in online.
It became apparent a foray into airline service at midnight the day before traveling wasn’t the greatest idea.
A stream of less-filtered DMs followed and—perhaps unsurprisingly—went unanswered by the time I decided to finally get some sleep. I had the best part of a 20-hour journey ahead of me and I knew it. What’s more, I’d need to be well rested for the service battle I anticipated lay ahead of me.
While writing this, it dawns on me that as a customer I often approach service conversations ready for confrontation, and perhaps I’m not the only one. I’ve had too many experiences where service teams have set out to defend the company—and their bottom line—instead of supporting me as a customer. And while I understand the logic, it’s not healthy to the customer: service relationship.
Tangents aside, when I woke some 6 hours later, a tepid response was waiting for me:
You may have been selected for a random security check, Matt. You'll need to speak with the staff at the airport who will be able to change your seat if there is any availability.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t much like it. It highlighted the potential for future conflict as the source for existing conflict. It wasn’t the greatest response in the history of mediocre service responses.
Being told I’d have to go through another security check and still not guarantee any control over our seats was infuriating.
I probed further, but while I was desperate for a way I could solve the issue—after all, I love me some self-service—I also knew I probably wasn’t going to get anywhere with Dave.
So I gave up and resigned myself to trying to sort it at Miami. The battle was on hiatus, for now.
And so it Begins
As we checked out, I received a message from Kev at BA—presumably, Dave had signed off for the day. I’d hate to think I’d upset them enough to require hand off to someone else.
I've just tried to call you but I've been unable to speak to you. Is there a better number I can call you on?
I’d already lost the will to continue chatting, and Kev’s opening gambit didn’t inspire confidence. I was in Panama, with no access to a phone.
With my expectations at an all-time low, I let Kev know I didn’t much fancy paying through the teeth for a customer service call. After all, Dave had already said there was nothing they could do.
I ordered our Uber and we headed down to the lobby and said our goodbyes to Jake and Jarratt. Although it had been a frustrating night and morning, it hadn’t taken away from the wonderful experience of working with the pair in such a stunning location.
The Uber pulled up and my face dropped.
We’d opted for the UberX level of vehicle—cheap bastard, remember!—and boy did it double down on the X. The car was an old and tired Nissan Tiida—yeah I’ve never heard of that either!—which just about had seats, doors and the right number of wheels.
Seatbelts? Not so much. 😳
A general feeling of comfort and safety? Jog on!
We should’ve just paid the extra for an UberBlack, and I hoped this wasn’t foreshadowing the journey to come.
It’s fair to say the Uber experience our driver, Erick, provided paled in comparison with Pablo’s heroics from the week before. This felt apt, in light of the terrible night’s sleep I’d spent worrying about the 4 or 5 airport security checkpoints, frustrating check-in, and potentially the worst long-haul flight experience ever.
We hadn’t even left the hotel forecourt and I was already dreading the day of traveling that lay ahead.
But just as we pulled away, my phone grumbled out a notification, grasping to the last of the WiFi before we headed into the void that lay between the hotel and the airport.
It was a message. On Twitter. A response from Kev that might just change my thoughts on BA customer service.
I've checked your booking and I can see you're checked in for your flights now. I've also moved your seat to 51C. This is a twin seat near the rear of the cabin. I'm unable to disclose any information about your wife's booking due to data protection I'm afraid. However, as I've moved your seat to a twin seat, I'm sure this will be helpful. Hope this helps.
A wave of relief washed over me—followed closely by a wake of mild annoyance.
At that moment I was satisfied with the service response and had my expectations subverted, but was also utterly pissed that my morning had been wasted dwelling on a potential shit show that lay ahead.
Why couldn’t, Dave, do what Kev did?
I decided not to dwell, and instead take in the scenery that lay along the highway en route to the airport, absorbing as much of glistening cerulean coast through the mirky Nissan window as possible.
The rest of the trip went far smoother than I anticipated, proving my anxieties to be completely unfounded. Security checks went without a hitch, and both flights were incredibly comfortable experiences. What’s more, the BA flight turned out to be half full. So empty, the attendant recommended we use empty rows as beds!
What started out as a trying service experience had turned into some of my best flight experiences to date. While I’d anticipated the worst, the overall experience shows that what can go wrong doesn’t always go wrong. And the reward for me, as the cheap old bastard I am, was a feeling of pure content in knowing I hadn’t wasted £60 to book seats that we never actually used!
I’ll take that as a win, for sure! 💪