To Fly. To Serve. To Can’t Be Arsed

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To fly. To Serve. This is British Airways’ new advertising slogan. Sadly they weren’t doing much of either last Sunday when I was due to fly back from Brussels.

Fog had yet again crippled Heathrow, whose resilience to bad weather is comically poor.

My first flight was cancelled. And the second delayed by nearly five hours.  Hungry and mildly irritated, I breathed a sigh of relief as we touched down around 23:30 on Sunday evening. With no luggage I thought I’d be out and onto the Heathrow Express in time to catch the last tube home. Or so I thought.

After parking, the pilot announced that there were no steps for the plane because “lots of planes have arrived at the same time”. Isn’t that the sort of thing that usually happens at airports? Then there were “not enough staff to bring the steps to the plane.” So we waited and waited.

Once we were finally off the plane and into the terminal, we met a huge mass of people – at least a thousand deep – waiting at the border for passport control.  I counted just three officials slowly processing passports. Perhaps they too were surprised by passengers arriving at an airport.

Welcome to Britain.

I’ve written long ago about queues at immigration and the problems with new biometric passports. But this wasn’t so much a queue, as a crowd.

Half an hour passed. Then an hour. We had hardly moved.  And hadn’t seen a single member of staff – not from BA, Heathrow or the UK Border Agency.

Having been delayed for hours we were all tired, hungry and thirsty. I’m sure we had passed hoping for a bit of hospitality from British Airways.  A bit of humanity would have sufficed. Just handing out bottles of water would have been nice. Even if only to families with crying babies.

There was no one to organise the queue. Some people started pushing to the front, others started complaining. I’m surprised no fights broke out.

Eventually some people further back started shouting “there’s three of them and three thousand of us.  Let’s just all walk through together.” The crowd started cheering.  Others started shouting.

It wasn’t long after this that things started moving.  My guess is that one of the border officers must have pushed a panic button and decided to fasttrack things to avoid a riot.  Ultimately if several thousand passengers had decided they were fed up of waiting to enter their own country, the few staff on duty would have been powerless to stop them.

Few staff on duty – that is the problem. That is always the problem. Every time I’ve been stuck at Heathrow, the problems could have been solved by ramping up the number of staff available to help.

When things go wrong, the customer service phone lines get jammed and websites crash.  People get angry because there is never any official representation to explain what’s going on.

When I finally got through immigration, a little after 1am, the tube and Heathrow Express had closed for the night – leading to more queues for taxis and more fuming.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Paradoxically it’s when things go wrong that airlines can actually pick up good will amongst passengers. All it takes is a simple emergency action plan and a few more staff.

When things go wrong it’s time for everyone to muck in.  Couldn’t BA cabin crew be asked to stay a bit longer after work during bad weather to hand out bottles of water to soothe waiting crowds.  Couldn’t BA management start shovelling snow when the weather turns? Rather than shovelling blame.

Couldn’t a few staff stick around to advise passengers how to get into town after the public transport had shutdown.  Couldn’t someone have thought to ask passport officers and baggage handlers to stay on a bit late when delayed flights were expected. Even train some staff to help out with other jobs when needed.

Of course it’s always the same answer – ‘it’s not my job’.  And with shoddy management who can blame them.

We don’t need new airports or new runways. We just need someone in charge to show a bit of initiative, to treat their staff like they’re the most important part of the business. And then perhaps they’ in turn will treat passengers like the slogan suggests.

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