I’ve been very fortunate indeed because, as a doctoral student in St Louis, I’ve had a USA student visa throughout the pandemic. Which has meant that once total travel-bans were lifted, I’ve been one of the very few non-residential Europeans able to enter the States. Even though my travel for Langham more or less ground to a halt, I have found myself crossing the Atlantic a few times.

And because I’ve been locked into collecting their AirMiles for years (especially since they usually offered  the only London-Uganda direct flight when we lived there), I’ve gone British Airways when I can.  And they’ve always done a grand job – and I can never fault the crew etc.

But I’ve got a bit of a bitter taste in the mouth at the moment, something which I simply cannot understand, unless, of course, it’s just the outworking of the insanity of corporate greed.

Yeah, yeah - I know - I should have listened properly

So this is what went wrong. It’s not the most interesting story so I’ll keep it brief.

  • dThe seminary I am doing my DMin at is in St Louis. Nobody flies direct to STL from Heathrow, so a stateside transfer is inevitable. No problem. In recent years, BA have had a direct flight to Nashville where I have many friends – so seemed a cunning plan to go via there, so I can have a few days to see people during one stage of the trip. COVID saw to that. They axed the route back in 2020. Fair enough. But they reinstated it on their website in 2021 so I bought tickets and thought. Great. 
  • Then a few weeks ago BA axed the route again. Ok. Fair enough. No problem. I can simply change my route, this time via Chicago – but it still has Nashville as the destination. London-Chicago-Nashville-Chicago-London. That’s fine too. But I need to get to St Louis first. Unfortunately I can’t change this on the website. (I warned you this wasn’t v interesting).
  • So I sit on it a bit and consider my options. When I phone them up, the change is going to cost several hundred pounds – depending on the variables. That seems a bit nuts so I leave it for a bit more. Perhaps I should simply add a cheap onward connection? But then the thought of flying from London to Chicago to Nashville to St Louis on one day was not particularly appealing. More fool me.
  • So, then I thought. Hmmm. What if I just don’t turn up for the 2nd leg (Chicago-Nashville)? VERY bad idea. That would have resulted in the entire booking then being voided – I’d have lost my return flights altogether.
  • So finally, I ring up and ask to cancel the 2nd leg, resigned to the cost (or rather penalty). I can then book the ongoing flight separately. It all goes through over the phone – the only odd thing is that the guy on the line reads the price out digit by digit (other than as a single number). He does this twice I think. I nod it through and it goes on my credit card fine.

The dreaded decimal point

Imagine my horror, then, when an hour or so later I get the confirmation email. I fell off my chair. The cost, to remove one leg from the 4-leg trip is:

😱😱 GBP 1790.45 😱😱

WHAT!!! I couldn’t believe it. But I had few illusions about my predicament. I was well and truly up a creek. I’d confirmed my credit card details and paid. I simply hadn’t heard where the dot came. I remember thinking – gosh £180 is a lot of money but the combined cost with new flight is still probably going to work out cheaper than changing that leg to another route. Confirmation bias or something. It simply did not occur to me that they would charge me TEN TIMES that amount. But, if the phone guy had said “that will cost you One thousand seven hundred and ninety” there is absolutely no chance I’d have gone through with it. Because I just can’t afford that kind of sum out of my own pocket.

This is why that figure is insane.

  • It is almost double the cost of the entire trip, of all 4 legs combined!
  • Not only have I paid for a seat that I will not use, I’m additionally charged for the equivalent of 6 or 7 other seats (who knows?)! AND they would still be able to resell the same seat to somebody else! In my string of emails with the customer service people, I let my frustration get the better of me and suggested BA should change their motto from To Fly to Serve to To Fly To Fleece.
  • The processes, algorithms and equations (or whatever) that go into the process of fare calculations are utterly opaque and concealed. When I pushed back, I just got corporate flannel and waffle, stating that this was the fee, that ‘the cost is correct and was charged as per the fare rules of the ticket‘.
So here’s why I’m stuffed and scuppered. I paid it. As one agent responded: You agreed to this and authorised the payment of this amount. We made the change you requested and took payment as authorised. So there. You gave us your money. We have your money. You’re not getting your money. More fool me, SUCKER.
No idea where this meme originated. If it's yours, very well played!

The letter of the law but hardly the spirit of customer relations

Well, needless to say that I was turned down for compensation. After all I’d freely given them my money. But it struck me as astoundingly cloth-eared for an airline to have no flexibility here, especially when they’re desperate to get customers back. Oh and did I mention I’m a long-term BA Exec. Club member with lots of airmiles? I did – but that counted for nothing. No more than any of the arguments I made.

So here is a little taste, drawn from the closing bouts of this futile duel (if you can be bothered): 5 screenshots (of which three are from their PR customer relations people).

So – the end of the correspondence? Ok. If he says so. But it’s not the end of the issue. I simply can’t afford that.

But the thing that fascinated me in the end (once I’d peeled myself off the ceiling) is the little anthology of corporatese rhetoric these messages offer up.

  • I am sorry to read that you’re unhappy with the outcome of your complaint.” That’s obviously no apology! It’s not even sympathy. And I can’t believe he wasn’t surprised at my ‘unhappiness’.
  • We do understand how strongly you feel about this… share the feedback throughout the organisation…” The facade of empathy but it’s meaningless of course. But don’t you love the “hope you’ll choose us again in the future.
  • I’m sorry to hear you’re still unhappy with how we’ve dealt with your complaintI can confirm we’ve dealt with your case fairly and appropriately.” Well that’s fine then. But if you can be bothered to read closely, you’ll see that he didn’t even attempt to answer any of my questions or concerns.

The bottom line was simple. I paid the money. So now it’s their money. And they’re not giving it back. Because it was the right charge according to their opaque and self-serving calculations. Now I don’t blame the individuals I interacted with (which is why I’ve blocked out their names). It’s not their fault, but that of their targets and policies, and those who set them. Because in the end, this is a matter of corporate culture. Where the customer is invariably wrong and profits the only good.

But as I said. Surely this is the LAST kind of publicity that a (?) prestigious airline needs in these straightened times…?

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