A blizzard in Istanbul is no joke. Or, I suppose, it is completely a joke. Neither the city nor the airport have the infrastructure to deal with such a scenario particularly well though seeing the mosques covered in snow in a rather different experience, one which mostly involves trudging through slush and wondering why no one in the city seems to own a shovel. The weather this week was very real – heavy snow and strong winds – and I do not fault the airlines for cancelling flights and otherwise adjusting schedules. But, as I sit in the terminal hoping to finally get home 24 hours late, I cannot help but express a bit of frustration at the way British Airways has handled the situation. It is not all bad, but a lot of it is.
To help set the scene, I originally booked IST-LHR-EWR//JFK-LHR-HAJ on AA flight numbers and ticket stock; three of the four segments on BA metal.
The good news is that once I finally got to see an agent at the airport they rebooked me on the non-stop flight home. A day late. I did have to ask a second time to not take another connecting option, but the agents at the airport were mostly doing their best to help.
The company also provided priority passport access for all passengers on Friday’s delayed flight and (eventually) I received assurance that the company will cover my hotel expenses. Also, BA was very prompt in providing SMS and email notifications of the delays and cancelations. They deserve credit for that.
And, in the end, I made the most of my extra day in town. I rode the metro to Asia, visited a hamam and had a spectacular dinner. But it was still quite a challenging day.
Finally, I had some insurance via the credit card I used to purchase the ticket. It would not cover a replacement ticket, unfortunately, but it would cover incidentals if needed for the overnight. Compared to the insanity I saw at the airport I was quite fortunate in that regard. Also, I could afford to just buy a hotel room if I needed to, especially Istanbul off-season where they can be stupid cheap.
As I was walking the grounds of the Blue Mosque to capture some of the aforementioned photos I received the SMS message telling me my flight was cancelled. The notice came about 18 hours prior to scheduled departure leaving plenty of time to find alternate plans. I immediately called in to the number in the message and no hold time to get to an agent. Knowing that there are many ways to get from Istanbul to New York City I immediately asked the agent to check alternate flights. I was informed that only BA or Iberia flights were permitted for rebooking and that nothing was available. I would simply need to wait 24 hours for the rebooked itinerary. I was also told that I could go to the airport where there might be more options available (this becomes important later).
A second agent actually found a couple options with a Turkish Airlines-operated segment to leave Istanbul and then picking up BA somewhere in Europe to complete the trip. I asked him to check the Turkish non-stop flight but that didn’t seem to show in his system. Eventually I asked to confirm the flight with an extra connection and was told that the system would not allow it and that I had to call American as that is the issuing carrier. WHAT?!?
Not surprisingly American had no idea what was wrong and quickly dumped me back to BA who now was willing to expand the search to cover all oneworld partners, but still not other carriers. A friend did me a solid and connected me with BA’s Gold Guest List call center; as he put it, “Even when you are not a GGL they should care.” And they did. Two of the three reps I spoke with put in a yeoman’s effort to find alternate routings, though even they were somewhat stymied by the AA-plated ticket on BA-operated flights. I was offered an overnight in Doha, for example, but that didn’t really get me home any earlier. And spending 9 hours at Doha isn’t a great layover. But there is the Philly flight which would have been only a 3 hour layover and I would have made it home earlier. Alas, that would involve a change of ticketed city and he would need to re-fare. Even in an INVOL scenario where my flight was canceled.
At multiple times during these conversations I inquired about hotel accommodations. One agent said that because it was prior to my first segment none would be provided. Others mostly said they had no idea. After ~12 hours someone from the Twitter team finally acknowledged that I was entitled to the hotel room and provided a link to claim it.
Eventually I conceded defeat on the rebooking and accepted a nearly identical itinerary 24 hours later. I went to sleep as the winds howled outside, creating spectacular snow drifts and cancelling even more flights.
Apparently there are no BA call center agent who is able to push tickets to non-oneworld partners. This is astounding to me.
I was also informed that once any accommodation is made – any rebooking of any sort – all future changes will incur change fees. In other words, fixing a mess is a one-shot deal. If I accept a trip 24 hours later and then a flight is reinstated or seats open on another routing I would not be eligible to take those better options. I suppose this eases some of the IROPS rebooking and planning uncertainty as fewer seats are blocked but not flown. It is, however, terribly unfriendly to the customer.
Remember how the agents kept telling me to go to the airport for help? I actually did that on Thursday morning. The Turkish non-stop still had seats for sale and I figured I had even odds of convincing the agents at the airport to rebook me. Plus, that’s what everyone on the phone kept telling me to do. Turns out that BA doesn’t have an actual office at the airport. It staffs the ticket counters for a couple hours each morning and evening for its flights but otherwise no agents are available. I bet you can guess how happy I was when I discovered that.
The BA Twitter team was very much a mixed bag in terms of support. When I first shared my frustrations online the team brushed me off.
@WandrMe Sorry to hear that, Seth. I hope we manage to get you on a suitable alternative. You know where we are if you need us! ^Liam
— British Airways (@British_Airways) February 18, 2015
And that’s OK, I guess, but not particularly useful.
The next reply suggested I DM my PNR so it could be handled. The answer to my DM came 8.5 hours later asking if it was resolved. That was overnight and maybe the team is not 24×7 but if that’s the case then they probably should not even pretend to provide service via that channel.
As I continued my rant about the inability to rebook on other carriers, knowing full well at this point I would not get home on Thursday as booked; it was mostly just cathartic, I was reminded by the BA twitter team that it had done its best.
@WandrMe We can only offer what's available Seth. Alternatively, you can accept a refund and make your own arrangements. ^Gareth
— British Airways (@British_Airways) February 19, 2015
And they kept using the word “suitable” to describe the options. Alas, what is suitable to the IAG bottom line and what is suitable to passengers are not always the same thing. The company also kept suggesting that no other options were “available” when clearly there were. Just not flights BA wanted to rebook me on.
And here’s the best part of the Twitter experience:
Yup…they basically told me to piss off and stop bothering them because there’s nothing more to be done. Awesome.
Does this mean I’ll never fly BA again? Of course not. I’m not so silly as to believe that is viable or even a reasonable response. I probably won’t even shy away too much. But I do wonder about a few of the choices the company has made in terms of customer service and the passenger experience. There are some very real challenges there.
And I suppose that I could also get better travel insurance which would cover replacement tickets rather than just incidentals. Or I could have paid the $780 Turkish wanted and just flown home. But I didn’t. And, quite frankly, I’m not certain it should be my liability for that level of coverage.
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