Snowed in (or a BA snow job) in Istanbul


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

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.

The Bad

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).

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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.

The Ugly

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.

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.

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:

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Yup…they basically told me to piss off and stop bothering them because there’s nothing more to be done. Awesome.

And so…

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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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

16 Comments

  1. I dont have a lot of experience with BA but from your interactions, I can see how difficult they can be. I believe this kind of treatment wouldn’t happen at American carriers even though their usual service is not good. In my experience, American carriers are a bit more understanding in similar situations and try to solve issues. Maybe it is british corporate culture, who knows. But I would definitely avoid BA in the future if there is an alternative option given this incidence…It was bad enough to warn me and keep BA out of equation if possible!

  2. The ONE SHOT at rebooking is an old BA problem.
    In 2007 Jan, they announced an “industrial action” and canceled flights. I had to call them from abroad at astronomical rates and finally got through.
    They rebooked me from another city and 2 days later the industrial action was canceled and they refused to let me leave from the original ticketed city.

    At the end, they gave me 120 TPs and some Avios, which I had no idea had any use, although it got me to BA Silver (which also I did not know much about then, even though I was flying a lot of AA). Now I know much better, I avoid BA on all paid tickets.

  3. I’m glad you did get to do some worthwhile extra things in Istanbul despite all the rest of it. To me that’s the bottom line. I personally, after the first phone call didn’t solve it, would have just accepted the 24-hour delay as a part of life when there’s inclement weather and enjoyed the day without all the added aggravation. I know, that’s my personality, and others look at it differently.

  4. BA seems to have a contempt for the customer and establish crazy rules for its own benefit only. The “one shot” rule is ludicrous, especially when they apply it on situations when they themselves caused the problem that has already disrupted you (mechanicals etc.). Other rules are just as silly, like when a flights arrives early but you can’t stand by for an earlier connection, even without checked bags.

    I endured BA’s arrogance iwhen they were the only ones with horizontal seats in business class. Now the competition has caught up and BA is best avoided.

  5. I would have just accepted the 24 hour delay and just enjoyed your day. why waste all that time and aggravation. If the 24 hour delay was not a big issue why worry about it.

  6. With all the cancelled flights and the obvious chaos that ensued in Istanbul, I can’t imagine why you would keep pushing and complain about getting a replacement itinerary so quickly and for arrival within 24 hours? It might not be the best solution out there but it is a pretty good one and it happened fast. Was all the aggravation worth it for the few extra hours you would have gained back in the US? Relax and have a delicious lunch and enjoy Istanbul a bit more. They have an obligation to get you home in a reasonable time and they did that. No harm no foul IMO.

  7. I have gotten to the point where I avoid BA whenever possible. They have become the United of England! Even traveling in international first class, I found dirty planes, broken furniture in the Concorde Room, and even worse, just awful condescending and contradictory information even on the BA First line.

  8. I read this and again wonder why everyone thinks travel agents are obsolete and unnecessary? Had I been your travel agent you would have been re-accomodated before you even knew you had a problem. We can rectify and reissue tickets for the airlines without you having to stand in line or wait on hold.

    I highly suggest you find yourself a good travel agent who has your back. We exist and are profitable for a reason.

    1. Were I willing to pay the premium I’d just buy insurance which covers replacement tickets. Probably cheaper than a travel agent fee every trip I take.

      1. No insurance is cheaper than an agent service fee. I do this everyday. You are way off base with that comment. I have many clients that would heartily disagree. I’ve reaccomodated people in same situations and gotten them where they need to be faster than people depending on airlines to find them acceptable space.

        1. How much do you charge per ticket? For the one-off customer a travel agent might be cheaper. When I’m buying 20+ tickets a year I doubt that is the case.

          1. Fees depend on the itinerary, anywhere from $20 to $45. That gets you someone who has your back when you’re traveling, who has the ability to rebook and reissue your ticket as if you were in line at the airport except its one phone call, and our expertise for where you are going, what to see and do, and suggestions on where to stay. We also have relationships with many boutique and 3-5 star hotels where we get you a discounted rate that includes things like free breakfast, food and beverage credit, early check in and late check out. These hotels are NOT Marriotts (except for Ritz brand we do) or Hiltons, but many Starwoods, Hyatts, and other top hotels and boutiques no one ever heard of before. At some of the boutique hotels we get 10% off the Best Available Rate (BAR rate).

          2. Also I should mention, we have the ability for free upgrades if you purchase a ticket at a higher coach refundable fare Y or B and guaranteed in Business. This is great for business travelers, but not the regular traveler. Thru our relationships with carriers we can also get fees waived if the circumstance warrants.

  9. There are 2 reasons I kept calling back:
    1) I knew there were seats available to get me home on time and the fact that BA could not clearly explain why it would not reissue my ticket for them was terribly frustrating. The first few calls sounded like untrained agents, not broken policies.

    2) I wasn’t really doing anything else anyways. And even when I did resign myself to the 24 hour delay it took multiple calls for the situation to be resolved and the ticket reissued because of how AA and BA split the booking.

    And the part where they insisted I go to the airport for better options but didn’t have staff there is truly awful. Just inexcusable.

  10. Had a similar experience with BA in Barcelona, though the fault was ultimately mine for not allowing enough time on the busted-ass Barça trains. Called the BA call center, who gave me the runaround for 30 before finally telling me to go to the BA office at the airport. BA office was closed, totally unstaffed and dark despite BA operating flights AT THAT TIME. Called back; they said check with Iberia. Iberia couldn’t do anything since by this time my flight had left. Call center confirmed: there was now nothing anyone could do. Yes, it was my fault, but the service was shameful, and it’s never really gotten better on BA flights since. I avoid them when possible.

    And as for US carriers never going in for this, PLEASE. We just had tickets home (DUB-PHL-LAX) for my in-laws after they visited us in Dublin. Philly ended up closing because of the snowstorm about a month back, and US Airways cancelled that leg, rescheduling for the following morning. Except there were still PLENTY of oneworld options (DUB-LHR-LAX) left. After multiple calls the best I could do was MAYBE get an alternate flight on AA (“because we’re basically one company now “) but the only other thing i could get was a healthy dose of attitude (“it’s the WEATHER SIR”).

    Basically, airlines are garbage as a general rule and we should all marvel with great rejoicing when they show that modicum of humanity or competence.

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