I had a near three hour delay on a British Airways flight from New York to London today. Here are some customer service lessons from my experience. You can apply many of these to your business (even if it’s not a transatlantic airline!).


British Airways did a pretty good job of letting me know about what was happening. They sent me an email notification, a text message and an update within their application. These alerts arrived too late for me to update my plans, but they did make an effort to update me.
However, details of the delay were not reflected in the ‘Manage my Booking’ account area. If a customer received an email and then logged in to attempt to validate whether the email was real (increasingly important in our cyber-security conscious world), they wouldn’t see any indication of the delay. The digital boarding pass in my Apple Wallet also didn’t reflect the delayed flight. So whilst some channels were firing on all cylinders, others were not up to date. This could have led to confusion.

The messaging that British Airways did deliver (right) wasn’t awful. Tonally, it feels a little robotic, but it wasn’t bad. The message is a little too vague and the ‘If you’re travelling on this flight’ note also feels a little unnecessary given the context in which the message is displayed.

I’d probably say something like:

We’re sorry, your flight has been delayed because of a late arriving aircraft. Unless we’ve been in touch to tell you otherwise, please check in for the originally scheduled departure time. We’re doing everything possible to improve the delay.

The revised message above is a little quicker to read, which improves clarity.

Communication and customer service

On check-in, staff members did not acknowledge the delay or apologise for it. This would both that customers would be unaware of the delay until after security unless they had received British Airways communications. For those that did receive communications the lack of apologies puts into question the sincerity of the ‘We’re very sorry’ message. It’s pivotally important as a business that you empower and encourage your employees to apologise for issues with a genuine sorry, explain what’s going on and communicate updates as soon as you have them. Indeed, The lack of human interaction and apology would continue to be a theme throughout the delay.

British Airways systems are very capable of apologising and sharing information, delivering a high quality digital customer service experience, but it would appear that on this occasion, the apologetic nature did not extend to their people on the ground. British Airways ground staff at the terminal Service Centre weren’t briefed with up to the minute information abut the delay. Ground staff were only able to reassure customers with well meaning holding statements like “We’ll let you know”, and “We’ll turn things round as quick as we can.”

A lack of staffing, combined with the fact that many passengers were not verbally informed of the delay, led to significant passenger clustering around the gate (which was unstaffed throughout the bulk of the delay period), making operations more difficult.

As a takeaway for your business, when problems occur, communication is essential and digital communication can be incredibly effective, however consistency is key. The more channels you can deliver a consistent message through, the better. Any break down in the consistency of your messaging can dent customer confidence and cause frustration and disappointment.

Not saying sorry and failing to update customers when something goes wrong can make your life harder. It can cause clustering of customers, increase queues and decrease overall satisfaction with your customer service. This can adversely affect your regular operations, not just the impacted areas of your business. Therefore, a proactive approach to customer communication is key. British Airways did an awful lot right digitally, but were badly let down by poor ground operations. All of your channels have to work together to deliver great service. Improvements in silo only have a limited impact on satisfaction, so it’s essential not to work in an echo chamber.

On communication, British Airways could have improved customer service by:

  • Delivered a consistent message across all digital channels
  • Ensured that their ground staff were trained to proactively advise of delays
  • Empowered ground staff to say sorry to their customers
  • Delivered timely updates to ground staff so they could inform customers
  • Make sure to have an adequate amount of staff, or an alternate support channel

Delivering this wouldn’t require trained British Airways employees at every airport. Instead, up-to-date support technologies like telepresence, live chat and asynchronous messaging would enable British Airways to have trained staff ‘on the ground’ virtually at any of their airports, regardless of physical staffing numbers on site.

At the terminal

British Airways owns and operates Terminal 7 at JFK Airport, where my flight was scheduled to depart. Unfortunately, the ground experience was pretty poor — particularly for delayed flights. Small improvements would deliver a big shift in the quality of service delivered at the terminal, some without any capital investment.

Without capital investment, it is worth noting that terminal retailers often played their own music over the terminals own, causing a distracting environment. By turning the volume down, customers would have a more relaxing experience. Additionally, staff members including security members frequently took breaks in the customer areas of the terminal, using up table space that was therefore unavailable to customers. By having these staff use staff facilities, more space would be available for customers.

The terminal also had no USB ports or customer accessible plugs, which for an airport in a developed capital city is a major oversight, and particularly problematic on significantly delayed flights. Finally, the wireless service was limited to 30 minutes of free usage, followed by a chargeable service after the first 30 minutes. This is significantly worse than the Wi-Fi service offered at other JFK terminals, such as JetBlue Terminal 5, and is particularly challenging for an airline that doesn’t currently offer on-board Wi-Fi either — long delays can lead to very long periods without connectivity.

For your business, consider how the little things can make a big difference for your customers. Ensuring the environment is right whilst customers are waiting for you — with music at a comfortable level and without distractions is important. If it’s busy, it’s essential that customers get priority over staff members for seating. Finally, consider whether a small capital investment in something like power points or USB ports, or services like free wi-fi, could provide a significant service improvement for waiting customers.

In summary

British Airways have a great digital service strategy for delayed flights, but unfortunately, their ground experience is lacking both from a communication and terminal services prospective. Improving these services is essential to deliver a cohesive, high quality service experience. As Customer Service professionals, we need to remember to consider our whole end to end experience, not just the initial digital service, to drive satisfaction. We need to keep checking in with customers when we’ve done something wrong, giving the proactive updates. And we need to help customers by making them comfortable in our environment.

Only by doing all of these things can we deliver exceptional service.

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