Archive for May, 2011

A Middle-Class Whinge

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

I’ve called this post a ‘Middle-Class Whinge’ for reasons that will become obvious as you read it. It isn’t about a matter of great importance, just a couple of disappointing instances of customer service at the end of a long week. I’m not asking for pity, I am just venting.

It was the end of the TERENA Networking Conference, which together with accompanying events meant I had been in meetings from Sunday lunchtime until Friday lunchtime. After a very pleasant stroll down from the CESNET offices in Prague, close to Dejvicka, through the Royal Gardens, the Castle, and the Old Town to my hotel near Florenc, I picked up my case and caught the metro and the bus back through the Friday afternoon traffic to the airport (paying little over £1 for the public transport, bargain!).

I checked my bag in, went through passport control and wandered around the airport for a little while before stopping by the “Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant” at the ‘A’ gates for a beer and a bite to eat. Compared to the city, the beer was expensive — CZK145 per 500ml, which made the CZK100 for a grilled sausage with mustard and ketchup feel a bit of a bargain, especially when it also turned up with a pretzel as part of the trimmings. I ate and drank whilst trying to see if I could get any WiFi, then had a second glass of beer whilst waiting for my flight’s status to change to ‘Go To Gate.’ Table service was fairly efficient, but at no point did a bill turn up, so I went to the till to pay.

At the till the drinks came to the expected CZK290, but the food was CZK150. It appears the pretzel was an optional extra, included without asking for it. I whinged a bit to the barman, to no avail, but I was even further wound up when the sign at the till proudly displayed words to the effect of “if we don’t give you a bill, your meal is free.” Free, my arse. Almost £16 for a couple of pints of beer, a sausage and a pretzel. I’ll stick to a bottle of mineral water from the newsagent next time I’m in Prague Airport, or maybe just head to the KFC instead, I’m sure there is less chance of them charging me for things I didn’t order.

Never mind, at least after a last-minute schedule change to fit in an extra meeting or two I was flying home with British Airways. They pride themselves on customer service, right? That’s why they are still a “full-fare” airline.

On the way into Prague I had flown via Munich with Lufthansa. The Munich to Prague sector is only about 150 miles and takes half an hour with a small jet. Even so, Lufthansa managed to perform a full bar service to the entire plane. I was impressed.

BA was a different story. It was 45 minutes before the trolley even reached me, all the way back in the twelfth row of a 26-row Airbus A320. When they reached me they reported that they had not loaded any beer onto the plane in Prague. How is it possible not to load beer onto a plane leaving Prague?!?! I’d have thought the quantities of beer that reach the airport are only matched by the quantities of Jet A-1 (fuel).

Fine, some red wine and a packet of crisps, then. The red wine was possible, the crisps not so much. They’d also run out of those and only had biscuits left. By the time they reached the row behind me, I heard them telling another unfortunate passenger they had run out of something else too. Take note, BA, it isn’t poor industrial relations that are losing you passengers, it is your attitude to customer service that always tends to favour penny-pinching rather than treating your passengers with a modicum of dignity. I have two more trips to make over the next few weeks, one to Zurich and another to Munich. Swiss and Lufthansa it is, then.

I had shied away from British Airways towards Star Alliance lines recently for a few reasons. One is their poor ‘frequent flier’ rewards for anyone other than passengers on fully-flexible (i.e. expensive) tickets, another was the customer service, which has always tended towards “slow and haughty,” and the third was that it means using Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

I know that British Airports Authority will tell you all the problems that beset the birth of terminal 5 have been solved, and that may be true, but for me it almost always means that when I leave or arrive I will not be using a jet-bridge to cross from the airplane to the terminal, but a bus. When we arrived 20 minutes late at Heathrow, this was the inevitable news that greeted us.

I estimate 60-70% of the flights I take to and from T5 use a bus from/to the airplane. This means that instead of being able to walk at my rapid pace along the terminal, I have to head down some rickety stairs, into a bus with all the other passengers crowding around the doors, then a drive to the terminal building from some remote stand. This is time I could be going home, and time off being AT home. It is probably the extra five minutes that mean I just miss a Heathrow Express. It doesn’t end there either. The lottery of immigration queues is the next opportunity to be a winner or a loser.

The first choice is Iris or manual? The Iris queues are always shorter, but they can also be slow moving as people shuffle backwards and forwards in the booth to get the pictures of their eyes just right. If you decide to go for the manual check, then instead of a single, snaking queue which is strictly first-come, first-served, you have to choose which of the queues to join, just as if you were in a supermarket, except that instead of waiting for the checkout, you’re waiting to find out if you’ll have the dubious privilege of being let back into your own country. Of course, as with supermarkets, you’ll always have somebody ahead of you in your queue that should have been in one of the other queues, or for some other reason takes an inordinate amount of time.

How can this be so hard? We’re British! We are world-renowned for queuing. Surely we could come up with something more efficient. It reminds me of the long, slow queues to get through immigration in Cuba, where the officer at the head of the queue I was in decided to go on a break when I was just two people away from the front. Oh, and if I’m not mistaken, doesn’t the non-EU section at T5 use a single, snaking queue instead of the multiple lines?

Yes, this is all just whinging about small items, there are much bigger problems in the world and I don’t want to sound spoilt, but at the end of a long, tiring week, it was disappointing when a bit of customer service would have been oh-so-welcome.