The importance of service recovery: a case study


Before I start, an unusual disclaimer. There are times when I hesitate, as a journalist specialising in the passenger experience, to raise issues from a specific incident on a particular trip in a public forum. Every airline has bad days, and even great crew can have an off flight sometimes. It’s also complex to raise specific issues with one’s own flights or a customer service response with an airline press office — usually, PR thinks that a journalist is angling for special treatment rather than trying to understand whether something is airline policy and to ask questions about it. And while I have a lot of respect for cabin crew, who do a tough job often in challenging circumstances, it’s the airline’s responsibility to design and provision its service, and ensure that its crews are delivering it.

In some parts of the world, it wouldn’t be notable for cabin crew to upgrade their friends or colleagues to business class, to spend most of the flight chatting with them, and for them to drink the cabin dry of Champagne before paying passengers have the chance of a second glass. In the past, I’d never have thought that would happen on British Airways, but on a recent intra-European flight it did.

After I boarded the flight in question at London Heathrow, the cabin crew upgraded three members of non-flying crew from economy to business, fetching them from behind the dividing curtain. Economy was not, incidentally, full, while there were only two ticketed passengers in business class. One of the upgraded crewmembers was in uniform, and two were commuting back in street clothes to their homes at an outstation airport.

It became clear after the two commuting crew started cracking into the Champagne, however, that BA had only provisioned Club Europe for the two business class passengers actually ticketed in the cabin. I requested a second glass from the senior crewmember working business class, who seemed entirely unfussed by the fact that the crew he had upgraded to business class had managed to clear out the flight’s stock.

BA’s Champagne isn’t great, but a glass of bubbly at 38,000 feet is one of the few good things left about Club Europe. Image: John Walton

He, and other crew working the flight, also stopped by regularly to chat with the upgraded crew — and not that a silent cabin is to be expected, or that one can do any meaningful work on a laptop in Club Europe’s 30” pitch, but I was trying to concentrate on reading something, and a festive atmosphere didn’t exactly help.

Bemused, I didn’t make anything more of it on the flight, but sent some feedback to British Airways’ customer service, explaining what had occurred, and asking whether that experience was what BA hopes to offer its customers. A representative contacted me by phone three weeks later, and to paraphrase, said that because the food and beverage service was free in Club Europe (which of course it’s not; it’s included in the fare) passengers shouldn’t be surprised if it ran out.

Here’s the thing: when airlines or other service industries don’t meet their standards, they have an option for service recovery. In the aviation industry, this often takes the form of a voucher, or some miles — or the customer is simply fobbed off with some nice words, in the event that the representative doesn’t think the complaint has merit. The representative on the phone didn’t do a great job of placating me, so I requested an email followup, and received the following.

Thanks for your time on the phone today about your [redacted] flight to [redacted]. I completely understand why you’re disappointed we couldn’t offer you more than one glass of champagne, especially as this is an important part of your Club Europe experience.

Although I appreciate you were extremely disappointed to see champagne being seemingly shared out unfairly, we can’t guarantee any specific food or drink options are available due to limited stock on board. This is the reason I am unable to offer you any compensation.

We’re grateful you’ve let us know about your experience, as it’s only through your feedback we can identify where we need to improve. I’ve passed the details of your complaint to our Customer Value Management team. They use the insight of our most esteemed customers to offer a panoramic narrative of key pain points throughout our whole customer experience. As a Bronze Executive Club member who travelled in Club Europe, I know they’ll appreciate your thoughts.

Let me reiterate that I sincerely respect the hard work that cabin crew do, and recognise that there is ongoing industrial action between BA’s crews and the airline. There is also no reason crew shouldn’t be permitted to travel in business class. But if they are going to do so, they need to do so officially, without disrupting the cabin or service, and without drinking their way through the bar before paying customers have had a chance to have a second glass. It might also be smart for the operating crew to think about the effect of their actions on the passenger experience.

The airline also needs to figure out a better way to answer questions like these when they arise, especially during a period where there is significant hostility towards management from staff, and following substantial cuts to the inflight service in business class.

Service recovery as part of the passenger experience portfolio is crucial — whether that be by an actual apology (if second-tier frequent flyers as I was at the time are indeed “most esteemed customers” – or perhaps by an amount of frequent flyer points equal to the pay-with-Avios amount of one of the little bottles of the buy-on-board champagne (that’s 2025 Avios — practically nothing to the airline, but if they’d sent me that and a word of apology they’d have won me over).

The daftest thing about this experience is that the service recovery would have been so simple — just a few Avios out with a real apology. Image: John Walton

Remaining unconvinced by the customer service response, I dropped the British Airways press office a line, noting specifically that I wasn’t looking for any special treatment or a review of the customer service response, but for whether the situation was to be expected when flying BA or not.

I asked, specifically, whether it was BA policy to allow cabin crew independently to more than double the number of passengers in a Club Europe cabin, and to serve the “limited stock on board” to those passengers at a rate that it ran out for non-staff travellers.

A press office spokesperson responded with a customer service apology, without addressing any of the questions I asked about airline policy:

“We pride ourselves on delivering a high standard of service and an enjoyable experience on board our flights, and we are very sorry that on this occasion we fell short of your expectations.

A number of our colleagues fly with the airline to position for work, and our staff members are entitled to certain travel benefits, however the needs of our customers should always come first and we will look into what happened here.”

After responding with a request for my questions to be answered, the spokesperson said, “I’m afraid we don’t discuss our staff travel policy.”

There is, of course, a risk that writing about this experience comes across as a first class problem, and at the end of the day I got to my destination safely, if without a second glass of British Airways’ bubbly. But there’s a wider significance in how British Airways’ policies, its crew, and its customer relations staff treat Club Europe and Club Europe passengers.

British Airways is entitled to design its service and staff benefits how it likes. But even on reflection, it seems the airline got it wrong here, and refused to make it right. In the context in which BA finds itself, given the gap between its brand promise and service delivery, it needs to think harder about — and should surely be better at — customer service, passenger experience, and particularly service recovery.

Really, the only thing better about BA Club Europe than easyJet economy is the glass of free bubbly and a luggage allowance. Image: John Walton

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  1. Gareth Richards

    The press office was not direct with you and obfuscated with their mention of the “staff travel” policy. This is the term that BA uses for the non-rev travel perks they offer their staff, and clearly not applicable to this situation which involved dead heading crew. The staff travel policy is quite strict about who is entitled to club seating and in what priority order, based on seniority. All such assignments are done before boarding. Disappointing that they brushed you off repeatedly.

  2. kevs46

    “They use the insight of our most esteemed customers to offer a panoramic narrative of key pain points throughout our whole customer experience. ” … Can someone please translate this into English for me?

  3. Pm

    I am curious– you say one of the upgraded crew was in uniform. Was this person also drinking in uniform?

  4. 1971Thistle

    “They use the insight of our most esteemed customers to offer a panoramic narrative of key pain points throughout our whole customer experience.”

    They actually wrote that? I suspect they might be taking the piss

  5. Aman

    It’s symptomatic of an extremely poor work ethic and the type of hurbis that has destroyed the greatest entities.

  6. Neil Morgan

    First I must say that BA crew, whether on duty or not, who are in uniform are prohibited from drinking alcohol.
    Secondly, the response you received is now very typical of BA’s “Customer Service”. With any issue reported (and all airline have their bad moments) they roll out their stock responses, issuing a feeble apology and nothing else. The upper management seem to be dumbing down the whole service to be able to compete with the very successful low cost carriers in Europe.
    What I cannot understand is how they ran out of champagne on a flight OUT of LHR. These flights within Europe usually carry a double load to cover the return journey. Many a time the crew have offered to open the return bar to keep the me “stocked-up” with my favourite tipple, champagne.
    This kind of behaviour is loosing BA many frequent flyer customers but because of their cost cutting, across the board, they are showing a healthy profit and the board can pat themselves on the back thinking “job well done”. However cost cutting has a limit and when this is reached BA will realize the error of their ways which I fear will be too late to reverse.

  7. Mavis

    Thank you for sharing this John. As a regular BA intra-Europe traveller (Silver soon to be Gold), I find this very disappointing. I will often upgrade myself at short notice, if I feel like a treat or to boost my status points. I would certainly not expect this of BA. And the complete lack of recovery/compensation is astounding. A few months ago, my flight from AMS-LGW had no catering due to a supply problem before the outbound flight. I was in Club Europe and we were only offered water and nuts but no suggestion of any compensation by the crew. I contacted BA afterwards and they offered me 3,000 Avios. It’s the least they could do, and they certainly should – and could – have done the same for you.

  8. Pete

    Absolute total rubbish – the drinks bars are not provisioned for the number of customers – you are totally and utterly incorrect.

    The only thing ‘provisioned’ as you say would be the food/catering. The bars are fully stocked out of London as they are ‘round tripped’ for the return sector back into London and are not restocked.

    You really do need to get a grip – after all how many ‘jollies’ and free perks have you been given in your career? As an alleged journalist I know for a fact that your profession are amongst the biggest freeloaders known to man!

    • John Walton

      Pete, on return catering of F&B, that was my understanding too, but if so then fewer than ten minis of Castelnau were loaded for both flights, which doesn’t add up. As it was the last flight of the day, the CSD (or CSM, I don’t recall offhand whether it was mixed fleet) said they were restocking at the destination outstation. If BA press office had engaged with any of my questions, of course, we could have cleared the matter up entirely.

      As far as the ad hominems go: of the 39 flights I’ve flown and booked this year as a journalist, alleged or otherwise, I’ve funded all except five, of which two were provided by an industry supplier to attend a rescheduled event and three by an airline to enable site visits and interviews. All provided flights were, of course, declared to editors and on every article written as a result, as I’ve done ever since I started writing about this industry.

      And if opinion and analysis of the premium passenger experience — which, as I wrote, can often seem like very nice first class problems to have, but which is a crucial part of airline economics — is not for you, then you may not get the most out of this opinion and analysis column focussing on the premium passenger experience.

  9. Jamie

    A clear case John of having to mind your own business.

    As an ex-CSM, who received 14 golden tickets in a year, I’d not tolerate pax getting involved in the operational running of the aircraft, regardless of whether they had a made up job involving posting non-news/your kind of rubbish on the internet.

    What the captain/csm/crew choose to do providing it doesn’t interfere with or go against safety, is frankly none of your business and whining about it on the web. Seriously?

  10. John Walton

    To reiterate, Jamie, I didn’t “get involved in the operational running of the aircraft”, or even mention the issue on board. Indeed, as I said: “I didn’t make anything more of it on the flight”.

    As a journalist covering this industry for the best part of a decade now — and, if we’re showing receipts, a finalist in this year’s Aerospace Media Awards, plus the recipient of second place awards in two categories at this year’s Australasian Aviation Press Club Awards, including journalist of the year — I took it up with BA’s press office after the flight.

    With BA investing by its own reckoning over £400m in business class this year alone, the way the airline trains, directs and manages its crew’s provision of service is clearly newsworthy, as, indeed, the majority of feedback on this article suggests.

    I’m quite surprised that any crewmember, let alone a senior one, would suggest that crew have unlimited latitude in deciding how (or indeed if) they provide any service beyond ensuring safety, and I know many of the dedicated cabin crew, flight deck crew, ground staff and service design professionals at British Airways — and those four hundred million pounds — would strongly disagree with you on that point.

  11. Atul Jain

    It’s a sad reality that BA is blindly racing towards the bottom without caring about their reputation. Its a blow to those few dedicated and wonderful BA crew members who understand their responsibility and duty.
    No wonder the East Asian and Middle Eastern airlines are loved by high paying passengers, such cheap events are unthinkable over there.