Can BA Deliver Brand Promise If It Can't Deliver a Bag?

Airline's Luggage Difficulties Leave Our Reporter Baffled (and Without Her Favorite Jacket)

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- British Airways may have traded in two decades of creative work by M&C Saatchi for a fresh perspective from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, but many of this year's Cannes-goers will tell you that the airline's image problems won't be solved by an ad campaign.

After arriving in Nice to cover the Cannes ad festival, our reporter was without her bags, as were many others that week. But to make matters worse, the airline lost her bags on her return as well. She is still without her luggage. | COMMENT on this story in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

For Your Information:
Customer Relations Fax: 347.418.4395
Baggage Claim Automaton: 800.828.8144
British Airways N.A. Public Relations Office: 347.418.4100
A much, much worse experience than just lost baggage.


Tales of BA's woes are not exaggerated, as I found out the hard way. The airline, once considered one of the premier brands in the sector appears to have succumbed to many of the same customer-relationship issues that have plagued many U.S. carriers.

So here's what happened to me on my trip to cover the Cannes International Advertising Festival: BA lost my bags. Twice. In one trip. For a grand total of 10 days.

Technically, BAA -- the British Airport Authority -- mislaid my luggage during my transit from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4 at Heathrow airport. This, however, is a common and known problem -- and BA is doing very little about it.

A statistical anomaly?
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there is a 0.67% chance that any one person will lose her luggage on any given flight. Seeing as two of my colleagues also lost their luggage -- twice, on same trip -- what happened is more than just a statistical anomaly. I fell into the growing chasm between brand promise and customer service.

In fact, my bag was simply one of over 6,000 bags stranded on the tarmac at Heathrow during the weekend of June 17. Back in January BA alone had 7,500 waylaid bags at the same airport and similar events are expected -- by BA's spokesman no less -- again as the summer travel season gears up.

Call me Pollyanna, but at first the ordeal really didn't upset me. After I missed my connecting flight in London (due to the security hell that Heathrow has become), two British Airways agents told me that my luggage was already on its way to Nice. Sure, when I got there on Sunday, June 17, the bags weren't, but there was no reason to believe my luggage wouldn't catch up with me the next day.

In addition, the fact that at least 30 other people (by my count) attending the advertising festival also had their baggage delayed en route, regardless of airline or transfer, was actually a bit comforting.

Four days later, on Wednesday, June 20, most everyone had their bags -- but I was still wearing free T-shirts, stop-gap purchases and other people's clothes. Fortunately, I now know my BlackBerry can go three days without a charge and that a Motorola charger will give it juice.

Gratification delayed
It's really hard to be angry at customer service reps who have no information, no power and are exceedingly nice and apologetic. All the same, I did shed some tears over the thought that the jacket I tried to track down through three stores and eventually back-ordered for two months might be lost after only three weeks of wear. It's bad news to cross a woman who had to delay gratification for something.

On Sunday, June 24, four days after my reunion with my clothes, I blithely gave my bag back to British Airways for my return trip, thinking it would be next to impossible for them to lose it again. But at JFK I watched bags with "priority" and "short transfer" tags pop out on to the carousel. And then my name and a dozen others were called to the customer-service representative.

One hundred eighty bags did not make the flight Heathrow. Mine and my colleague's included.

We had taken photos of our luggage as a joke. It wasn't nearly as funny as I had hoped to actually show the photos to the claim clerk.
Have you seen me?
Have you seen me?

In this day and age of scanners and RFID chips, when Amazon and Netflix can process and turnaround thousands of items daily, how is it that bags are just not making the connections they are supposed to? Last time I checked, luggage was not required to go through two or three security lines, disgorge laptops, take off shoes, throw out liquids, consolidate everything into one bag, catch a bus and run through a terminal to catch a flight.

Heathrow's antiquated system
John Lampl, VP-corporate communications, British Airways, said Heathrow, where I transferred both times, is dealing with an antiquated system that is simply not equipped to handle the number of bags or people coming through it, particularly after tightened security regulations last August have increased the number of items being checked through.

"While I don't place the blame on them by any means, the British Airport Authority is responsible for delivering the bags from one side of the airport to another," he said. "So many people are traveling and connecting [through Heathrow], the system is breaking down."

While BA had the foresight to start work on a Terminal 5 at Heathrow that will house all the airline's operations under one roof, that terminal's luggage system -- capable of handling around 12,000 bags per hour -- won't be up and running until March of next year. British Airport Authority will still be in charge of the bags -- they'll just have a shorter distance to travel.

In the meantime, Mr. Lampl said the airline has ramped up the number of customer-service agents to "find and repatriate bags." This does not guarantee, however, that fewer bags will be lost.

The Luggage Club, one of several baggage transport services that have sprung up in recent years, could have delivered my one bag from my home to my hotel in Cannes in four days for $280 dollars. I would have received my bag back at home in four days for an additional $460.

High-end carriers
At that rate, combined with the $1,500 for my round-trip coach ticket, I could have upgraded to an elite airline such as Eos or Silver Jet -- the very airlines BA's current first-class promo campaign is geared to do battle with. While airline promises are a dime a dozen, Eos' claim to guarantee a "proactive" resolution to any problems starts with the fact that it uses London's Stanstead airport as its hub.

"Airlines have given up on the idea of customer service," said Ed Keller, director, Landor Associates, Chicago. "Southwest Airlines has never been shy about saying that they are a no-frills airline. ... It's a great example of lowering expectations and then exceeding them."

These days, he said, air travel is so miserable that most consumers are pleasantly surprised when they arrive within an hour or so of their scheduled time.

"Branding is about making and keeping a distinctive promise," Mr. Keller added. "You are making a promise that you have to deliver on at a million different contact points. ... If you aren't delivering on your promise, why even make it?"

Peter Greenberg, the "Today" show's travel editor who has started a one-man boycott of Heathrow, said transparency might help. For example, had BA told me that while I may have needed a longer layover to make my connecting flight in London, expectations would have been managed and my bag and I might still be together, simply by booking a later flight out of Heathrow.

Expecting reimbursement
My seatmate on the hop across the pond told me BA had once given him (and everyone else in business class, at least) 5,000 air miles as an apology for a malfunctioning entertainment system. BA was offering me 35 pounds for every two days my luggage was lost in France. That's $140 to cover the one skirt, two tops, five pairs of underwear, bra, deodorant, disposable razor, face wash and moisturizer that cost $222 in the French equivalent of a Target. Mr. Lampl, however, assured me that I would be reimbursed regardless of the total.

"Every case is reviewed individually," he said. "If you needed clothes to wear at a reception and you had to buy a business suit or a gown of some sort, they have to [reimburse you]."

If this is the case, that policy has not yet trickled down to the BA representatives most consumers deal with.

This money is not offered on the return home, because we are, well, home. "First needs," as BA calls them, don't really exist. It doesn't matter if your contact lenses, keys, equipment, medicine or essential medical equipment are in that lost bag. To be fair, the claim clerk offered me $50 for the extenuating circumstances. He assured me I would have my bags the next day. I used my $50 on a de-stressing manicure/pedicure, but I must have made a deal with the automated devil because I haven't seen my bag in five days.

Hard to find a human voice
And I hadn't been able to talk to a human being about the whereabouts of my bag until I spoke with Mr. Lampl. BA tells consumers they we are welcome to check a bag-tracing service on its website, but as we learned in France, the system wasn't updated to say "delivery in progress" until after my co-worker got her bag. Last I checked, my bag was slated for a flight to JFK three days ago.

We are also welcome to call a service line. It's automated. No combination of 1, 0, pound or star ever get you a service rep. In fact, if you try any combination of the above keys, as I did, the line hangs up on you. Customer relations is only available via e-mail or fax in the U.S.

As of Friday, June 29, I am still bagless. I have heard from a non-English-speaking delivery man who keeps trying to deliver my bag when I am not home. Unfortunately, I don't have a doorman at my building and the delivery service seems reluctant to schedule a drop-off.

I'm still trying to figure out how all of this constitutes an "Upgrade to British Airways."

~ ~ ~
EDITOR'S NOTE: Ms. Capps received her bag at 11 p.m. on June 29, after this story went into production. She received a check from BA on July 9 reimbursing her for the entirety of her expenses ($223 -- the airline rounded up) incurred while in France as a result of not having her luggage while in Cannes.
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