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Learning the Art of War at British Airways

2009 December 12
by Francis Gouillart

British-Airways-flights

I flew from London back to Boston last night in the business class section of British Airways (BA). We battled all night, but in the dawn’s early light, I realized the brilliance of the company’s war strategy. For those of you at military colleges, here’s what I learned about myself in the process.

My first battle involved a brief and unsuccessful raid in enemy territory, in the business-class checking area of Terminal 5 at Heathrow, to be specific. I promptly assessed that the enemy’s business-class troops are well concealed at the end of the giant terminal –no maps or signs will lead you there – but some friendly Pashtun natives pointed me in the right direction. As I started scouting for enemy positions, I noticed a wall of automated machine guns – er, automated machines – with prominent flags floating over them, erected as the first line of defense for the BA foot ground troops neatly organized behind a second line of tellers. With my special operations training, I managed to infiltrate this first line of automated positions and tried to engage the real warriors behind their desk directly. I naively thought having a business-class ticket would grant me safe passage to those people. I was immediately reminded that in the BA code of war, one has to defeat the automation army before being allowed to engage with real people, business-class ticket notwithstanding. To straighten me out, a female guard laconically pointed to the sign above her – which stipulated “bag drop only” – followed with a second pointing toward the automatic checking machines, and punctuated with a sardonic “see you in a while.”

Having been soundly defeated, I engaged in battle #2 with the Check-In Machine. Beating the machine requires deciphering a secret code involving a number, a card, or a passport. I scratched my head wondering what number I could provide. I tried the locator number, the e-ticket number, and the travel agent’s number. When the machine started producing a hissing noise, I began to fear it was booby-trapped. With panic rising, I tried to scan my electronic passport, but the machine declared it unreadable and started shaking. I then reached for my BA frequent flier card, but I unfortunately have about 15 of those airline cards, plus another 10 for hotels and 3 or 4 for car rental, and the machine is so smartly designed that it offers no usable flat surface to lay out documents, forcing you to juggle them in the air while it keeps electronically firing at you.

Sensing I was about to die shamefully in the throes of this second battle, I decided to change strategy. I started swearing in a variety of languages, including some I do not even speak – albondigas is not really a Spanish profanity, is it? I seemed to initiate a chorus of similar global profanities from fellow travelers at neighboring check-in machines. Sensing an insurgency was in the works, a very nice BA customer service employee broke ranks and tried to pacify the pesky hordes. His first priority was my neighbor, a bearded man who’d expressed his displeasure in Urdu. French profanities got me the runner-up position. The old BA gentleman knew the secret code for each of us, and got us past the machines. As I triumphantly started heading back toward the human shadows behind the tellers, he even whispered that “If you’re persistent, the people at the counter will generally end up helping you.” I hope they do not behead him when they find out he’s collaborating with the enemy.

BA seats

Battle #3 is the Flying Backward one. This may be a little personal, but I simply cannot fly seated backwards. I have an inner ear disorder that makes me sick when I do, and BA is the only airline I know that makes half of its business customers travel facing back. When the French retired their last Caravelle in the early ’70s, I thought I was finally safe, but the smart cabin designers at BA revived this quaint tradition some 10 or 15 years ago. I avoid flying BA for this specific reason, but every now and then, scheduling convenience or cost forces me back to BA. Of course, the seat allocation system senses my weakness and only allocates backward-flying seats to me.

When I was offered such a seat last night, I explained to the BA front-line gunner that I turn into Linda Blair of The Exorcist when forced to fly backwards. I rotated my head back as far as I could to prove the point and asked her to imagine the unsuitability of green slime for the business-class cabin at 30,000 feet. She first pointed out that most warriors tolerate the backward flight in their chopper quite comfortably, but then proceeded to treat me with the deference my new suicide bomber status warranted. I was instructed to go to the airline lounge and throw myself at the mercy of the commanding officer there. Should my request not be granted, I could also attempt to exchange seats with another warrior in the plane itself. If that failed, it was suggested I could walk to a passenger in economy and offer to swap seats with him/her. “Of course, this is an expensive way to do it,” the exquisitely polite lady told me, “but this way, you won’t get sick.” Already soothed by such compassionate behavior, I was reassured when some general back at headquarters apparently switched my seat, allowing me to fly feet forward all the way to Boston.

Once in the plane, it was time to wage battle #4, the one involving the Drawer. Most airlines have a pouch or a pocket where you can put your travel documents, your mobile phone and perhaps a couple of magazines. BA business has a very big drawer … on the floor. If you’re young and athletic, you can squat or bend from a standing position. If you’re Michael Jordan and have a long torso and arms, you can probably stretch and reach the drawer from your seat. When all else fails, you get on your arms and knees and crawl on the floor like the Marines. As I got down to the ground, I got an encouraging look from a flight attendant who looked like an older version of the Ice Queen in the film Chronicles of Narnia.  I also caught her disappointed look when I made it back up. I had won battle #4.

Battle #5 involved withstanding the Floor Sweep. BA wants nothing on the floor around you as the plane takes off. People have clearly been smashed to death by flying pillows, suffocated by twirling blankets, or knocked unconscious by errant sneakers, so regulations require that these dangerous weapons be placed in sealed compartments before take-off. To my knowledge, BA is the only airline with this requirement, which surely dates back to medieval battles involving Scottish or Welsh fighters who used blankets, pillows and sneakers as torture instruments. A very elegant flight attendant ripped my shoes from my feet before departure because I had imprudently taken them half-off after two days of teaching on my feet with a group of executives at a large European bank. I was told that shoes had to be either on or off, and if they were off, they had to be up in the compartment above my head. I let myself be separated from my shoes. I also tried to cling on to my blanket, but was told my grip was too loose to be safe. I surrendered my second weapon and decided to wait for more auspicious conditions for a counter-offensive.

The sixth and final battle involved the Return of the Coat. Shortly before landing, the flight attendants returned all coats to the passengers, except mine. I tried not to grow anxious, until it became clear that my coat and jacket had become a hostage. I pushed the flight attendant button to alert them to this fact, but only drew an annoyed circular look from the Ice Queen to check who’d had the audacity. After landing, as I was seated toward the back of the business cabin, I could not signal to the flight attendants that I was still looking for my outerwear because of all the other warriors standing ahead of me in the line. Because the jetway was malfunctioning, I spent close to 30 minutes standing in the aisle, trying to attract the attention of flight attendants who were too busy talking to each other to pay attention to me.

When I finally made it to the door after the line started moving, I was told the search process would now be initiated, provided I could provide a detailed visual description of the coat and jacket. The topic was prosecuted with the zeal of members of the Moscow Politburo being told an enemy of the regime is missing in Siberia. I was invited to shiver quietly in short sleeves in the door and wait for further information. My mind alternated between designing a proper epitaph and analytical puzzlement over how many ways there can be of losing a coat and jacket in a plane. When the last economy passenger walked by me, I was given the coat back in what appeared to be a large BA ceremony where apologies were plentiful and exquisitely articulated in Elizabethan English, but explanations sparse.

This morning, as I was doing my after-action-review, I had an epiphany. I realized that what I had perceived as bad service is actually an in-depth training program to teach me how to become a better customer. I still have occasional bouts of indiscipline where I crave some form of comfort or service, even some appetite for some form of service co-creation with my airline. But I am close to seeing the light. A new discipline has set in. I look forward to engaging with the next enemy BA throws at me, and getting further field training. Send me back to London. I’m close to battle-ready.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. December 13, 2009

    LOL what a brilliant story. a great example of how an over-organized company like BA works.
    Read this and then look and listen to Barry Schwartz TED video on Practical Wisdom…;-)

  2. Martine Gouillart permalink
    December 13, 2009

    Tes lecteurs auront-ils la patience d’attendre jusqu’au prochain épisode ? Au moins un bon point pour BA : cet article hilarant et malheureusement si réaliste !

  3. Wolf Dieter Gogoll permalink
    December 15, 2009

    Francis: What a pleasure hearing from you, and about BA’s attempts to educate you to be a better customer. I survived a comparable attempt by another airline. And your wonderful notes have encouraged me to add a # 6 defending line which is about using the automated seat arrangements and other virtual assistance devices to my customer’s wellbeing.

  4. Francis Gouillart permalink
    December 17, 2009

    Wolf Dieter, it is a pleasure to know you are out there, even though I am sorry your airline experience sounded as battle-intense as mine. I often think of you and of the pioneering role you have played in redefining the role of HR at this large automotive supplier firm of yours.

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