aircraft at gate
Customer experience

Gate 55 – the start of something stinky…

Firstly I want to start with being clear this is not a gripe at BA, but a case study in how experience design can be used to improve the entire customer journey.

Recently I booked a BA flight to Scotland. I decided to pay the extra and go British Airways than the other (and cheaper) operators. It wasn’t massively different in price, but the quality of service you receive from BA was surely worth it. Or so I thought.

It all started bright and early. I travelled extensively last year and hauled my membership into the status to get lounge access. What a treat. Unfortunately the BA lounge was closed but an alternative provided. This is where the experience starts to fail. I ordered eggs. After waiting 30 minutes, nothing appeared. Still, places do get busy, it was disappointing not to grab a lovely free breakfast but was a nice to have. A vitamin if you will.

I closely monitored the gate screens. The gate would be revealed at 6.35AM, with the magical closure time of 6.45AM. Gate 55 – you are guilty as charged. Upon turning the corner to see gate 55, there was a queue of at least 200 people with a single operator checking ticket details. Clearly people were frustrated. In an experience map, you would see the emotional state tanking to anxiety. By design you could say.

Then the announcements started – gates closing. Customers started to argue about queue jumping. Why should someone push in front just because they were apparently late? Of course they weren’t. The information created the situation. Maybe someone was ill, not available or some other change. These things happen. But where was the process to manage that amount of people? How did it respond? It didn’t. Technically fail number 2.

Now lets fast forward to return. 10AM, a helpful email saying the flight was cancelled. In the Islands there’s a problem. It’s called access. Data, forget it. Voice. Flakey. How could have service design helped? Text three options and reply with a number? Easy and practical. This is where the real problems started. Firstly the website for changing a flight – as follows, clearly swamped with requests so unavailable.


Next contact centre. After 30 minutes of delightful on hold music (note please use multiple tracks to avoid insanity) and a helpful system telling me to use the online service (only if I could…) patience was wearing thin. After a couple of hours a new flight was booked, to a different destination.  Super not great with a young child, but these things do happen and as frustrating as they may be, ultimately it was fine.

Lies, lies and more lies.

I asked (and catalogued like any good service designer…) what the problem was and why the flight was cancelled (at 10AM): The French Air Strike. Strange. My flight wasn’t any where near France. But I guess these things can upset all manner of things.

Later I asked another operator, this time it was the last plane in and unknown why, but it was cancelled. Strange, I thought. That’s slightly different.


Passing the buck

I tweeted Gatwick about my displeasure. An almost instant response to fill in a form. How lovely.

Here’s their response:

Thank you for getting in touch with Gatwick’s Customer Services team.

I’m really sorry to read your feedback regarding your experience at Gatwick.

It might be useful to know that all airlines employ a handling agent to manage their ground handling. The handling agent’s responsibilities include check-in, providing flight information using our flight information displays, gate operation, boarding the aircraft and assisting the aircraft for its departure. They would decide how many staff to allocate to the desk at the gate.

I can only apologise for what you experienced at the gate with BA’s handling agent staff and I’d suggest that you contact your airline so they can be given an opportunity to investigate and respond directly to your concerns.

I’d like to reassure you that we’re monitoring this type of feedback and we will continue to work with our airlines and their handling agent to improve the service we all provide.

Again, thank you for bringing your feedback to our attention and I do hope your next visit to Gatwick is much more positive.


And when I asked for the money for a taxi from Heathrow to Gatwick where my car was parked I was passed to a third person. I was asked to complete a compensation form for the taxi upon return. Oh joy. Another form. I asked them to explain why it was cancelled. At no point did any communication use the phase Sorry or We apologise. In the final email I received it explained that aircraft was faulty and safety was the most important thing. But at 10AM another aircraft could have been organised. I suspect I would never get to the truth.


Recommendations for service businesses

Call system

Don’t blindly insert commentary to channel shift the customer. They’re calling for a reasons. Make checks via Api that the web service is available and then select the most appropriate messages for the on-hold playlist.

Check: does your call system access your platform availability?


Channel and time for the reason

When will you tell the customer the truth, tell them the time and how you’ll let them know. Make this core to the customer systems so employees feel like they don’t have to make something up.

Check: does your CRM system have a field to let all agents know the issue and when it will be available by?


Flow analytics

Design better process flows to avoid crunches, move some of the ‘during’ moments to the ‘pre’ phase, e.g. in an airline case have someone walk the queue checking documentation is opened at the right page (or app screen) to ensure faster processing

Check: do you have a series of customer journeys for a number of scenarios, instead of the utopian view?

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