Why I’ll Never Get Invited on a British Airways Junket

The view from the back of the bus.

When Kris and I got off the British Airways plane from Heathrow in Chicago, I looked at her, and before I could say anything, she offered, “That was probably the worst flight of my life.”

I didn't reply, “Yeah, I was hoping we'd crash into the sea so it would all be over.” But I thought of it.

There was an article in the New York Times last week about how things are getting so much better for first class air passengers…and so much worse for those of us stuck in coach. Clearly, many airlines are putting all their effort into attracting those people who can afford the first class fares and the devil take economy. I'd certainly put British Airways into that category.

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I want to say right up front here though, that in the past two weeks, we've flown coach on Swiss Air, Turkish Airways, Iberia, and Lufthansa. All of them were terrific. Comfortable seats, great service, modern clean planes.

Everything that British Airways isn't.

Let's just start at the beginning and work our way through their deficiencies.

We were flying from Madrid to London on Iberia; London to Chicago on BA; and Chicago to Minneapolis on American. Kind of a pain in the ass to do it that way, but we got a good fare from BA when we booked it last August. When I booked the flight then, the BA website wouldn't let me pick any seats for any of the flights. I had to call them to do it, and I had to pay extra to choose my seats. I did it so I wouldn't end up like the guy next to me in the middle seat. (More on him later.)

But when I logged on to check in for the flight, the BA website offered me the option to change seats. I got the seat map, chose different seats, and then tried to save them. No luck. It said I saved the new seats, then just displayed the old seats.

Oh well.

When we got to the airport at Madrid, we tried to get the other seats and boarding passes all the way through to Minneapolis. Nope. We were told we couldn't change seats, and had to get our subsequent passes to Chicago and Minneapolis in London. At this point, we were dealing with Iberia, so I just figured we'd wait rather than try argue about BA's seating deficiencies.

So, when we got to the transfer desk at Heathrow, we went up to the transfer desk and asked for our passes. They were able to do this–sort of. They gave us passes for the original seats to Chicago because the flight was actually full, despite what BA's website had said only a few hours before. They could also give me my pass from Chicago to Minneapolis, but for some reason, not Kris'.

(American Airlines eventually gave her her boarding pass for the Minneapolis flight in Chicago. Of course, it was under a different name–something TSA missed as they checked her through security without a hitch.)

At any rate, we got on the plane after a lot of pushing and shoving and jockeying for overhead space. (London is the transfer point for every fat woman from Qatar who doesn't speak English and is on her way to visit her relatives in San Diego with more luggage than Kate Winslet took on the Titanic. Don't ever go through Heathrow if you can avoid it.)

We arrived at our seats just as the baby three rows ahead of us started screaming. And I mean screaming loud enough to attract the attention of four flight attendants who tried to calm her down. This went on for twenty minutes. Of course, the mother didn't do a damn thing. I was about to get up and suggest I'd be happy to hold a pillow over the kid's face until she stopped kicking when one of the flight attendants magically produced a pacifier that shut her up. The entire coach section applauded.

While this was going on, I was also being treated to a monologue from the guy sitting in the seat one away from me. We were in the middle three. I was in my aisle seat and he was in the other aisle seat dreading the arrival of the guy who actually had the aisle seat number on his boarding pass.

“I was told I had an aisle when I checked in in Hamburg,” he told me. I told him I hadn't had much luck either with BA's seat assignments, but that I'd paid extra back in August to have aisle seats. “Best thirty bucks ever,” I told him. Of course, at the time, I didn't know who would be in the middle seat next to me.

The guy who had the aisle seat showed up a couple of minutes later, and Mr. Middle Seat then started to explain to him that he had anxiety about flying and he really needed an aisle seat. The guy who had the aisle seat said, “Yeah, me too,” and opened his briefcase, took out some papers which I don't think he really wanted to read but he just wanted to have an excuse to ignore Mr. Middle Seat. I thought of offering to sell Mr. Middle Seat my seat for 300 euros, but then decided it would be more fun to see what happened next.

I should have taken the 300 euros.

The guy really did have high anxiety, or at least put on a good act. As the plane was taxiing down the runway and picking up speed for take off, he started saying under his breath, “Get up. Get up. Get up.”

I started saying under my breath, “Oh damn. Oh damn. Oh damn.”

Well, we did get up, but that wasn't good enough for him. He started jiggling his legs and rocking back and forth in his seat, as if his momentum was going to be that last little “oomph” that was going to thrust the full 777 off the ground and into its steep take off climb. All it actually accomplished was to make me want to elbow him in the throat hard enough to crush his larynx.

Let's now review the seats themselves. As I mentioned before, the Turkish, Iberia and Lufthansa flights I've recently been on were on Airbus equipment with new slim profile leather seats. These seats have many advantages. They're very comfortable, they're leather, and, since they are so slim, they allow the airline to pack us in like tinned fish and still leave a little legroom and room to recline without crushing the guy behind you's dinner tray. (I'm sure they're also lighter, which saves fuel.)

Unfortunately, BA's slave ship coach class hadn't caught up yet to it's European neighbors. We had the old fashioned thick padded seats. In particular, this plane had the thick padded seats with the completely worn out thick padding which left you feeling like your ass was planted in the right field bleachers of a minor league baseball park. My particular seat also featured duct tape on the arm rest, which had at least been thoughtfully cut away so I could get to my video controls. At least the recline feature worked, though, unlike an aisle seat across from me, which could maintain only one position–reclined all the way.

The audio/video worked about as well as my neighbor's recline. I could change channels at will, but the volume of whatever movie or audio channel I was listening to varied constantly, and one channel of the stereo kept cutting in and out. I could handle that volume problem, because I could at least control the maximum. However, when the crew cut in for important announcements such as, “We'll be passing down the aisles now with a cart full of overpriced duty free crap you may want to buy,” it pretty much blew the woofers out of my expensive noise canceling head phones.

Then there was the various music channels. If you love the limited playlists of corporate radio, the British Airways channels would be your dream. The Ronnie Wood channel played the same five songs over and over. And, how do you pick the one Rolling Stone who has no musical talent to choose your music?

At least Ron Wood is still less annoying than the people in the seats immediately in front and behind me. The guy in front, after shoving his seat back all the way back into my lap, wasn't content with that. He then fell asleep and draped his hand over the seat back so it half covered my video screen. I was watching one of those annoying drunk buddy comedies, so it wasn't much of a loss, but I was still impressed by the guy's persistence. I brushed his hand aside three times before he finally withdrew it.

The guy behind was worse. Even though out of consideration I hadn't reclined my seat more than an inch or two, he persisted in jabbing his knees into my back for an hour or so before I stood up to ask him to stop. Of course, to stand up, I had to push on the back of my seat, which bumped his knees. “Don't worry,” he said. “That's all right.”

“No,” I replied. “It's not all right. You've been jamming me with your knees all night and I would appreciate it if you'd stop.” I think the look of pure malice in my eyes convinced him it would be a good idea. So he did.

Then there was dinner. British food has the reputation for being second only to Irish as the worst in the world. This slop lived up to expectations. Of course, you don't fly to eat, and so I'm willing to forgive almost anything.


If I can get a drink.

The flight attendant who was serving the dinner was new (we later learned.) She managed the “beef or chicken?” question all right, but didn't seem to be able to handle, “and would you like something to drink?” even though there were about twenty half bottles of wine on the top of the cart right in front of her. She got two rows past me before I got her attention and asked for a bottle of wine. Her reply was, “I'll get right back to you,” even though serving me at that very moment would have involved picking up a bottle from right in front of her, turning around, and handing it to me.

She didn't, of course, get right back to me and kept serving the food to the rows behind me. Four people in the row just behind me got the same response from her when they also remarked that they hadn't been served a drink either.

I punched the attendant call light. That got no response.

Finally, when the food service was over (and I was finished eating,) a more senior attendant showed up. I explained my problem–which was seconded by three other ‘me toos' from the nearby seats. She immediately got us all some wine and apologized. When I suggested the new person needed a little more training, she apologized again. Then she kept apologizing for another few minutes until I begged her to stop.

She was, however, really good at apologizing. I'm sure she gets a lot of practice.

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8 thoughts on “Why I’ll Never Get Invited on a British Airways Junket”

  1. Wow, that sounds like the worst day anyone has ever had. No wine with dinner!? For a second, I thought you were talking about a Turkish prison camp.

  2. I’ve now earned my 20th platinum card with Northwest/Delta airlines and I’m wondering why you marvel at the service level that is standard for American carriers? The flight attendant in first class was nice enough to jam my suit jacket into the storage cabinet with the sleeve caught in the lock. She returned it with a shredded sleeve and a smile. The Hartford airport baggage tractor ran over my suit bag and I spent the day interviewing with a tire track pressed in my back (it never did come out). That excludes the 18 glasses of red wine spilled on my shirt, pants, tie and cumberbund.

    Keep traveling and enjoy the pleasures of new experiences! It’s nice to be introduced to this curmudgeonly web site.

  3. Thanks Lee. Long ago I flew a lot, too. (Strangely, not enought nowadays to get preferred on any carrier.) That was so long ago that they at least tried to give service. Move to Europe is my advice. Just not Britain.

  4. I think it’s only fair that I update here a little bit. Kris and I flew BA last week from Sydney to Bangkok. It could not have been nicer. Modern equipment, great service, and an nice entertainment system. So, credit is due. Maybe they read this post and outfitted a new 747 just for me.


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