James O'Neill's Blog

July 21, 2007

Trains, planes and automobiles.

Filed under: General musings — jamesone111 @ 2:12 pm

The last person I punched was a schoolboy. Before you report me for child cruelty, I should point out that I was a schoolboy myself at the time, and that makes it at least a quarter of a century ago. As befits someone who went on to work in IT punching people was something I wasn’t very good at, which may explain this long period of non violence. Only the presence of some very large policemen, a timely phone call and a man called Rod Green prevented that record coming to an end on Friday night.

Over the next week or so Microsoft employees descend on Seattle for the “Tech ready”. This brings me back into  contact with the Microsoft Travel portal. Steve has talked about,and I I said of it “this tool is to Web Usability what Scrapheap Challenge (or Junkyard wars in the US) is to automotive styling”. To add to its other faults I discovered it dies if the IE7-Pro add in is installed. I don’t know what acceptance tests we did on it but it won’t book travel to Seattle.

So I called the people I know as “American Excuse”,  The agent asked if I was going to tech-ready “We can’t book that  you have to e-mail another office”. So I did that. They sent me a form to complete with my contact details (all of which are in my e-mail signature) and booked me on Friday’s  BA flight, I’d rather fly SAS but hey.

I decided to leave my car at home and take the train to the airport. But on Friday we had more rain than even a British summer is used to. Seconds after my wife left me at Didcot station I found that the subway leading to the London bound platform was flooded. Station staff, were using a wheel chair to ferry passengers from the last train which was allowed to stop through the floods. Passengers for London were told to go 25 miles the other way change trains at Swindon and come back. But by the time I’d traveled 50 miles to avoid what was basically a large puddle the rest of the journey into London was looking a uncertain. I told one of the staff: if their use of the wheelchair was remarkable, then the response to this was astonishing. “if you hold on a moment while we sort out a form, we’ll pop you in a Taxi”. Major customer service brownie points for First Great Western.

Two minutes into the taxi ride my phone buzzed; I love Exchange push mail and Windows Mobile 6.  The message read.

From: British Airways Customer Services

To: James O'Neill

Sent: 20 July 2007 13:37

Subject: Cancellation - BA0053 LHR to SEA on 20 Jul 2007 : ref [deleted]


Dear Customer,

We regret to inform you that flight BA0053 from Heathrow (London)
to Seattle on 20 Jul 2007 has been cancelled.

Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience this may cause.

We have sent you this information as quickly as possible by automated
email and hope it reaches you in time to allow alternative arrangements to be made.

Please do not respond to this email as we will be unable to reply.

It may be possible to view your options and rebook or cancel your flights on ba.com.
To check please click the link below:


Alternatively, please call us on:

- United Kingdom 0800 727 800

We suggest you also contact your booking agent for any further changes to your travel plans.

We park the taxi while I call BA – busy.  Call the Microsoft travel emergency number – a recorded message tells me to it’s an out of hours only, and to redial the normal number. I do (why not do the re-routing for me ?). “Oh” says the agent “We can’t access that booking from here You need to call the group people”, at which point we get cut off. I use the Search Server feature of Windows Mobile 6 to find the mail with their number-it’s not in a dialable format.  Mobile 6 – unlike my previous phone – lets me fix it. The agent at the group bookings place promises to ring BA right away and get back to me. Twenty minutes later I call again. Another agent says they’ve compiled a list of people on the same flight and will be calling BA soon. I try to access the BA’s web site from my phone but it never leaves a “please wait” screen. The taxi driver and I decide to head for Heathrow airport even if we end up turning round and coming home. I forward the mail to my wife who tries to rebook the flight on BA’s web site. Errors Occur. The travel agent calls back and says they can’t rebook my flight (why not ?), and to continue to the airport. They suggest rebooking my flight at Terminal 1 rather than 4 where I was due to depart. 

The situation at T1 merited the description of  “a large crisis” hours before I got there:141 flights canceled, with BA hardest hit. The rebooking queue snakes round the terminal, and most of the way along the link to Terminal 2. Heathrow’s own website has some harsh things to say T1 and T2 so chose to wait in T4 – though it turned our I’d be waiting for 5 hours in a tent outside; things are so bad so often that BA have two Marquees permanently set up outside. My phone’s call history tells me the call I made when I joined the queue was at 15:55. Its Internet connection sharing let me try the BA web site from my laptop, it can’t handle substitute routes (via New York, Chicago, Atlanta etc)  never mind a change of airline are beyond it,and direct flights are all full. I try BA’s executive club who answer and sound helpful, but can’t change route either. Aargh. An American next to me needs to be in Paris, and has no cell phone – so we get onto Eurostar to confirm the trains are running. It’s 16:45 and we work out that he can probably get to Paris by 20:20 London time – before he’ll be at the front of the queue.

I mail the cancellation note to Steve who blogs about things to do if stuck at Heathrow.  These assume you are checked in and not stuck outside in big tent. Things get so bad that BA bring us some sandwiches; and people eat them. I don’t want to talk to anyone round me so I start on the book I’ve brought  and plug my headphones into the phone and put some music on. I can’t help laughing when Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life” comes on.

I’m not laughing at 21:10. Two of the metropolitan Police’s biggest firearms officers stroll through our tent as nonchalantly as is possible when you have a semi-automatic weapon strapped across your chest. Someone from the airport (not BA) announces that after 5 hours 15 minutes waiting, we won’t be “processed”, because the BA staff want to go home.  I shout at him – why didn’t someone figure that out hours ago and save hundreds of us some of the wait. He doesn’t give me a proper answer and I want to punch him.  He’s only the messenger. I bet those policemen were sent by an Inspector who’s seen this before. “Remind ’em that you’re their to provide protection from passengers as well as protection of passengers”. Rage rolls in and I know why people call it a red mist. What I want most in the world is to punch someone from BA, I’m imagining the punch (a right hook) I wonder if other passengers will join in. The policemen make me hesitate- I picture myself defying them, and more (only later do I realize getting into a fight while traveling on company business could get me fired). Then the phone rings and the moment for punching people is gone.

I hang up the phone call and find myself asking a BA chap who I complain to – they didn’t have to wait so long before telling us they were going to stop processing. The man’s name badge bears the name Rod Green. He’s volunteered to come down from the BA office to do what he can. 20 or 30 like him could have made a noticeable difference in the last 5 hours. They’ve had half a dozen. Rod makes a phone call, and finds me a substitute flight which works. If he worked for Microsoft I’d get him a customer service award.

BA has a problem. They have plenty of people who could do what Rod did, but when they needed them to show some passion for customer service, all but a very few went home.

Now I had to get home. Avis have earned my loyalty with a couple of great bits of customer service, their people really have justified their “We try harder” badges. A sign at their desk said get straight on the courtesy bus… Across the airport – a customer is shouting at an Avis rep who is trying to stay calm.”I’m not arguing with you” he says, “I’m the customer. You have to argue with me” comes the reply. The lady dealing with me makes that slight sucking sound when I say I haven’t reserved a car. I know that noise – and I picture myself losing it – in the style of Steve Martin in the film “Planes Trains and Automobiles”. Then she said “I can’t offer you much choice…”. And for the first time since “Always look on the bright side of life” I smile.

I thread my way home avoiding places I know are flooded.The neighbouring village to mine was badly hit, with the fire brigade pumping out the pub. We had our drains rebuilt after being flooded with “foul water” twice around 2000, and the system held up. It only takes a small amount of water to cause chaos. I draft this post and go to sleep. In the morning I read Hugh has been flooded; grim. We had clean-up people out the next day, but they’re going to maxed out for a while.


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This post originally appeared on my technet blog.


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