This post is in response to a suggestion made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  Part 1 is here.  Part 2 – how to avoid these mistakes in the public sector – is here.  You can also find it a couple of posts above this if you’re on the home page.

What a cracker of a subject.  Not customer issues or care – customer chaos.

A few weeks ago I’d have struggled to do anything but weave some minor inconveniences into a story (my BT broadband saga is too old to qualify).

Then the bad weather hits northern Europe before Christmas.  Heathrow collapses under the weight of snow and ice.  I’m stranded in Madrid for three days.  This is chaos.  This is what happens.

Day 1 (Sunday)

My pal delivers me to Madrid airport’s swish new terminal 5 (designer, Richard Rogers – more of this building later) with plenty of time to spare.

Problem No. 1 – my flight isn’t on the departure board.  Earlier Heathrow flights are all coming up cancelled.  My brain signals a need for information.

Problem No. 2 – no information.  No general notices about the situation.  Nothing at the airport information desk about individual flights, only “Heathrow’s closed”.  No airline information desks, only Iberia customer assistance (sic) kiosks (more of them later too) with long barely moving queues of weary resigned passengers snaking through the terminal.  One or two Iberia staff in red jackets out and about.  True to stereotype and passenger prejudice they disappear after an hour or two.  I don’t see them again in three days.  Every now and then a computer generated voice on the PA announces that due to weather conditions in northern Europe passengers may (ha!) experience delay or cancellation to Heathrow/Paris/Frankfurt flights (the combination of destinations varies over three days) and to “enquire the latest situation of your airline”.

Problem No. 3 – where’s BA, who I’ve booked my Madrid-Heathrow-Aberdeen flight with?  Even before their merger with the Spanish airline they’ve abandoned any presence at the airport to Iberia.  So it’s a tactical retreat to what looks like the shortest Iberia queue.

Problem No. 4 – with hundreds of passengers waiting Iberia has only two customer service assistance kiosks open (ambiguity surrounds a third with the legend “Unaccompanied children only”, which doesn’t seem to stop some apparently unaccompanied adults from queuing there in the vain hope of getting early attention).  Each kiosk has five positions.  So at most ten staff are available at any time.  One position in each kiosk is labelled “Excess baggage only”.  The staff there seem to take different views on whether they’ll serve anyone who doesn’t have excess baggage.  At times only three or four positions in each kiosk are occupied.  A knowing Spaniard next to me volunteers “They’ve probably gone for lunch”.

Problem No. 5 – some staff are great.  It isn’t easy.  All they can do is try to rebook people to other flights.  This typically takes 15-20 minutes.  But a few staff are just plain objectionable.  A young woman in front of me is trying for the third day to transfer from a Continental flight from Colombia.  The clerk – “I can’t help you.  You’ll have to go back to Continental.”   “I was told to line up here by Continental,” the young woman says, almost in tears.  My “You can’t just send her away after she’s been queuing for over three hours” draws a scowl and a reluctant offer of a hotel voucher and the instruction to come back tomorrow morning.  The clerk disappears for ten minutes in what looks suspiciously like a huff.

Problem No. 6 – back at my pal’s house I go online for airline enquiry numbers.  Hopeless.  Iberia engaged.  BA’s UK helpline only apparently accessible from a UK freephone number.  Their Spanish number only staffed 0900-1800 Monday-Friday.

Day 1 bottom line.  After nearly four hours I have a ticket for a rerouted Air France flight via Paris Monday afternoon.

Day 2 (Monday)

To terminal 2 for check in.

Problem No. 7 – no Air France queues.  Great.  “Oh,” says helpful clerk “Your flight’s been cancelled.  There’s an earlier one just about to leave.  I’ll phone to see if the gate’s still open”.  It isn’t.  Me – “Can you rebook me?”  Her – “I’m sorry, you’ll have to go back to your own airline”.  I decide to see if I can abandon BA/Iberia (and any refund) and just pay for a separate flight home.  I navigate a crowded terminal 2 to see if other airlines have seats on any route to the UK today.  The only likely option is Easyjet.  A 20 minute queue to be told “Sorry flights all full”.  Back to terminal 5 by airport transfer bus.

Problem No. 8 – just re-run Problems No. 1 – 5.  When I get to the head of my new queue after another three hours I’m beginning to feel I’m trapped in a hispanic version of Groundhog Day.  Rebooked on Iberia/BA flights for 24+ hours later.

Problem No. 9 – having been surrounded by people being offered hotel vouchers I ask for one.  “No,” is the answer “Transfer passengers only” (I later find that under EU regulations this is wrong).  But I can check in my bag for my new flight.  Rather than drag it all the way back across Madrid to my friend’s place for another night (thanks C for the extended accommodation and patience) I queue another 20-25 minutes to check in.  Goodbye bag.  I hope we see each other again (yes, that’s right, more to come on this too).

Problem No. 10 – in the absence of hard fact rumours abound all day.  “They put on an unscheduled Jumbo late last night to clear the backlog and took anyone who was here”.  “We’ve been waiting three days.  There’s people who’ve just turned up and got on”.  “If you team up with someone else it cuts the delays” and so on.

Day 2 bottom line.  Another long day spent queuing.

Day 3 (Tuesday)

Decide to get to the airport early to monitor the situation as far as I can from departure screens and general PA announcements to see if my flight’s likely to go.  If not, I’ll get in another queue a.s.a.p to try and arrange Day 4’s attempt.

Problem No. 11 – hours to spare so I decide to settle down with a book.  I walk the length of the sleek Richard Rogers building.  At a brisk pace it takes 10 minutes so it’s probably about ½ mile long.  With the exception of bars and restaurants I can find only a few seats, all hard metal (don’t encourage them to linger), most at the deserted far ends of the building.

Heathrow flights keep coming up on the departures board.  All seem to be taking off, although some quite late.  When my flight appears, hours into my day, I take the risk and go through security.

Problem No. 12 – security fine.  When I make the long trek to the departure gate, tense conversation amongst the waiting hordes reveals 30+ passengers must have been allowed through on standby.  I check my ticket.  Yes, I have a seat.  On Iberia’s track record so far this could mean zilch.  Unease is not assuaged by the sudden simultaneous announcement on a crackly circuit of boarding and a much louder update for the umpteenth time in three days of the general delays being experienced, enquire of your airline etc etc.  No attempt to maintain the orderly queue by Iberia staff.  It disintegrates into a shuffling crowd, sceptical about what’s going to happen but too weary for aggression.

Day 3 bottom line.  Everyone in the crowd seems to get on the plane.  We depart over an hour late.  No apology from Iberia.  No complimentary anything on the flight, just the usual tired selection of snacks for sale.

Amazingly at Heathrow I make my BA connection with time to spare.  On the hour-and-a-bit’s hop to Aberdeen we get a free drink and snack.  The pilot and co-pilot apologise at least three times for all the problems at Heathrow that have delayed many of us.  They even ask us to be careful getting off the plane into a bitterly cold Scottish night.

I’m name checked on arrival and told my bag’s stuck at Heathrow.  They’ll deliver it as soon as they can.  I can check its progress online.  It turns up at home five days later.  Because of the time of year and continued appalling weather I forgive them.

What lessons can the public sector learn from this private sector chaos?…to be continued