Category Archives: Travel

The Shrinking Airline Seat and Expanding Passenger Dilemma

I saw sat next to a very large person on a flight some years back. I was jammed into a seat, and the passenger next to him sat down. He splutters and coughs:

That’s disgusting. When did you last smoke! You stink!

Without skipping a beat, she responded:

When did you last eat?

He didn’t have anything else to say.

The shrinking airline carry-on

When standing waiting for a flight, airlines will measure that your luggage fits inside a metal cage. If your luggage is deemed to be oversized or overweight, they’ll ask you to pay to check the baggage, and it will go in the hold.

Airlines started to charge for checked baggage, and this led to a decrease in carry-on sizes. Airlines realize that they can derive greater revenue from more checked baggage, and also that 200 passengers with carry-ons and gate-checked baggage increases the time to board the plane. In the airline industry, time is money.

I don’t mind these rules because in the US there is a pretty clear set of rules – a carry-on is up to 22″x14″x9″ or 2700cuin, plus a personal item of 16″x14″x8″ (this depends on an airline, but it covers a handbag or laptop bag). If they run out of space, they will gate-check the bag for free. Yes, these sizes vary by airline but those sizes are a good guide to fit on any flight.

In Europe this is much rougher, with a lot of airlines offering only one item sized 19″x14″x8″ and a 16lb limit.

Either way, whether you like it or not, you know where you stand, and if you need more space, you can pay for it in the hold of the plane at agreed rates.

The Shrinking Airline Seat

Incredibly, airline seats have been shrinking over the last 10 years as they try to fit more passengers in a plane. I’m currently sat in a standard 18″ economy seat with a 32″ pitch. It’s cosy, but some international flights have 17″ or even 16.5″ wide seats.

Now the average male shoulder width is 18″. I’m a little above average and that means that my shoulders extend past the seats, which is fine, so long as I have an aisle or a window seat. In addition, the 32″ pitch is fine for my 34″ legs, so long as the person in front of me doesn’t want to recline.

But yes, many airlines have reduced the seat width now to be smaller than the average male.

The Expanding Waist Line

In parallel with the shrinking airline seat is the expanding waistline. A Gallup Poll reports that self-reported weight has increased 20lb since 1990. If you believe the CDC, Americans are 1″ taller and 25% heavier than in 1960.

This means that expanding passengers are stuffed into narrower seats that are smaller than the average person.

The seat sizes are driven by the economies of flying, as well as the fact that an increase in seat sizes would mean fewer seats, thereby dramatically driving prices up during peak periods. During quiet periods, center seats are often empty, solving the problem.

What size person is fair to sit in a seat?

If you buy a seat on a plane, you should feel entitled to have that seat. But since the seat is smaller than the average person, if you put three average, 5’9.5″, 195lb males in three adjacent seats, they will be very uncomfortable.

I’ve been in a flight wedged between two very big men and I can attest it is very miserable. There’s no room for elbows, arms, shoulders.

Should we have people size cages?

One solution to this would be to have size cages but for people. If you can fit in, then you’re on the flight. Otherwise you have to pay for a seat (or seats) that can fit the larger passenger.

Writer and director Kevin Smith was thrown off a SouthWest flight for this reason, though it’s not clear just how big he was. As an aside, he has since lost a load of weight.

Some people would argue that weight is a personal choice, and therefore if you choose to weigh more, you choose to need to buy a more expensive seat.

What about for those who are genetically taller? The average American is 5’9.5″, but there are many that are 6’3″ or even taller. Should those people who don’t have a choice on their size also have to buy a bigger seat?

Difficult ethical questions.

What about the person next to them?

As for the person next to them, they also paid for their seat and rightly feel entitled to the space they paid for. Unfortunately, since the seats are only sized for an average-sized person, any above-average size person will eat into the seat next door (or the window area or aisle).

That person probably feels understandably cheated of the space they paid for, and as friend Leonardo De Araujo said:

And what about recliners

Whilst we’re there, we should discuss recliners. British newspaper The Telegraph makes the case for banning them altogether.

I’m actually in favor of this because there’s always some poor person who has an exit row or back seat that won’t recline, and they are the ones that suffer with even less space. Since reclined airline seats are lower than when they are upright, the average number of cubic inches per passenger reduces when all the seats are reclined. And if the person in front of you reclines, you are more or less obliged to.

Free Market Economies

The capitalists amongst us would argue that in a free market, consumers will buy tickets from those airlines who provide comfortable seating, but in reality, consumers buy tickets based on a number of factors, including price, convenience and available routes, loyalty programs, overall customer satisfaction. In many cases there is no choice of carrier, and where there is a choice, there are other factors that may affect a purchase.

What should be done?

One thing is for sure – something has to change. Some advocate regulation of airline seat sizes and there is some sense in this, when a market is unable to self-regulate for the overall best interests of the customer. Others advocate that customers should pay for a whole seat and get a whole seat. This would drive passengers that don’t fit into a regular seat into obesity seating, which presumably would attract a charge, as you would get only 5 seats wide instead of 6, so would cost (at least) 20% more. Steve Rumsby put it simply with:  

In parallel with this needs to come a pragmatic seating policy from airlines. There are aways bulkhead seats available, and many airlines now offer “premium economy seating” for domestic flights which have 2-3″ of extra leg room. Why not use these seats to the best interest of the overall traveling populous?

What do you think?

Ten Best Gifts for Business Travelers 2014

I travel somewhere almost every day of the year, and I’m always amazed by the bizarre lists that online magazines put together as gifts for business travelers! Wooden iPhone speakers, really? Do these people really travel? Other lists include things like MacBook Airs and iPads, which are downright obvious.

If something is going to be added to my travel bag then there are three things it’s has to achieve: it has to let me travel better, lighter and achieve a specific purpose.

So here is a list of things that achieve this, at all budgets. If you have a traveler in your household then they may well appreciate one of these as a stocking filler this holiday season!

1) Improved 3-1-1 washroom equipment

I always carry my washroom in my laptop bag, for easy access at security and because with a little work, you can easily carry kit for 2 weeks in a 1-quart bag. The awesome GoToob containers ensure that nothing gets spilt, and are super-easy to refill! There are packs between $6.99 and $25.99 and they are worth every penny.

I have been using Ziploc bags for years and they wear out every few weeks. If you do this, make sure you use the branded Ziploc bags rather than a generic – they last much longer. If you want an upgrade then consider the Tom Bihn 3D Clear Organizer Cube. Note that whilst it is a quart in size, TSA officials can in theory ask you to move the contents into a Ziploc bag. It’s yours for $30.

2) Socks and Underwear

I can’t recommend this enough! I used to wear cotton socks for travel and they end up soggy, heavy, and difficult to wash. Switch them out for Calvin Klein Micro-Modal Trunks and you will never look back. They retail at a steep $26 a pair but you can buy them at a discount – $18 at Amazon and even less if you wait for sales.

The same works for socks – $22 for 3 pairs at retail, and $11 if you shop around.

3) Scrubba washing kit

The Scrubba is a 5oz, $55 washing machine that can wash your microfiber undies in 3 minutes flat. Make sure you fill a GoToob with a little hand wash liquid and you are set for those times when you are stuck away an extra day.

4) Travel Towel

I always carry a Sea To Summit Small Towel when I travel. It’s perfect for when you need to shower in the office after a long flight. It costs $16.95 and mine is 10 years old. I dry it on the back of a chair and wash it when I get back home. It weighs 2.2oz and packs down to nothing!

5) Noise-Canceling Headphones

I’m not the biggest fan of the Bose sound but the Bose QuietComfort 25 Headphones are mandatory for every business traveler. They pack down small, and get rid of all the noise on a plane. Just awesome, but they have a $300 price tag.

Some people asked about using these for phone calls. Honestly, I just switch out to the Apple headphones for this. They are so much better.

6) Travel Pillow and Blanket

There are many discussions on the best pillow but for me the Cabeau Evolution Pillow is by far the best. It’s super-comfy, and packs down into a small bag for transportation. It’s $37 at Amazon or $29.99 in most major airports.

At around $70, the Cocoon Silk Travelsheet is a luxury, but as you snuggle down for a good night’s sleep you won’t regret it. Buy the blue rip-stop version and get it dry-cleaned periodically.

7) Mophie Power Pack

It amazes me how many people don’t have one of these! Right now I’m writing this on an iPad, charging it with a Mophie. Pick of the draw is the Mophie powerstation plus with its built-in cables, with versions from $80 to $150. I prefer the smallest version, it’s enough for 2 full charges of an iPhone.

8) A new carry-on bag

Be very very careful when buying a new bag. Maybe even just provide a cash, because bags are very personal and many of the best are only available from the manufacturer.

For 2-3 day trips, the Tom Bihn Tri-Star is a great one-bag solution. If you are doing 5-10 day trips and want to follow the One-Bag One-World movement then consider the Red Oxx Air Boss.

If you like rollers, my favorites are the Tumi Alpha 2 International Wheeled Carry-On and the Briggs & Riley @ Baseline Luggage Baseline International Carry-On Wide-Body Upright Suitcase. Both are great for extended trips.

Either way, don’t buy a bag for someone unless you talked to them first!

9) Umbrella

We have all been caught out in the wet and bought 20 cheap umbrellas through the years that are good for a single use!

The Davek Solo is a thing of both beauty and practicality, though it is steep at $99. If that’s too much for you then the EuroSCHIRM light trek is available for around $50. It doesn’t look as businesslike, but the price is less than 10 cheap one-use umbrellas and they are both light enough to drop in a laptop bag!

10) Wallets

For everyday use, I have a small 4-card holder wallet that can slip in any pocket.

When I travel I like to split my plastic and I carry a second wallet which means if one is stolen, I’m still OK. The U.S. has drivers license and ID cards which are useful as you can put one in each. The Bellroy Travel Wallet is a nice option which also carries your passport, ticket and includes a pen and cardholders.

If you are worried about security, consider the Saddleback Leather Passport Wallet with RFiD Shield for protection against identity theft.

Final Words

There are a bunch of things notably missing from this list. In no particular order, these are things you shouldn’t buy a business traveler!

– Cameras and Torches. It’s 2014, there’s smartphones.
– Knives. You can’t carry on a knife, silly, and we don’t check bags.
– Speakers. Hotel rooms have iPod docks, and there’s always headphones.
– Tablets. Doesn’t he/she have one? If not, buy the WiFi-only Apple iPad Mini Retina.
– Laptops. We already have a work laptop, that’s enough to lug around thank you!
– Pens. We lose them routinely so better to keep a cheap plastic one in the laptop bag or use the Belroy pen.

By the way if you are buying anything, I highly recommend visiting The Wirecutter. They have original research and great no-nonsense reviews.

I hope this helps someone over this holiday season and I’m interested – what did I miss? Let me know!

10 tips for dealing with Immigration

This one is for @NeilRaden, whose family member is having problems at UK Customs & Immigration in London. In my experience – and I’ve spent my fair share of time in immigration – there are a handful of things to do to make your life easier. Too late for Neil, perhaps…

1) Dress Smart

It doesn’t matter if you’re going through on a tourist visa to a one-off country, but if you are a frequent traveller or you have a working visa, then appearance matters. I happen to like to travel business-casual anyhow, and always wear a jacket. Don’t pre-dispose someone to judge you because you look sloppy. First impressions matter.

2) Drink coffee, not booze

Need I say more? It may be tempting to have some nerve-calming drinks on the flight, but you need your wits about you at immigration, especially after a long transatlantic or overnight flight when you will be tired. Have a cup of tea or coffee to wake you up.

3) Get prepared

If you turn up to the gate without your forms filled in, or filled in incorrectly, they will send you back to the end, and will judge you. You need to do everything you can to make the immigration officer’s life easier. He or she has enough hassle in a day. Turn up with your forms clearly and correctly filled in, and ask for help if you need it!

What’s more if you are coming on a stamped visa then bring documentation. You don’t have to slap it on the counter up front, but bring it all. Bring a letter from your company stating what you are doing. Bring a letter from your immigration lawyer if you have one. Memorize this information.

4) Wait your turn

So many times have I seen someone walk up to a counter without the immigration officer beckoning them – which often makes them really grumpy. Stand behind the line, wait your turn and they will beckon you.

5) Engage and be friendly

I always start by looking them in the eyes with “Good morning/afternoon/evening sir/madam, how are you today?’. Curtesy goes a long way. Usually, they smile and respond. All of these little things make a difference and predispose a human being towards you.

6) Remember that any border control officer can deny your entry to the country

I took this from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed and it is always important to keep in the back of your mind. It doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong – they have the power to deny you or allow you in. Your behavior will control their discretion if there is a grey area. I have had situations where an immigration officer has said “I will let you in this time, but next time you need to do X”.

7) Always answer the question simply, clearly and do not offer excess information

When they ask you a question: “Why are you coming to this country”, answer it with the minimum information. “I’m going to the following conference”. Be specific, clear and brief. Whatever you do, don’t offer them your life story. They want you to go through as fast as possible too and if they need more information, they will ask for it.

8) Never, ever, think you are an immigration expert

Especially if you are coming in on a business visa, be very careful when you are asked the question “Why are you coming in on this visa?”. The answer is: I am doing X (the truth!) for my company, and this is the visa they applied for on my behalf.

9) If they send you to secondary inspection, smile and move on

If you travel a lot, you will go into secondary inspection. The primary officers will refer anything they are unsure about. If you’re not doing anything wrong, don’t worry about it. It’s a process and it can take anything from 30 minutes to 5 hours or more, depending on how busy they are. If someone is picking you up, text them when you land and let them know you are going into immigration. Let them know that you will text them when you are out and not to worry.

10) Be mindful of what is on your cellphone/laptop/social media/luggage

If you go to secondary inspection then never get your cellphone out. It’s forbidden in most countries and they hate it. But also be mindful that they may confiscate your cellphone or laptop and read the contents. So be mindful of what you text and email – even jokingly. I’ve seen people get in big trouble over this.

I added social media and luggage, which I should have pointed out. Neil’s family member had posted “Living in XXX” on Facebook and had a utility bill. If you’re a non-immigrant, these are a fast-track to getting deported. It doesn’t matter what you believe your intentions are, it matters what the immigration officer believes you intend to do.

11) Bonus tip: Never, ever, lie

I’ve spent my fair share of time in secondary inspections in various countries and there is a pattern. Every time I’m sat there, I overhear the same conversation. It’s someone who is lying about their travel and reasons for entering the country. Trust me – the immigration officers – especially the very experienced ones in secondary inspection – know their stuff.

They can see your travel history in most cases. They know everything you told them in the past. And they see people like you every day. So don’t insult them by lying or pretending you don’t speak their language when you do. They get really angry and usually deport those people.

Final Words

I hope this helps someone, some time. What are your tips?


Did British Airways pay off Kim Kardashian for her stolen luggage?

I promised this blog that I would update on my customer experience with British Airways and I’ve been hassled by a few people for taking my sweet time. Apologies – rightly, or wrongly, I decided to give them a while longer to respond. And in the meantime I have reflected on the experiences I have seen in the media. I hope you enjoy.

Corporate blogs with poor experiences

It’s not just me that had problems. Friend and blogger Dennis Howlett has suffered at the hands of BA too, and wrote it up in a sequence of 3 blogs on ZDNet entitled “British Airways Customer Failures“.

Is it not time for a fundamental rethink about what these systems deliver? Is it not time for some of the mega brands to recognise that what served them well in the past will no longer cut it?

Friend and colleague – and manager of a very large business unit – Anthony Leaper, SVP and General Manager of LoB Customer Solutions at SAP, wrote a Forbes article entitled “You can’t keep saying “It’s not our fault” forever.“. Anthony is an expert on customer loyalty management and he nails some points home:

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matterwhose fault it is. Every company owns the responsibility for its customers’ experience, whether it likes it or not.

Then you can just take the hilarious “BA is Shite” blog which acts as a content aggregator for this stuff.

But there is a serious point here – Howlett, Leaper, and others – have serious influence. Leaper has influence over the travel decisions of a $18bn business, and perhaps wider. And yet, BA does not take them seriously. Why is this?

Lack of understanding of modern media

After I wrote my last blog “How British Airways Broke This Camel’s Back“, I was contacted by a media employee of BA called Michael Johnson. After a few exchanges, he very interestingly responded:

As much as I would like to keep chatting with you, I’m afraid I need to restrict my contacts to the media and that’s my job…

I had a similar experience with BA’s Twitter handles. They either ignore, or let you know that customer relations will be in touch. But customer relations are never in touch – and even if they are, they say things like:

Checked-in luggage has to pass through various hands on its way to and from the aircraft.  So on the rare occasions when belongings go missing, it is virtually impossible to pinpoint what happened.

And this to me shows a complete lack of understanding of modern media. Most organisations do not now differentiate between different types of influence – be it corporate bloggers, media types or influential social media people. If you influence, you are worth engaging with. But not to BA. Unless of course your name is…

Kim Kardashian

Now she does have 14m Twitter followers to my 2.5k and Howlett’s 9k and Leaper’s 34. But when she lost her luggage and Tweeted:

“Very disappointed in British Airways for opening my luggage & taking some special items of mine! Some things are sentimental – irreplaceable”

Then BA managed to respond:

A British Airways spokesperson said they were looking into the claims.

I tweeted Kim to ask her if she got any response but I’m guessing she did, and they offered her a pay off in return for her silence, because the media went strangely quiet. Let me know if you know anything more on this. It reminds me of when they lost Victoria Beckham’s Louis Vuitton luggage in 1998. Stories suggest that BA paid her £100k in damages.
So what’s the outcome?
Well our frustration is reflected in the stock price – parent company IAG’s stock value is down 50% in the last year from a high of 23.25 to 12.53 today. I have no idea what it will take for them to listen but I, for one, am shopping elsewhere.

How to travel like a pro – 10 tips for frequent flyers

As a frequent traveller it is easy to be scornful of those that don’t travel so often, so I thought I’d open up my box of secrets. This might help you if you are like me, a frequent traveller for meetings and conferences – or also if you are a consultant travelling Monday through Thursday.

1) Shop around for a good carry-on

For me the Zen of travelling is the Tumi International Zippered Expandable Carry-On but others prefer Briggs & Riley. They have a few things in common.

  • Maximum size for carry-on = maximum capacity
  • Ability to carry 2 or even 3 suits
  • Expandable if you need it for long trips (but must go in the cargo of the plane)
  • Expensive (sorry) – $350-$600

But, this is a one-off purchase. Briggs & Riley offer a lifetime guarantee. My Tumi has been going for 5 hard years. The expense will offer you a huge degree of comfort and if you shop around in the sales, you will find one at a 30-50% discount.

2) Choose an airline group and become a frequent flyer

You have roughly 3 choices:

  • Star Alliance: Adria Airways JP, Aegean Airlines A3, Air Canada AC, Air China CA, Air New Zealand NZ, ANA NH, Asiana Airlines OZ, Austrian OS, Blue1 KF, Brussels Airlines SN, Croatia Airlines OU, EGYPTAIR MS, Ethiopian Airlines ET, LOT Polish Airlines LO, Lufthansa LH, Scandinavian Airlines SK, Singapore Airlines SQ, South African Airways SA, SWISS LX, TAM Airlines JJ, TAP Portugal TP, THAI TG, Turkish Airlines TK, United UA, US Airways US
  • One World: Air Berlin, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, Japan Airlines, LAN, Mexicana, Qantas, Royal Jordanian, S7 Airlines
  • Skyteam: Aeroflot, AeroMexico, AirEuropa, Air France, Alitalia, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, CSA Czech Airlines, Delta, Kenya Airways, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Korean Air, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines

Figure out which one serves your home location and destinations best and stick to it. Always log your frequent flyer number. You will get benefits (cheaper miles flights) and upgrades. US Airways are particularly good to their frequent flyers in terms of upgrades, and the One World group has free lounges for Silver members and above.

3) Purchase travelling suits and shirts
This is very budget dependent so take your pick. Austin Reed, Ted Baker, Zegna and Prada all have travel-specific cloths which are a great idea. Avoid linen suits and very expensive suits as they do not travel well. Go for dark fabrics and heavier cloths and you will spend less time with an iron.
The same applies to shirts. Look for “wrinkle free” or “no iron”. This isn’t true but it will reduce the amount of work you have to go to! I prefer to travel with plain white shirts because they match any suit. This improves your combinations.
4) Choose your clothes carefully!
Here is the list of what I fit in my bag (yes, this all fits in a carry-on!):
  • 1 Pair black shoes and belt (I wear the black belt on the plane)
  • 1 Pair tan shoes and belt
  • 1 Grey Suit
  • 1 Navy/Black Suit
  • 5 White Shirts
  • 7 Pairs of Underwear and Socks (Black)
  • 3 casual tops
  • 1 pair denim jeans
  • 1 Washbag (see below)
  • 1 Pair Sneakers & workout clothes (see below)
There is no room for waste when you are travelling.
5) Learn to pack your bag and never check your luggage
Here’s how to pack it:
  • First lay the shoes in the base, toe to heel. Fill them with underwear and socks. Fill your sneakers with the workout clothes.
  • Fit the belts into the gaps
  • Then lay the casual tops and denim on top.
  • At the last minute, put the suits and shirts in the suit carrier and fold it over into the bag.
  • Press down hard and zip it up!
Now you can pack a week’s luggage in a carry-on, you will never need to check your luggage again. This means you don’t have to worry about losing your suit for the next day, or wear your suit on the plane (yuck).

6) Don’t forget your workout clothes

I always pack one set, use them wherever I am and wash them in the shower and hang them out to dry for the next day. It’s not perfect but it’s a reasonable compromise.

7) Be frugal on your wash bag

Remember that you’ve only got a carry-on now, so you have a 100ml (1oz) limit per item and 1 litre (1 quart) overall limit for your wash bag. So go and buy a 1 quart clear wash bag in Acme or Boots and buy travel sized toothpaste, hair wax etc., but always a full sized toothbrush.

I never pack shampoo or soap as I always use the hotel variants. Suit yourself if you want to!

Then I always put my wash bag in my laptop case. This way it is easier to get through security as you don’t have to unzip your bag and you have no worries about spillages.

8) Travel in comfort

First, shower before you fly. I don’t know how many times I have been sat next to someone with bad body odour or halitosis. Don’t be that person!

I always wear loose jeans, smart sneakers, a t-shirt and a jacket. Smart enough so you don’t look out of place if you get upgraded, but not so smart that I’m uncomfortable.

Once on the plane, I always ask the attendant to hang my jacket – which I carry mostly so I have something to wear in the evenings if I need it.

9) Choose your laptop bag contents carefully

You may have to put this under the seat in front of you, depending on the flight, so I pack a small laptop bag with the bare minimum. Here’s what’s in it:

  • Laptop with travel charger and adapter for my destination
  • iPad – great for browsing in the hotel room
  • USB phone charger for iPad and iPhone
  • Adapters for network and VGA display for presentations
  • Camera
  • Noise-cancelling earphones to cut out the screaming kids
  • Washbag
  • Pen (for immigration and customs forms)

10) Learn how to get through security

This is so easy and people make it so hard. Here’s the trick:

  • Put the contents of your pockets in your jacket pocket, take your belt off and put it in your bag and take your shoes off (if required).
  • Get 3 trays.
  • In the first put your shoes, jacket, empty laptop bag and wash bag.
  • In the second, put your laptop and iPad if you have one. And watch this tray because items can  be stolen.
  • In the third, put your carry-on.

Then, when it all comes out, you put your shoes and jacket on, put your wash bag in your laptop bag, then your devices come out to put in it and off you go. Put your belt on later.

Final notes

I hope this helps you – I know it took me some while to learn my formula. What are your travel tips?

How British Airways broke this camel’s back

I’m not sure why but the straw has broken the camel’s back. I am currently crammed into a centre economy seat. To the left is a passenger with no concept of personal space and a serious case of halitosis. To my right is another passenger who has ordered the fish menu and has opened it up for me to enjoy the smell.

In front is someone I know that works for BA, who has been given an upgrade to business class. The plane is packed and somehow I feel jilted that BA look after their own employees rather than rewarding their frequent flyers.

I fly a lot with British Airways. Somewhere in the region of 250k miles a year. Mostly economy with a mix of premium economy, business and the occasional first class ticket, depending on who is paying.

By contrast I fly much less with US Airways, though enough to be a frequent flyer. And they treat me curiously well. For instance on a trip to Costa Rica some months back, both myself and my partner got complimentary first class tickets both ways – including a 6’6″ flat bed. In fact I’ve had some sort of upgrade on over half of the US Airways flights i have flown this year.

Because I fly a lot, I get some problems. This is more or less expected and these problems in the last year have included:

  • Destroyed luggage
  • Theft from my luggage
  • Items left in planes never returned to me
  • Crashed planes causing serious delays
  • Being downgraded
  • Flights booked on the wrong dates by agents who refused to change them

What shocks me, and continues to shock me is threefold:

First, I know that BA have a policy of trying to retain their top customers. I’ve been told on multiple occasions that I am such a customer. However the behaviour that they display is in complete conflict with this.

Second, much of the time there are spare seats in a cabin ahead. What is the opportunity risk of upgrading your loyal customers to reward them for their loyalty? I buy the best cabin I can afford and by not upgrading me, BA will not make me contemplate paying more.

Lastly, when there is a problem, there is no worse resolver group than BA Customer Relations. I have contacted them multiple times, filled in surveys and complaints. And never, have they ever offered me compensation, good will, or anything else. They just ignore it.

By contrast I have had equivalent problems with US Airways and Qantas, and both airlines have been helpful and offered me something for my inconvenience.

So I have resolved to do something today. I am going to post this blog and then fill out one last customer survey. BA, you have one last opportunity to do something about it and I am expecting a big gesture. Otherwise, you have lost me, and everyone I have influence over, as a customer for life.

There it is, I have thrown down the gauntlet. On the 1st June, I will post an update, either way. We shall see if BA is capable of engaging its customers.

How traveling by rail has become a disgrace to our nation

I’m sat here in the misery of a First Great Western train carriage. We’re packed into a 35 year old train and I’ve got the armpit from a sweaty teenager in my face. It’s delayed, and everyone is clearly miserable. The cost for this misery: £51 for a one way trip, or £0.80 a mile.

When I first left university, I lived outside of London with my parents; I commuted into London every day and paid £9.80 for the pleasure. That’s approximately £0.17 per mile. It falls in line with what you’d expect: cheap, affordable rail travel. We’ve had a bit of inflation since then, and if you take that into account, you’d expect that journey to cost £13.50 or thereabouts today.

Well if you go on and try to buy a ticket, it will be £45. Pardon, you say? Yes, that’s 333% inflation. But that’s not the full picture of their profiteering. Passenger numbers have soared, 37% in that same period, if you believe this ATOC report. That means that for a given train, they are earning 457% more than they did 10 years ago – in real terms.

Ah, you might say, but they have been investing in the future, building out new shiny trains, wireless access and other amenities. I’m afraid the evidence suggests otherwise. First Great Western are still using the fleet of trains they inherited from British Rail in 1993, and the trains were built some time between 1977 and 1982. Most domestic flights now have wireless internet, but First Great Western operate a Bring Your Own Wireless policy, and stick you in a big faraday cage so you can’t get signal.

How does this make any sense?

Essentially it is an unregulated and anti-competitive market, which is all bad. The monopolised environment simply means that there is no incentive to improve. No incentive to provide a better customer service. No reason not to continue to push prices up.

And the stations?

I think that the stations are more offensive than anything else. I don’t know how many times I have been stood on a cold platform. You see, they used to have waiting rooms, but they realised that this was valuable real estate, so they sold them to minicab companies and rip-off coffee joints.

I was just stood for 20 minutes on a freezing platform with this exact problem. A WH Smith newsagent stands proudly where the waiting room used to be. But it’s OK – I can go and buy a packet of chips there for £0.90, 120% more than a supermarket. Who says they aren’t looking after their passengers?

My local station, Hampton, just retired the station worker that has been there since history began. He wasn’t a spring chicken, but he knew every cheap fare out there. To be fair, one of his replacements is pretty switched on, but the other can barely string a sentence together. It took me nearly 5 minutes to get my ticket today, with a growing line of passengers behind me.

Which brings me neatly to Revenue Protection

My favourite station is Kew Bridge. The ticket office burnt down some years back and for several years it was not actually possible to buy a ticket at any of the stations I went through from home to work. I’d be stopped, periodically, by revenue protection officers (it’s extortion, really). How, I would explain, would you like me to buy a ticket, when you can’t be bothered to have a ticket office at either station in my journey?

Andrew Gilligan wrote a good article on this a few years back. One operator made £32 million out of revenue protection, and financially incentivises its staff based on the amount of revenue they collect from unsuspecting passengers. I have one friend who was actually protected by police at Waterloo by one abusive revenue officer who would not let her buy a ticket, having travelled from the aforementioned Kew Bridge.

What can be done about it?

I really don’t know. Rail operators simply don’t care about customer service. They know that because they operate in a monopoly and most passengers don’t have a choice, they can afford to treat their customers like shit and they will keep buying. And passenger numbers keep rising as roads become more congested, so they keep putting their prices up.

For example, my regular ticket price just went up 6.5% last week, despite UK inflation being around 4%. And more to the point, salaries for most people aren’t increasing so the average person is spending more of their income, in real terms.

Perhaps we can lobby our MPs and our government. But I’m pretty certain they couldn’t care less. My local MP is Zac Goldsmith and I’m pretty certain he doesn’t give a shit. Zac – feel free to prove me wrong by commenting on this blog and tell me what you’re going to do about it.

In the meantime I will be thankful that I mostly travel for work purposes and my employer pays my expenses. Many others are not so fortunate.

Why the services industry is in turmoil, and British Airways are screwed

I was sat on the sofa this morning, trying to think of a truly amazing customer experience that I have had in 2011. And if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I’ve had one. I’ve lots of OK experiences. A few good ones. And plenty of terrible ones. Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that me, the customer, should be the focus during an interaction, because I so very rarely feel that way.

And it was so that I ended up today at The Cheese And Wine Company in Hampton. It sits on the site that has housed no less than four cafés in four years. Organic this, children’s that. Each was a failed business because they had no idea what their customers wanted – usually bad home-cooked cakes and muddy coffee. Really?

Steve, on the other hand, has created a simple and oddly unique value proposition. He selles cheese, wine, and associated paraphernalia. In the store, online, you can sit and eat it or take it home. He does tastings and parties and events and has engaged his audience very nicely. And what’s more, he’s not competing with the supermarkets because he sells stuff you can’t buy there. Stuff like Epoisses soft cheese and Binfield Brut sparkling wine, that comes from a few miles from where I was born in Berkshire.

It’s a simple value proposition and his customers love it. He’s sold out on every event and I had to settle for a rather nice stilton today, because he’d sold every other cheese in the shop. Trust me, he has a truckload coming tomorrow, on the next working day of the year.

The shop next door to him shut down a few months back. As far as I can tell, Harry and Paul’s I Saw You Coming took this store to run a parody. As they say, “It’s basically a bunch of crap that I’ve tastefully displayed. And a bunch of candles”. And now it’s been replaced by a store called OhSo. Which as far as I can tell sells the same rubbish that the old store (which went bust) sold. It’s sad, but they won’t be open in Christmas 2012.

And this neatly brings me to British Airways. The airline industry is in trouble. Their consumers have less disposable income than ever before. Fuel prices and taxes are rising year-on-year. A bunch of low-cost airlines have cropped up, cutting margins further and increasing competition. And consumers are better informed than ever before, with better price comparison sites.

They have two potential differentiators to choose from: either price, or quality of service. With airlines like the US domestics (US Airways, Delta etc.) and European budget airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair, you know what you are getting. Very little, for the lowest price possible. A return trip from London to Madrid is £37 by Easyjet in January, and £114 with BA.

So BA try to compete on perceived quality of service. But they have a serious problem here too, because their staff hate them. They are used to being given a platinum pay package for the last 30 years, and the market can no longer support it for the reasons explained before. What’s more, the delays to Boeing’s Dreamliner planes mean that BA are operating a tired fleet of ageing planes.

And in reducing their salaries and making the shifts and perks more similar to other competing airlines, BA have made their staff hate their jobs – and they take it out on the customers in many cases. In 2011 I have experienced the following:

  1. Being charged for a ticket change after I was told I could have it for free because I was changing flights at their convenience.
  2. Being charged for a ticket change after an administrative fault
  3. A nice coat I left on a plane never made it to lost property – in a small airport
  4. My bags vandalised and my property stolen on a flight from London to Madrid
  5. Nearly missing a flight because of computer security check problems
  6. Having my complaint letter opened by the crew that I complained about – they then confronted me
  7. Flights with no water, broken heating systems, broken seats or rest rooms

And no one gives a crap. Their customer complaints department certainly don’t and from what I hear, the management team isn’t any different. When you talk to staff at the airport on a flight, they are invariably unhappy and disaffected.

And the share price shows it. They are down from 243p at the beginning of this year to 150p at the time of writing. To be fair, this is more or less in common with the rest of the industry – but what is not in common is they are barely breaking even. Lufthansa, for example, has an operating margin of 4% compared to the International Airlines Group (which owns BA and Iberia), which made 0.7% last year. I’ve not looked into it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some creative accounting going on there.

Now last week, FedEx got in trouble on YouTube, when a disaffected customer uploaded a video titled “FedEx Guy Throwing My Computer Monitor”:

Now this video already has nearly 7,000,000 views and 22,000 comments. Fedex Senior Vice President Matthew Thornton III turned this into a fantastic opportunity and apologised to the customer, as a YouTube response, here:

And if BA want to survive, I believe they need to apply some customer-centricity. I’ve been told by some senior people in BA that they have a program in place to try to ensure retention of frequent flyers and offer them a good quality of service.

Now, I get a fantastic quality of service from Carl and his team at BA in Philadelphia International Airport and this is probably the main reason why I fly BA (along with the rewards points, and the convenience of London Heathrow Terminal 5). But I think this is a pocket of excellence caused by a good manager and it is not representative of my overall experience.

The risk to BA seems so obvious – there will be some major casualties of the recession. I’m already tempted to switch to US Airways, who have a very generous upgrade system (they always fill business class, upgrading passengers by order of seniority). The fact that US Airways don’t give you access to their lounge, even if you are a frequent flyer, is the reason I’ve not. It costs $375 a year.

During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”. The janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon, Mr. President.”

It sounds corny, but having a company with a single vision may have something to be said for it. I work with a lot of large global organisations and it is often a problem that IT functions do not serve the wider needs of the business. One company that this is not true in is Howdens Joinery (previously the wholesale arm of MFI), which is a very interesting organisation.

For a start, everyone in the organisation is remunerated based on the same criteria. This shared sense of purpose is very visible in the CIO, David Hallett. We were talking about depot outages and he explained that they don’t operate on the basis of an acceptable failure rate: a depot which is not operating, is margin lost, and that is unacceptable.

What’s more interesting is that it appears that because everyone has a shared and common goal, they work as a team. The results are clear. Revenue in 2009 was 769m with 6.5% profit after tax. This was up to 808m and 8.2% profit in 2010. 2011 Interim results are available here but they aren’t very relevant because Howdens does much of their business in the run-up to Christmas. What is interesting is the first few pages which explains their business model.

If you do so, you will understand that Howdens is 100% customer-centric. They know who their customer is (the small builder) and know exactly what is important to them – and they deliver it, surrounded by a viable commercial model. Their massive market share is testimony to getting that right.

For my money, there will be airlines that figure out that being customer-centric first and foremost builds long-term sustainable success. And there will be those that will roll over and die. And from where I’m sitting, British Airways may be a Very British Institution, but I’m not convinced it can survive this recession.