Tuesday, 6 August 2019

An open letter to Aer Lingus on the occasion of their quite dreadful service.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I was unfortunate enough to be on your delayed flight EI937 from Heathrow to Belfast City on 19/7/19, so am writing to complain about the delay itself, the way you made the delay worse, and the way you treated your passengers. I fly twice a week and have very low expectations of airlines, generally putting up with the whole awful experience that you all offer without complaining. That Aer Lingus have managed to do so much so badly in just one flight that I am prompted to write this letter is some sort of perverse achievement.

Firstly, as you are aware, since arrival at Belfast City was over six hours late, I am entitled to compensation under EU regulation 261. Please arrange that promptly.

Your flight was scheduled to leave at 19:20. When the boards in the airport showed that it was delayed till (if I recall correctly) 22:40, I went to find some Aer Lingus staff to ask for vouchers for food and drink. Since you are obliged to provide your passengers with food and drink during this delay, of course I should not have to go searching for them: you should be making an announcement over the PA and seeking out your passengers to provide them with what you are legally obliged to. But no.

Your staff directed me to the Aer Lingus customer service desk. There were only five people in front of me in the queue, yet I reached the front some forty-five minutes later. You had just one member of staff on this desk, dealing with all sorts of different queries. Handing out food vouchers takes seconds. I was "lucky" enough to be near the front of the queue; by the time I reached the front, there were dozens of people in it: unless it sped up considerably, those at the back were going to be waiting there more than two hours.

After I got my food vouchers, I asked your employee which airport my flight would now be landing at, since, as you know, Belfast City has a curfew at 21:30. She told me that it was still scheduled to land at Belfast City. I pointed out that the flight was now planned to take off from Heathrow more than an hour after Belfast City had shut. She replied that it was still scheduled to land at Belfast City and that it was too early to know whether it might be redirected, and that such information would not be known until after take-off. I strongly object to being treated as stupid enough to believe that your flights ever take off with no known destination airport — i.e. with no flight plan. Presumably, whether you have enough fuel is mere guesswork and hope. Does the Civil Aviation Authority know? However, this was not the only ridiculous lie your employee told me.

In light of the unacceptably slow progress of the long queue, and in the hope of improving matters for the benighted souls further back than me, I asked your employee whether she might consider calling any colleagues to help. She informed me that she was the only member of Aer Lingus staff available. This was a brazen lie. I responded that there were lots of other Aer Lingus staff in the airport: two had directed me to this desk, for instance; there were others at gates; others wandering around chatting; some I could see from where I was standing. She continued to insist that she was the only member of staff and absolutely refused to consider getting someone else to help your passengers. I pointed out that people in the queue were going to be waiting two hours or more and asked her whether she thought that was a reasonable way to treat people who are paying for this. She replied "Do you think I like doing this?" Perhaps you could explain to your staff that there is a substantive difference between a customer who has paid Aer Lingus for a service and an employee who is being paid by Aer Lingus to provide a service, and that those two groups are not all in the same boat, equally inconvenienced by your delays. I could not care less whether your staff are enjoying making your passengers' lives difficult, and do not expect them to tell me. And if they are so poorly trained as to tell me, I will not sympathise.

I should not but apparently do need to explain to you that the purpose of providing food and drink to your passengers is to make a bad experience — a severely delayed flight — somewhat less bad. Forcing your passengers to stand in a queue for hours in order to earn the privilege of asking for vouchers makes the bad experience worse. That is the opposite of compensation.

My vouchers, incidentally, had "We regret the inconvenience you have been caused and would like you to enjoy Breakfast with our compliments" printed on them. That is the right sentiment and the right attitude. Perhaps whoever wrote the blurb for your compensation vouchers could explain their thinking to your customer service staff.

Still inexplicably wanting to know where I was actually going, I phoned your call centre to ask. The conversation got off to a bad start when your employee initially insisted that she could not give me any information without the booking reference which is not printed on your boarding passes. I had to explain to her that the booking reference was immaterial to my question as every passenger on your plane would (one can only hope) arrive at the same airport, and of course because I didn't even need to be a passenger to request this information — I could be a friend or family member trying to arrange to pick a passenger up after they landed. Destination airports are supposed to be publicly available information. Quite why your staff would choose to have an argument over their obstructive refusal to disclose that information is beyond me.

Anyway, your call centre employee eventually relented, and, like your airport employee, also insisted that the flight would land at Belfast City — although, unlike your airport staff, she at least treated me with enough respect to believe me about Belfast City's curfew and go and double-check. That she double-checked and still gave me the same information tells me that your computer systems were at this point still showing a destination airport that you knew to be impossible. I would appreciate an explanation of why whoever was responsible for updating your flight plan (and surely this person exists) chose not to record that information on your systems so that even your own staff couldn't access it.

I should not but apparently do need to inform you that it is absurdly unprofessional for an airline not to be able to tell its passengers — and, indeed, to give every impression of not even knowing — where their flight is going.

I would love this complaint to end here, but somehow your service contrived to get worse.

Despite your refusal to tell me where your plane was going, I was assuming it would be diverted from Belfast City to Belfast International, as is standard practice. After the flight was eventually belatedly boarded, your pilot announced that it was going to Dublin. This information had of course not been revealed until after all your passengers were in their seats, as it is easier for you to control passengers and more difficult for them to cause you difficulty once they're strapped in. When Aer Lingus are inconveniencing your customers through your own actions, you need to learn that the problem is not that a customer might annoy you by complaining, but that you have given them something to complain about in the first place. The destination of Dublin should have been announced at the gate, if for no other reason than basic politeness. But also, of course, some passengers' friends or relatives were to pick them up at the airport, and many of those people could have driven to Dublin — if you had informed your passengers of the destination when they still had time to contact their friends, rather than after your command to everyone to disable their phones. And there is another reason you should have announced the destination at the gate, which I shall come to.

Your pilot's explanation for diverting to Dublin was that a few other flights had been diverted to Belfast International that evening and that this would, for some reason, cause such severe delays that going via Dublin would be quicker. Belfast International is a half-hour drive from Belfast City; Dublin at least a two-hour drive. Your pilot therefore expected us to believe that, were we to land at Belfast International, it would take more than an hour and a half to get us off the plane, merely because some other flights had landed there that evening. I admit it is possible that he left out some vital detail that could cause this otherwise farcical attempt at an explanation to make some sort of sense. I would very much like to hear that detail.

Your pilot also announced, as is usual but nevertheless wrong in such circumstances, that we should be incredibly grateful to your amazing flight crew for working late to get us to our destination. I see no reason why I should particularly care whether your staff are working late. I know that Aer Lingus are not the only airline guilty of this insulting nonsense, but insulting nonsense it is. To reiterate: your customers are paying for this and are having their leisure time destroyed by you; your staff are being paid while at work. These are not remotely comparable circumstances. Indeed, contrary to the inflated opinion of themselves flight crew like to maintain, it is they who should be congratulating your hard-done-by passengers for putting up with such inconvenience without shouting at them, which would be an entirely reasonable reaction to their treatment. If I were in a restaurant and my food were two hours late, I would not expect to be asked to give the staff a round of applause for working late to bring me my food — and of course no restaurant would be stupid enough to ask me to. Since I was travelling for work, I was in fact working extremely late myself thanks to your delay. Your staff did not congratulate me on my heroism.

These two facts — that your staff stressed to us how late they were working and that no sensible explanation was offered for the diversion to Dublin — lead me to conclude that the reason for flying to Dublin rather than Belfast International was so that your crew could get home to bed, at the expense of further inconveniencing your passengers. Since that is the most reasonable conclusion from the information you provided, as far as I'm concerned, the onus is on you to dissuade me of that.

After landing at Dublin, I was then shocked to pass through Immigration. As luck would have it, I had my passport with me, but I am certainly not obliged to carry it when travelling from one part of my home country to another. There were people on that flight from outside the EU. I shall leave it to them to complain to you on their own behalf, but suffice to say that unnecessarily diverting a domestic flight to a foreign country is an incredibly irresponsible thing to do. I understand there may be occasions where it is unavoidable: this was not one. Your staff had every opportunity to inform your passengers before they were on the plane and it was too late, but chose not to. I know people who are allowed into the UK but not Ireland. For all your staff knew, I was one such myself — no-one thought to ask. Had your staff announced the destination of a foreign country at the gate, such passengers would have had the opportunity to make their situation known, and you could have made appropriate arrangements, such as putting them up in a hotel before flying them to Belfast the next day. That you did not was unprofessional and grossly irresponsible.

Further progress through Dublin Airport was not exactly well organized. Rather than being directed to the bus, I was told to follow a man who was already a hundred yards away and was walking as fast as he could away from me. I move pretty fast, but I lost him, and had to find the bus by luck.

And, after all this, is it really too much to ask that you drive me the two hours to Belfast City on a bus with air conditioning? This may seem a relatively minor problem compared to the litany of obnoxiousness that led up to it, but your bus ride was twice as long as your flight, and it was hot, sweaty, and thoroughly uncomfortable. Your bus dropped us off at the entrance to Belfast City, leaving me to carry my luggage across the car parks to get to the taxi rank. Every little helps.

I reached Belfast City sometime around 03:00 on 20/7/19. Such a massive delay and deprival of so much sleep obviously had a knock-on effect on the rest of my weekend.

As I said at the start of this letter, you are, as you know, obliged to compensate me for your delay. I ask you to compensate me further for the appalling service I received from your staff, who, at every single stage, contrived to make the whole experience unnecessarily worse, particularly your employee at Heathrow, who was obnoxious and who lied twice to my face, and especially for the decision to add an extra one and a half hours to the delay (of a one-hour flight) by diverting to Dublin instead of Belfast International for no good reason.

I await your reply with interest.

Yours faithfully,

Joseph Kynaston Reeves