When it was announced Virgin Trains East Coast were getting rid of the excellent East Coast Rewards and replacing with Nectar it seemed pretty obvious that all my London - Newcastle travel was going to switch to British Airways. They fly from London Heathrow which wasn't as convenient as London City Airport (or Kings Cross) but the only other flying option is from Stansted which would mean spending around an hour on the Greater Anglia operated Stansted Express, to me this does not seem like a viable option.
I also had a BA Gold Card which I earned when working overseas a lot in 2013-14, it has since dropped to silver but even silver gives you lounge access, fast track security, check-in and boarding. It also supposedly gives you free seat selection and extra baggage allowance. All these benefits meant I'm able to reduce the pressure of going to the airport, all was set for me to move my custom to British Airways for this route and I actually quite like flying.
Back at the beginning of the year BA announced they were cutting earnings in their loyalty scheme which generated a lot of outrage online, even this didn't bother me too much as it was still significantly more generous than Nectar was and the fares I generally bought weren't affected by the cuts too badly.
So why do I feel so annoyed about British Airways?
Race to the bottom
While Ryanair has already won the race to the bottom and easyJet has realised that they need to take a different approach to attract business passengers, BA still thinks the race to the bottom is still in progress. The recent refurbishment of their shorthaul Airbus aircraft was for the sole purpose of squeezing in a few extra rows. On some aircraft there's even rows without air vents above your head. On the smallest plane, the A319 they've even removed one of the toilets to fit in a few extra seats and these ones don't even have a window!
But even with the reduced leg room I still thought the seats were comfortable enough, they had also introduced hand baggage only fares which I didn't agree with (as I think a full service airline should be all inclusive you should not have to think which extras you want at the time of booking) but as I always travelled hand baggage only on domestic flights it didn't really affect me.
It was a more recent change that wound me up. As a silver I'm supposed to be able to select a seat for free at time of booking, but traditionally everyone was able to select a seat for free when online check-in opens (24 hours before departure). Now BA have added the artificial restriction that if you book a hand baggage only fare (not just the cheapest fare, a hand baggage only fully flexible fare is £360 London - Newcastle) you need to pay to choose your own seat even at check in. Those who book a fare that includes luggage get to select their seat for free at check-in even if it's one of the lowest luggage inclusive fares.
When Virgin Trains East Coast allows anyone to select seats for free the thought of sitting in a nice relaxed 1st class seat with some food and a beer (or tea at breakfast time) does sound more appealing than the potential of being allocated a middle seat near the back of the plane. The main reason this annoyed me was seat selection is one of the benefits that I value and taking it away just is a massive slap in the face to loyalty. One of the benefits that helped make flying more enjoyable had been taken away.
British Airways by acting like a low cost carrier and with low cost carriers like easyJet making more of an effort means British Airways have removed the incentive for travelling with them. The Priority Pass lounges I'm able to access as part of my American Express Platinum benefits always used to be quite poor, but ones I've tried recenltly are now a much better standard so you can no longer say BA has the better lounges either (particularly for silver card holders). easyJet now allows you to add on all the extras that you used to get as standard on BA. You can now select your seat, add extra baggage, get fast track and the total cost is often significantly lower than what BA charge (but not always, so check before booking), add in a Priority Pass for lounge access and you may just find flying easyJet a cheaper experience than BA but not that much lower in quality. BA has lost its competitive edge, the rewards scheme is the only thing that sets BA apart from their shorthaul competition.
I still enjoy travelling BA longhaul but I've been told by many that the competition wipes the floor with them there too! I've only had one longhaul trip this year and enjoyed it, I do like the BA crews but the decisions of management is meaning the competition gets further ahead.
Conformance aka 'Ready to Fly'
British Airways also has this system in Terminal 5 that they like to call 'Ready to Fly' but is known by most staff as conformance. I've known about this rule since T5 opened but only recently have I been stung by it.
The rule is: if you don't arrive at the boarding pass scan by the security checkpoint by 35 minutes before your flight you will no longer be allowed to proceed, you need to go back to the information desk and rebook on another flight.
Sounds a good idea in theory? The idea is that you don't want people arriving late for their flight, the problem is the rule is so rigid. If you're unaware of the layout of Terminal 5 it consists of three separate buildings, the main one is known as A and the two satellite terminals B and C. Someone departing from a domestic flight that's departing from A located close to security could easily make their flight in that time, someone departing from the B or C satellites have very little chance of making it but despite that they're allowed to give it a go.
So for me, a catalogue of small delays meant I reached the airport later than I expected. I reached the security checkpoint 33 minutes before departure, as I was 2 minutes late the computer says no and won't let me through to security. The guy at the gate shrugs his shoulders and points me to the info desk, who then points me towards the ticket desk. Please note at this point the flight had not even started boarding. Although the person at the ticket desk agreed I could comfortably make my flight I was told there was no way they could override their system, so as she was tapping away on her computer working out how much it would cost me to go on the next flight I was keeping an eye on the status of the flight I was supposed to be on, it still hadn't started boarding.
I was told that in order to get on the next flight I needed to pay the fare difference, plus a £60 change fee plus a £40 airport admin fee that she said she'd waive. The fare difference was over £200 (I had a very cheap fare and the next flight was very busy) so combined with the change fee I was paying almost £300 for being a couple of minutes late. What was worse, however, was the next flight was over three hours later and I chose the earlier flight for a reason.
So even though it took me about 15 minutes to get my ticket reissued and drain my bank balance I still managed to get through security in time to be at the gate for the original flight. It was still boarding, I could get on it if only they hadn't invalidated my ticket and moved me to the next flight. Therefore even though I could make my flight I was stuck in the airport for another three hours, not even able to enjoy the lounge alcohol as I was driving at the other end.
But wait, there's more, delays for the next flight started to show, it ended up being around 90 minutes late. In the end I ended up in Newcastle almost 5 hours later than I originally intended.
If the delays in me getting to the airport caused me to genuinely miss my flight I would have understood, but the fact I could have clearly made it without causing delays for anyone and then was stung £300 for the privilege of being moved to a delayed flight annoyed me. A customer focused organisation should be able to exercise discretion, the fact the staff knew I could comfortably make the flight but couldn't do anything speaks volumes for BA.
This conformance procedure is not used in many airports, most places will let you through security with a valid boarding pass and so if you have no bags to check in as long as you make it to the gate you will get on the plane.
If you miss your flight with easyJet they'll put you on the next flight with a fixed 'rescue' fee of £65 and I've heard of people even having that waived. You can be up to 2 hours late to qualify for this. But as easyJet doesn't operate a conformance policy at security you can get on your fight as long as you make your gate.
So I think all things considered despite BA having a better loyalty scheme their policies are so customer unfriendly I can no longer feel any loyalty towards them.
Apart from this, a number of other flights I made on this route also had delays over 90 minutes. I've had more severe delays on BA than I've had with the train.