By the time we weary passengers from British Airways flight 487 at Heathrow reached UK border control, all the self-service passport kiosks had been switched off. Apparently these “queue-busting” machines are subject to a 10.30pm-5.30am curfew. During the night, passengers are obliged to wait in line for the two officials checking EU passports.
Perhaps the thinking is that hardly anyone arrives at Heathrow so late. All the passengers on the BA plane from Barcelona should have comfortably been through passport control before the bewitching hour; it was due to arrive at Terminal 3 at 9.50pm.
But a couple of things went wrong. Part of the tardiness was down to what, from my experience, appears to be a systemic problem involving BA’s ground handling at Terminal 3: the arrival of a plane at a remote stand seems to take everyone by surprise, with neither steps nor buses in position for the increasingly fed-up passengers.
But the fact that the flight left Barcelona 20 minutes late didn’t help. And that demonstrated the unlimited capacity for aviation to deliver improbable causes of delays.
The inbound plane had touched down 20 minutes early, making the “turn” straightforward. With 10 minutes to go before departure, all the passengers were on board. What could possibly go wrong?
Topically, a variant on overbooking. Not of the “easyJet orders holiday couple/Ronnie Wood’s ex-wife off plane and then fails to book them on another flight” variety, though. This was a kerfuffle over a passenger who wasn’t there.
British Airways had sold every seat on board, but had not overbooked the flight. As is common, airline staff on standby can use a spare jump seat in the cabin if the plane is full.
But that’s not ideal, and if there is a proper seat empty it should be used instead.
There was one no-show, and one person in a jump seat, so that seems a simple equation. The trouble was, the wife of the person had not turned up to claim their seat was on board. Why her husband wasn’t able to travel with her was unclear. Since his seat was paid for, though, she insisted she wasn’t prepared to have anyone sitting next to her.
As time ticked away, the costs to British Airways increased: hundreds of pounds in extra fees, and about 170 fed-up passengers.
To her credit, the captain emerged from the flight deck and patiently explained to the lady that since her husband was AWOL the airline could assign his seat to anyone it chose. But the passenger was having none of it: from what I could make out, her line was: “We’ve paid for that seat and what we do with it is our business.” I volunteered to offload so everyone else could get home (and, I hoped, get a night in a good hotel, a flight in the morning and a small cash incentive for my trouble), but the offer was politely declined. The staff traveller perched on the jump seat, and we set off 20 minutes late.
Airlines have work to do to educate passengers about the nature of the contract that a flight ticket constitutes. As promises go, it’s fairly flimsy. Certainly no one was especially surprised not to be at Heathrow at the appointed hour. If you choose not to show up for a flight, then the airline has every right to reassign your seat. And if the carrier wants to sell more tickets than there are seats (which, on this occasion, BA had not), it is able to do so – subject to observing some rules which, thankfully, are fairly stringent.
Am I the only person in Britain who still thinks flight overbooking is a good idea? When carried out properly, it benefits the airline, desperate passengers, the environment and cheapskates like me on the lookout for a good “bump offer”. I look forward to writing about overbooking success stories – but it would really help if the airlines would behave as they should when their predictions on no-shows go awry.