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Chronicles from a Caribbean Cubicle

9/18/2005

Customer Service and Caribbean Airlines

I’m in the midst of a series of short-hop flights from KIN-ANT-POS-BGI-ANU-KIN (see a list of acronyms used at the end of this blog.)

In the past, I’d sworn to myself that I would never fly BWIA again, after some piece of bad treatment on some flight that I now can’t remember. This time around, I couldn’t bear to either face the cost and time of flying through MIA to get to POS from KIN. The connections are long, and the whole day of flying is deadly.

I didn’t want to fly AirJa to BGI, and then make another connection to another airline (LIAT, Caribbean Star or BWIA,) as my experience was that the extra connection to another airline just did not make it worth it. So I resigned myself to giving BWIA another try, and as I checked in I began to remember what I disliked so much.

The first annoyance was BWIA’s ultra-strict carry-on policy, which always results in me having to check my luggage – the same luggage that I carry-on to every other plane I fly in North America. For that size aircraft, they are the only carrier that insists that carry-ons be checked, and the way that they do it consistently seems to disregard the fact that a business traveler and frequent flyer have different needs than the casual vacationer. BWIA seems not to distinguish between the two in any way, and seems unwilling to make any kinds of concessions for its most valuable passengers (who fly the most often and pay the highest fares).

When we got to Antigua, which was just supposed to be a short stop on the way to POS, we were told that a flight attendant had burned her hand badly on the flight to Antigua, and as a result could not perform her duties. Therefore, the flight would have to be discontinued, as they could not find a replacement. Thus began a 4 hour delay.

Of course, people were complaining. How could the absence of a single flight attendant cause that much disruption? Why didn’t they offer some people free tickets and an overnight in Antigua in exchange for giving up their seat on the plane and making the flight legal? Why didn’t they have backup crew – could no-one on the island step in?

I cussed to myself, and reminded myself why I don’t fly BWIA. I quickly made some alternate arrangements so that I would only need to fly to BGI on the way back.

When I turned up at POS for my next leg to BGI a couple of days later, the absence of a line at the check-in counter warned me that something was awry. I was told that they were sorry but the flight was no longer stopping in Barbados, and instead that I was checked into the following morning’s flight to BGI (without my knowledge.)

I was sputtering with the shock of this news at all of 7:30 pm.

The CSR’s did not even begin to apologize, or try to make amends, which made my blood start to boil. They also started to get into what might be called “blame the victim” by asking me if I had confirmed (“Yes”), given a contact number (“you tell me“), made the reservation a long time ago (“No”).

I eventually asked them a pressing question – “Was there another flight going to Barbados tonight?” That yielded a reluctant “Yes, there’s one leaving in a few minutes on LIAT.” I rushed over to LIAT with a transfer in hand (OK, it was at the same counter, just 25 yards away). By the time I really started rushing, I was there.

I ran through immigration and the check-points, and to gate 13 – which had a small number of passengers, and no staff in sight. It was delayed.

Thankfully, they were still keeping to their schedule, and I made it to BGI that night, albeit an hour late.

I contrast this with a horrible delay that I had the prior week travelling with Air Jamaica from Fort Lauderdale. The 8am flight had mechanical difficulties, which were not resolved by parts that were sent up from Jamaica, and we were finally included on a flight that left at 10:30pm that night, which resulted in a travel day of some 20 hours total from bed to bed.

The contrast comes in the way the Air Jamaica staff dealt with the problem. They had several problems themselves, in this case in getting the word out to the customers on the latest developments. But the feeling I had was that the staff cared, and one agent cared enough to sit around for a couple of hours with the passengers in the lounge commiserating and demonstrating a remarkable willingness to be the butt of Air Jamaica jokes.

That was something else, and the laughing and hilarity that ensued helped make the day feel that much shorter.

At BWIA, I was left with this uneasy feeling that the staff just did not care, and were not willing to be responsible for anything. Although both Air Jamaica and BWIA are losing money every day, and are both up for sale by their respective governments, Air Jamaica’s service consistently seems to be at a higher level in some ways that I can’t define very well.

My hypothesis is that Air Jamaica is a major carrier for European and North American tourists to the island, while BWIA carries mostly Trinidadians and other Caribbean islanders. The feel of the service at BWIA is that it is more friendly than professional.

The difference between friendly and professional service, however, is that a friend represents only him or herself, whereas a professional represents a company. Friends are free not to care, but a CSR is paid to care, and is obliged to provide service regardless of their mood, or how they feel about the person on the receiving end. To that end, BWIA’s service is good when things are going well and that friendly feeling prevails. It quickly turns distant and unfeeling, however, when things go badly and this is where the other airlines are generally better.

Interestingly, I’m writing this entry aboard a Caribbean Star flight from BGI to Antigua. That by itself is pretty mundane, but the interesting aspect of this trip is that I am the only passenger on a 32 or so seater.

To be more accurate, I am the only revenue passenger – there are 3 employees of the airline on the flight also. There is one (female) flight attendant working, another one travelling and two pilots travelling. To my disappointment, they have not yet broken out the champagne and fillet mignon… perhaps I am cramping their style? I made a joke that they now had to hide the scotch…

I made the mistake of asking if there was anything else, at the end of an offer of refreshments – I had a choice of 4 kinds of cream filled biscuits, and 4 kinds of juices, in addition to water. Not even soft drinks are carried on these flights apparently… However, the flight attendant assured me that on the longer flights they carry sandwiches. She must think highly of these sandwiches as she suggested that I take a longer flight to find out what that kind of service was like… Hmmm…. That one had the spare pilots and flight attendant laughing.

Acronyms used

ANU –Antigua

GAIA / BGI– Grantley Adams International Airport

POS – Port of Spain

KIN – Kingston

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