Chiswick travel agent “incredibly frustrated” with British Airways

Image above: library photograph of a beach

Usually quiet month of August was “busiest ever” after passenger cap and cancellations announced

A travel agents in Chiswick had the “busiest August ever” after Heathrow Airport introduced a cap on the amount of departing passengers over the summer.

In July, Heathrow announced they would be capping departing passengers at 100,000 a day. They have since extended the cap by another six weeks until the end of October and Airlines have been asked airlines to sell fewer flights.

In response, British Airways said 10,000 flights to and from Heathrow would be cut until the end of March 2023. BA said that more than 600 return flights would be cancelled between late August and 29 October, while the winter schedule, which runs until the end of March, would be cut by 8%.

While BA are not the only airline that have made cancellations, Shane Mallon, the manager of Capricorn Travel on Turnham Green Terrace, said it was primarily BA which has had an impact. Being in west London, the vast majority of Capricorn Travel’s business is from people who are travelling out of Heathrow, as opposed to Gatwick, Luton and Standstead.

Shane described the situation as “incredibly frustrating” and said this August, usually one of the quieter months for travel agents as clients are already booked and on holiday, has been one of the busiest yet. Despite this, the business has seen fewer corporate and business bookings. There are fears, also, that the cost of living crisis and skyrocketing holiday prices will dissuade leisure customers from travelling in the near future.

Image above: a British Airways plane

Getting in touch with BA is “virtually impossible” 

Attempting to contact BA rebook or reschedule flights, whether directly as a customer or as a travel agent, is “virtually impossible” due to overwhelmed phone lines and their understaffed reservation team, Shane told The Chiswick Calendar.

“It’s probably had a bigger impact, for us, on our business clients rather than our leisure clients”, Shane said, “Because a lot of our business clients either have really reduced their travel during the summer because there were so many cancellations taking place or because boarding rules for people who only fly direct meant they had to travel hand luggage only.”

In June, Heathrow urged passengers to travel hand luggage only to avoid disruption to their journeys and to avoid losing their luggage. Globally, airports are struggling with an unprecedented missing luggage crisis related to short-staffing.

Shane continued:

“It is pretty much impossible to get to speak to British Airways. So obviously there’s a public telephone number which is a free phone number for people to call, and it’s very hard to get through if you do. We as travel agents have to dial a different number that BA have specifically for travel agents, BA charges a pound a minute and it’s virtually impossible to get through.

“…Like all airlines, they’ve cut the number of human beings down, these algorithms, when it works and when things are smooth its fine but once there’s bumps in the road or capacity issues… They just do not have enough people on their reservations line whether that’s for the public or for us as agents and that makes it incredibly frustrating for people.”

Image above: children on holiday; library image

Most holidaymakers manage to be rescheduled 

The majority of holidaymakers with Capricorn book well in advance or very last minute. Those booking last minute usually are aware of cancellations already, and it is unlikely further cancellations will be announced before they fly. It’s those who booked well in advance who had primarily been affected.

Shane said most of Capricorn’s clients had been lucky enough to reschedule their flights, despite having to deal with an unresponsive BA. Of the people who have had an airline cancel and offer to reschedule, over summer they managed to get everybody bar one group of people away. That group instead got a full refund and re-booked for next Easter.

“That was a benefit for them really for going through a travel agent, whereas an airline would just try and push them on another BA flight for example. So if, for arguments sake, Air France or Lufthansa were flying to that destination we’d say ‘well, hold on British Airways have done this, if you don’t accept that you’ll get a full refund on that and we can re-book you on Air France’. Maybe it’s a little bit more expensive, but at least you know you’re travelling – we can give people alternative offers.”

One recent client was unable to change his flight last minute in time for his and his wife’s holiday to Corfu, due to BA’s busy phone lines. Shane said:

“We must have rung 80-90 times this week and we haven’t been successful at getting through yet. We’ll get through and it will just tell us it’s very busy, please try later. Just to give you an example, we had a client due to travel on Sunday [4 September] on a flight out to Corfu, his wife took ill and wasn’t able to travel. We’re not open on Sunday, so he tried to go through BA, couldn’t get through then went all the way to Heathrow and nobody could help him there.

“Then his missed his flight which is technically classed as a no-show, which then becomes non-refundable and non-changeable. He had to buy a completely separate ticket and pay, again, for his flights. We’ve been trying to get through to BA since Monday on his behalf to see if they’d give authority to process a refund for his ticket… it’s impossible to get through to them.”

Image above: a plane flies over Heathrow

“The days of cheap travel are probably gone”

Shane said the ongoing crisis in the travel industry is two fold: a woeful lack of responsiveness from airlines in dealing with rescheduling and skyrocketing prices making flights and holidays much more expensive than they were pre-Covid.

“What people are seeing now is that they’re paying a lot more for travel than they were before, particularly on intercontinental travel. If you’re travelling outside of Europe, it’s very, very expensive. Very expensive. Prices have gone up considerably. The demand is still there, because a lot of people are travelling for the first time in three years, seeing family friends or whatever. If that demand remains strong next year we’ll have to wait and see. Will prices reduce? I don’t know.”

Travel is a discretionary spend and with the cost of living crisis becoming more and more relevant every day, it is likely to have an affect on people’s spending going forward.

“People will always book a holiday”, Shane said, “but they also might maybe book in winter for a city break, or catch some winter sun. Our concern is that will we see people decide ‘Oh, we can’t afford that this year’. We’re in Chiswick, which a relatively affluent area, but everyone’s been affected by that at the moment. When people are getting quotes telling them how expensive it will be, especially to travel over Christmas and new year, people might just wait until next summer.”

“We’ve had a very busy four to five months, but our industry was on stop for nearly two years with next to no sales. It’s been a good few months but doesn’t make up anything for what we lost out on and we’re still, wouldn’t say trepidatious, but the coming winter and in terms of what demand will be like particularly on the leisure side [is concerning].”

Image above: British Airways Premium Cabin seat

What is driving more expensive travel?

As prices increase, the question many holidaymakers are asking is: why?

The scarcity of flights is one reason, supply is mismatched with demand. Another is a drop in corporate clients, who no longer need to travel across the world for meetings, which they have discovered they can carry out over Zoom. Losing these clients, Shane said, is when airlines like BA see a significant drop in their revenue.

“With British Airways, if you walk onto the plane and turn left, that’s where they make all their money – in the premium cabins. That’s where airlines earn their revenues. So if economy’s full and premium is empty, they’re not making the revenue and it’s not profitable.

“If it’s half full, and premium is stacked out they’re making their money, and at the moment they’re struggling to get the corporates back into their premium cabins.”

Staff at Capricorn are hopeful business travel will increase as flight schedules stabilise and travellers are able to get from A to B smoothly. But for the moment leisure travellers in economy could be picking up the tab for an empty business cabin.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: BA cuts 10,000 flights to and from Heathrow

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