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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I have lovely memories of my first British Airways flight – I was 21, I was leaving for London for the first time in my life, and I was afraid this would be the last time I would live in India. The flight crew was very polite, someone actually helped me shove my suitcase into the overhead cabin, someone served me wine, someone woke me up for my meals, and the flight reached Heathrow on time. I would fly the London-Madras route several times over the next couple of years, the best ones of my life – the years I would treasure for the friends, the opportunities, the experiences, and the memories they gave me.
It was to relive those years in my head that I chose to fly British Airways for my trip to the Cannes Film Festival 2012. BIG MISTAKE.
I had checked with three travel agents, and the British High Commission about whether I would need a transit visa. As my stay in Heathrow would be very short, I wasn’t planning on leaving the airport, I had been resident in the United Kingdom for over a year, and had a high enough grade of Schengen Visa not to need additional clearance, I was told I did not need a transit visa.
At 1:30 am on May 14, as I waited for my boarding pass, a smiling employee of British Airways told me she could not let me board the flight. I explained to her that I had already checked about a transit visa, and did not need one. With a plastic smile plastered to her face, she brushed me aside, and began to attend to the next passenger.
“Look here, I don’t think you understand. I have a business visa, and I’m covering the Cannes Film Festival. I’ve already checked with the High Commission, and I don’t need a transit visa.”
“Ma’am, I completely understand, and I’m very sorry, but I need you to step aside. We can’t let you board this flight.”
“I’ll need to speak to the manager.”
“She’ll tell you the same thing, ma’am.”
“I need to speak to someone who has the authority to make a decision.”
“Ma’am, we are simply following procedure. If you’re going to the US, you don’t need a transit visa, but if your final destination is in Europe, you do.”
“I have already checked with three agents. And the High Commission. And I’m eligible for the transit without visa concession.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible, ma’am.”
“Can you please call your manager?”
In walks someone called Gretchen or Gretel, with an even more plastic smile, and an even more brusque manner than the woman at the counter.
The same conversation is repeated.
“Look, I don’t know how many times I must repeat this, but I have already checked with the High Commission.”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid that is not possible, and you’ll have to wait for a transit visa. I can help you postpone your ticket by a few days, at your expense.”
Gee, thanks for clearing that up. Out loud: “Is there anyone from the High Commission I can speak to?”
“Ma’am, it’s 2:00 in the morning.”
“I have a watch. It’s 9:30 pm in England. Give me the number of your desk in London.”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t disturb them.”
“I believe this is an emigration-immigration issue.”
“Ma’am, I cannot let you board the flight.”
“Are you actually telling me you’re not going to let me go on a business trip, despite my having all the documentation right?”
“Ma’am, your documentation is not right.”
“You’re wrong about that. Can I speak to an immigration official in London?”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.”
“My visa is of a high enough grade for me to be eligible for transit-without-visa.”
“No, ma’am, there are no grades in visas.”
“So, what are you asking me to do?”
“Ma’am, you can try for a visa in the next few days.”
“I don’t need a transit visa because I have a business visa.”
“Ma’am, these are our regulations. If you want, you can try another airline.”
“Then, I’d like to cancel my ticket.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.”
“Excuse me?!”
“You’ll have to try our toll free number between 9 am and 6 pm, Monday to Friday.”
“By which time my flight would have taken off.”
“That’s right, ma’am.”
“So, you’re telling me I’m going to lose all the money on my ticket?”
“Unfortunately, yes, ma’am.”
“Do you realise what you’re telling me?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“And can you refund my return ticket?”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you, ma’am.”
“Is there anyone here who can answer my questions?”
“Unfortunately, no, ma’am.”
“Can you give me this toll free number?”
And this British Airways manager at the Madras airport gives me the wrong toll free number for her own airline. Wow again.
Well, I rushed to the Emirates desk, where the staff managed to accommodate me on a flight that was scheduled to take off in two hours. They were also nice enough to find me a window seat on a full flight. You don’t know how grateful you are for those little kindnesses at moments of such high stress until you find yourself welling up over a window seat.
I told my parents what had happened after I’d got through emigration, and asked if they could take up the refund issue with British Airways.
My father spent a good chunk of the morning dialling the wrong toll free number, courtesy the manager who’d given it to me. When he finally got through, he was told I would have to handle it myself. He explained that I was in France, without a phone. He was told I would have to call up and explain that my father was authorised to act on my behalf. And I would have to do it within 24 hours of my flight taking off, and only during the working hours of this toll free helpline.
So, I woke up at 6:30 am, Cannes time, and made an expensive call which wouldn’t connect me to the toll free number, because, guess what, 1800 numbers don’t work even with the country code. British Airways had insisted they would. Of course, they were wrong about that too.
Apparently, an email to the effect that my father was authorised to act on my behalf was not enough. We had to do it all their way – my authorisation had to be channelled through their IVRS. After several hours of my wasting my time, and my father wasting his, British Airways finally agreed to accept my father was indeed my father, if he could tell them my birthday. Yes, my birthday. Because that makes so much more sense than an email authorisation. Because that way, everyone on my Facebook could be my father.
Several days later, I got this email from the Customer Relations division of British Airways:
Dear Ms Krishnan

Thank you very much for contacting us about what happened at the airport.
I am sorry we could not offer you a seat on your journey to London Heathrow.  I do understand why you feel disappointed, as you were not informed about the transit visa at the time you booked your ticket. 

When our own staff ask to see passports and documents, it is first and foremost an identity check.  It is an airline's responsibility to make sure every ticket is being used by the right person - and while we do also look at visas, it is the passenger's responsibility to be sure they have all the right documentation and visa stamps required by the country they're visiting.  

It must have been a very awkward situation for you, and I do sympathise.  For any applicable refund due on your ticket, I would request you to contact your local sales office.  They are better placed than us to help you with your ticket refund.

Thank you again for writing and for giving me the opportunity to respond to your concerns.  I hope you will fly with us again in the not too distant future.

So, here’s someone trying to tell me it was for my own good that his staff refused to let me board the flight. They were kind enough to take on immigration too. Awww. And, like everyone else at British Airways, he knew someone else who was “better placed” to help me.
Dude, you “hope [I] will fly with [you] again in the not too distant future”? Huh. I would have in the not too distant past if your misinformed desk personnel hadn’t refused to let me board despite my not needing a transit visa. And now, I never will again.
But it doesn’t end there. Several days of desperate calls later, I was told the amount would be refunded to my card in 5-6 weeks. On June 29 – by which time I had also registered on Emirates’ Frequent Flyer scheme – I called to ask why on earth the refund hadn’t come in. A baffled telephone operator told me he would check. Several minutes of being-on-hold-while-particularly-annoying-music-played (seriously, and I thought nails-on-a-blackboard was the worst) later, he told me the transaction would be made in 3-4 working days.
And that was when I lost it.
“Are you telling me you haven’t informed the bank to refund my card in six weeks?”
“Ma’am, I apologise for the inconvenience, but the transaction will be made in 3-4 working days.”
“I heard you the first time. But that means you’ve completely ignored my complaint for a month and a half.”
“Ma’am, I apologise for the inconvenience, but the transaction will be made in 3-4 working days.”
What’s the point, really?
But my credit card statement came in, and the transaction wasn’t reflected. Which means I would need to spend an additional Rs. 60,000 so I made good on the refund.
British Airways insisted they had asked the bank to transfer the funds on 9 July. The bank insisted they had received no such instruction. Several more days of desperate calls and ill-informed executives later, I finally got them to send me an email with details of the transaction.
When the amount was finally reflected, I discovered they’d kept 10 percent of the amount I’d spent on the ticket as “service charge”.
I also discovered I’d been right all along. I had not needed a transit visa, as I was eligible for the ‘Transit without visa’ concession.
And I knew that I would never fly British Airways again. The next time London calls, I’ll take the stopover at DXB, thank you very much.


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