Communication and service breakdowns reflect problems in the C-suite

I arrived at the airport at 10.50pm. My flight was scheduled for a 1:45am departure but I like to arrive early. It gives me time to sort out any issues, especially as I had a connecting flight with a three-hour window. And if there were no issues, well that was the perk of flying business – relaxing in the lounge.

I walked into the check-in area for first and business class. I didn’t see a counter for my airline open. It happens sometimes, they don’t start at exactly the three-hour pre-departure mark. So I sat and waited.

What transpired next was a complete breakdown in the operational effectiveness of the airline.

The airline was British Airways, and I was scheduled to transit through its home Heathrow hub on my way to New York.

By way of background, I had flown BA for a couple of hundred thousand miles at least from 2005 to 2010, before I became intoxicated by Emirates. I flew BA in business and first class and had, at that time, a great experience. Then I went Awol on them until the fateful night of September 15.

Shortly before I left home for the airport, I received on BA’s amazing iPhone app a notice that the departure had been delayed by about three hours. I hit the “contact us” button on the app. The only way to reach customer service was through an international call. Not the fault of the staff that there was no local number, that is an operational failure of the chief operating officer of BA. The customer service representative was wonderful but kept insisting that their systems showed an on-time departure. I believed him and went to the airport.

I waited for a counter with BA staff to open. Time went by. No BA staff. People started to get agitated. I stayed calm, evaluating options. I called the customer service centre. It was closed. BA not only did not have a local emergency number – and here I mean emergencies generated by them – they did not have a 24-hour emergency number anywhere in the world that I could find. Again, not a BA staff issue, but yet another failure by the chief operating officer and the chief executive who hired him.

As departure time came and went, members of the airport staff informed us that the flight had been delayed until at least noon the next day. These people, who do not work for BA, managed irate passengers with supreme professionalism.

I looked over at the Etihad Airways counters. I counted at least eight staff. Makes you think.

I tried using my BA app and the interactive phone system. They had options for changing flights. They had options for upgrading. They had no options for what happens if a BA plane has technical issues but no human beings are present to help. This, for a supposedly global airline. Global does not just mean you fly globally but that you provide services globally. Operational failure. Again. A COO problem. Again.

My app finally confirmed what the airport staff were saying. Except that the flight was now delayed until 4.45pm. A problem for me, as I would miss my connecting flight.

I went home dejected. At 6pm I received an SMS confirming what the app had said. But no news about my connecting flight. Technical operational efficiency at its best.

Later in the morning the European customer service centre opened. I made yet another international call and a wonderful lady spent time helping with my connecting flight. My phone carrier made a lot of money off my misery.

More than 17 hours later, as I write this, I am on the flight. My layover went from three hours to 12, an overnight stay. I don’t even know what I will do at BA’s hub. Are the lounges open? Is there a hotel?

The staff on the flight have been extremely attentive and are trying to help me. But I know one thing. The airlines complaining about Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are not losing to the GCC airlines because of alleged subsidies. Subsidies have nothing to do with service levels. How hard is it for the COO of a company to ensure that his staff are present to manage the company’s clients, especially when the problem belongs to the company? How hard is it for a chief executive to ensure he has such a COO?

Before I close, I want to say something pertinent but that some commentators might be shy about. Dubai has no oil or gas to create non-commercial income to support Emirates. Not only that, but Dubai’s challenges in restructuring its external debt are a testament to the fact that the miracle of Emirates, and Dubai in general, is commercially sound decision making that cannot depend on subsidies.

Last week I wrote about how the UAE can strengthen its economy. Sitting in BA’s business class seats, they are by far the best that I have ever tried for business class. The crew is top-notch. The failure is clearly in the C-suite of the company. Money cannot buy service. Focus, discipline and a persistent march towards a vision are necessary.

We have done this in airlines. We can do this in anything.

Emirates was entrepreneurial and innovative. Qatar and Etihad were more cautious but moved fast as they saw the opportunity. Nobody else is moving. This opportunity exists and allows three young airlines to dominate the global long-haul travel market because other carriers took their positions for granted. Many of them now refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes.

Service levels have to do with process and systems. Technology helps, but is useless without the aforementioned systems. People help, but cannot fix broken systems. Emirates, Qatar and Etihad showed us how it can be done. Let’s copy that into other sectors and keep going global.

Sabah Al Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader with a track record of growing companies in the Mena region. You can read more of his thoughts at

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