There is a scam among taxi drivers working at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport.
With his passenger on board and after taking the fare into the city, the taxi driver starts his engine. But he hasn’t gone beyond the airport boundary when he simulates a technical failure and announces the car can’t go any further. He then gets the passenger out of the car with the promise he will find another vehicle quickly. The driver pays the second driver a fraction of what he has received, bundles the passenger into the new car and pockets the difference in fares. Why should he drive into the city when he can make a nice profit over a few meters?
British Airways (BA) is hardly a scam artist. But its pursuit of revenues on the Moscow-London route can produce a form of calculation that is similar to the taxi man’s. So long as BA flights operate on schedule, many of the several thousand passengers who fly to and from Moscow on BA this year will never encounter trouble. Trouble, however, means something quite different to an airline passenger than it does to an airline. The passenger assumes the service contract will be honored with the least delay, inconvenience, cost or pain. But until trouble strikes, there is no telling whether the airline interprets the contract to the advantage of the passenger – or of the corporation.
In a recent round-trip I took with BA, trouble struck several times over. The first inkling was at Sheremetyevo, when a BA ground staffer, Elmira Kulieva, announced the flight had been cancelled due to weather problems in London. Kulieva also claimed the airline had tried contacting passengers in advance, but that wasn’t true.
A group of about 35 passengers headed for London was then transferred to a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt with the promise they would be able to catch a connecting BA flight to London within two hours of arriving in Germany. However, when the group arrived in Frankfurt, there was no BA staff to advise them and no sign of the connecting flight.
Two BA staff members were finally located. Although reluctant to disclose their names, they were identified as S. Rihnquest and Joanne Matsoulia. They declined to assist the passengers and claimed, during a follow-up investigation by BA, that there had been no problem, except that one passenger (your columnist) had been “aggressive.”
Trouble on the return leg began after the BA flight to Moscow had rolled away from the gate at Heathrow and was starting up its engines. The pilot then announced that a cockpit windshield-wiper wasn’t working and that it would be necessary to return to the gate for an evaluation. He said the wiper would be repaired or another aircraft found for the journey.
After a further delay, the passengers were taken by bus back to the terminal. That is when BA staffer Annie Bunce announced the wiper could not be repaired, and there were no substitute aircraft. The only options for the passengers, she said, were to return to the airport for the next day’s flight or wait approximately eight hours for transfer to Aeroflot. Eighty-eight passengers opted for the latter.
During the wait, a North American executive based in Moscow described a similar trouble he had had with BA. He claimed that he had instructed his lawyers to lodge a compensation claim for airline negligence, and BA had settled by paying him $2,500. Later, a BA official claimed the airline has no record of such a settlement.
Efforts by passengers to obtain explanations from BA representatives as to why, at the airline’s global hub, it had been impossible to repair a windshield-wiper or find a substitute aircraft came to naught.
An investigation I requested turned up no better answer to those questions. According to Tony Christodoulou, spokesman for BA’s Moscow station chief, there was no information on how quickly the wiper had been repaired, except that the same aircraft, a Boeing 757, flew the following day. The picture was no clearer about substitute aircraft. According to Christodoulou, if one of BA’s Boeing 757s could not be found to operate on schedule, he claimed, “there weren’t any [replacements].”
Perhaps, as several passengers began to hear during the wait, the explanation lay in BA’s policy for flight crews. If a delay extended the duration of a crew’s shift beyond its usual limit, BA would have been obliged to engage a new crew to fly the aircraft to Moscow. Thus, a delayed aircraft that carried passengers to Moscow and back again might have incurred doubled crew costs.
Asked to say whether it was cheaper for BA to transfer passengers to another airline than to operate its flight after a delay of two or more hours, Christo-doulou was emphatic: “I’m not getting into this.”
In recent weeks, BA has beaten market forecasts with significantly better revenue and profit figures for the year to date. That’s been good for the shareholders, but not necessarily for the passengers.
Unless BA can make a full and open accounting of the operating costs of its Moscow-London air service, the available evidence suggests that, when trouble strikes, with a likely delay of two hours, the company will cancel the flight altogether. On longer flights, or to destinations with more litigious passengers and hospitable courts, the policy may be different. But between Moscow and London, an ill wind is the one that BA defines as a cost it will impose on its passengers. So long as Moscow-London passengers are disorganized and uninformed, they will have no way of discovering that the ill wind comes straight from BA’s balance sheet.
British Airways responds
British Airways (BA) has contacted The Russia Journal and made a number of claims. The airline’s management confirms that both flights identified in John Helmer’s report were cancelled, one owing to a minor technical hitch.
According to BA, Elmira Kulieva, the airline’s representative in Moscow, did not try to contact passengers. She now says she never told Helmer that she tried to do so. Since passengers would have left home by the time the decision to cancel the flight was made, she believed any attempt to contact the passengers would have been useless.
“The passengers transferring via Frankfurt were all asked to go to the BA flight to London Heathrow, which departs from Terminal 2,” BA said in its response. “Frankfurt Airport is well known for its good and fast transfer facilities.” The BA letter further states that staff are “never reluctant to disclose their names; in fact, they always wear name badges as part of the customer service uniform.”
Several other passengers on the Moscow-Frankfurt flight wrote to The Russia Journal. One said that BA staff in Moscow told her she had to stay in Moscow overnight – until they learned she was a British citizen. Only then did they offer the option of transferring to Lufthansa. In Frankfurt, she said, the transfer between terminals was the only easy part. “We checked the information screen and could not find the flight, which set off panic in the group.” She said that BA staff in Frankfurt eventually blamed Lufthansa for the failure.
She concluded BA staff in Frankfurt were “disorganized, most unhelpful, and certainly not sympathetic to its customers.”
Another complained that by 2 a.m. London time, when the flight eventually arrived seven hours late, there was no transport into the city except for high-priced taxis, for which BA did not compensate.
BA also confirmed Helmer’s report that his return flight from London to Moscow was also cancelled, and due to the “non¬availability of another aircraft of the type that flies to Moscow, passengers were booked on a different airline.”
In response to an investigation by Helmer on whether BA prefers to cancel a flight and send passengers on another airline to save money, BA stated only that “If flight cancellations and/or delays put crews beyond their shift periods, new crews are provided. If this had been necessary in this case, it would have happened. But there was no need to replace the crew. The problem was that a [Boeing] 757 was not available to be brought in to handle this flight.”
According to BA, the amount paid to other airlines is more than what BA collects from the passengers.
BA states that it refused to give information Helmer sought because it was commercially sensitive. BA’s communications manager Tony Christodoulou told The Russia Journal his comments as quoted in the article, which he made after some “aggressive” questioning by Helmer, were taken “out of context.” After repeatedly accusing Helmer of aggressive behavior, BA said the cancellation of both flights was an unfortunate coincidence; that the airline has a very high record of punctuality; and that it values the safety of the passengers above all else.
The Russia Journal has obtained statements from other passengers who were put through extreme hardship in Moscow, Frankfurt and, then, in London. They also incurred substantial costs, which were not compensated by BA. These passengers thanked Helmer for standing up to the airline for what one called “disgusting” behavior.
The passenger who claimed he was paid after threatening to sue BA for delay in an earlier episode told The Russia Journal that his was also a London-Moscow flight. However, he said his ticket had been purchased in Montreal, and the claim against the airline had been filed by a lawyer in that city. BA in New York was the regional center involved, and paid the claim before it went to court, according to the passenger.