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20150316 I booked a flight with Etihad Airways. This is what happened next...

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

Imagine that you need to book a flight at short notice from London to Kuala Lumpur and back. There aren't many options but you find one with a transit in Abu Dhabi and, even better, it only takes about an hour longer than a direct flight. So you book it on-line through a reputable on-line service but, because the flight is at short notice, it's necessary to do some of the paperwork by phone.

The transit time sounds short so you double-check before booking and are assured that this is the airline's standard timetable. You check again at check-in and are once more assured that the airline does this every day without any problem, even though a change of planes is required. And you notice, happily, the bags are marked "HOT TRANSIT." You are aware of the airline's reputation and that it often wins awards. Yes, going home after a difficult, for personal reasons, trip it's reassuring to think that Etihad is going to look after you. It doesn't even disturb you that, while you are waiting at the gate, there is an announcement that the aircraft was late arriving and so your departure will be delayed by 20 minutes. That's nothing, you think... Airlines include buffers for short delays and if we are being given a time, then we can assume that LHR ATC has allocated a new slot. And a few minutes after the announcement, certainly less than 20, we are asked to board.

So you settle down in your seat, knowing that in 15 hours you will have rested on the flight, made it home, showered and changed and already be on the way to a meeting. You look around and are happy to see that it's a light load so it's going to be easy to sleep. Boarding goes unusually smoothly, people are in their seats quickly, the doors close and we push back. The fun bit, the rush as the aircraft races down the runway and leaves stomachs behind as it rotates. It's all looking good. You relax and have a nice flight where there are only two disappointments: one is that the catering supervisor didn't order enough of the most popular dish so your food wasn't what you would have chosen but, hey, it happens. And the crew are attentive and courteous, but the second disappointment is that there is a decision to turn off the video so long before landing seems to be high-handed and so the carefully timed plan to watch a film until approach comes to an abrupt halt and even now I don't know what happens in the last 20 minutes or so, despite having my own headset so there was nothing to collect (actually, there's nothing to collect anyway because, sensibly, Etihad encourages you to take their headsets away and re-use them). Instead, I am force-fed adverts with the sound over the speakers so even my noise cancelling headphones don't protect me.

I feel like I'm being told "You vill not vatch the end of the wideo." At least they were not playing Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries at stomach churning volumes. Although, little did I know it, my day was about to turn into something akin to sitting through the whole cycle of The Ring, while hating every moment of it.

And so, gently at first, I am introduced to what will shortly be revealed as Etihad's real attitude to customers: " Ve vill do as ve like. You vill do as you are told. And you vill not ask questions."

Now imagine that you are about to land at Abu Dhabi and, on approach, the airline's information system puts, on screen, the gate number for your connection. You get off, past the lovely, smiling crew for whom it seemed nothing had been too much trouble (I guess they have their limits but I'm never tempted to test them: air crew have a pretty hard life despite the image). You tell one of them that you have to rush and she says "it's no problem: there are about a dozen people making the same connection."

But it's not that simple. Little did I know, I was part of group delusion reinforced by the information we were being fed by the airline. We didn't know it then but we were not going to make the connection. On the way to the departure gate, you happen to check a departure board and see that your flight is shown as leaving from a different gate. So you ask an airport employee which to go to: it's the one on the board and it's in a different terminal, he says. You turn around, race up an escalator and are met at the top by someone who says "Transit passengers go to the desk." So you join a queue at a transit desk. After a short time which feels like a long time because you know time is pressing, someone at the desk shouts out "anyone with a boarding pass please go to the gate."

Not bothering to ask why those with boarding passes had been told to go to the transit desk, you rush to the gate. You get to security, toss your bag onto the roller, take off your watch and belt, dash to the gate, hand over your boarding pass and start to re-assemble your dress, checking your watch and noting that, despite all the trouble, you are still at the gate 15 minutes before departure.

Then there's a beep from the scanner. The clerk puts it through again. It beeps again. "Your boarding pass has been cancelled," she says. Nothing else, no hint as to why, no suggestion as to what to do. The plane is there, 10 metres away, the airbridge is in place, the door is open.

This is where the airline's culture starts to make itself even more obvious. From this point on, so far as the airline appears to think, I'm nothing more than a nuisance.

So far as she is concerned, her machine has beeped and I've been told I'm being denied boarding. I explain that I'm in transit, that I've just got off one plane and I've a booking on the one right in front of me. She shrugs and tells me to go to a transit desk. I argue, tell her to find a manager. It seems silly to give up the territory I've gained rushing around and the plane is there, feet away, with the door open.

No one comes. Several men in grey suits wander around looking anywhere but at me. She makes a phone call. She tells me to go to the transit desk. I consider making a break for it down the airbridge, I've got a piece of paper in my hand that says "boarding pass" and it has the correct date, flight number and everything. It just failed an electronic beep test and the crew don't have the tech to replicate that. Perhaps the crew will take pity on me. Then I think.. one of the grey-suited men has moved to stand in front of the door to the airbridge. And I absolutely do not want to get arrested for causing trouble on an airliner.

So I argue again. The plane is there. I was here before the cut-off time. I did not book a short turnaround independently: I booked the turnaround as set by the airline on its website. I am asked if I want to fly without my luggage. How will it get to me? I ask, aware that luggage without a human on the same flight is considered high-risk even if it's the airline's fault. In any case, I have good reason for not wanting it to be left around in a hot climate, in Abu Dhabi and / or in KL. She shrugs.

Then she tells me the story: while we were in the air, before the notice appeared telling me which gate to go to, before the aircrew told me there were a dozen of us going to race through the airport, the airline had made a decision to cancel our boarding passes because the transit time was too short. It seems that, equally, a decision was made not to tell us until we had raced to and fro through the airport looking for the gate and standing in a pointless transit desk queue.

It is true that we had left London some 20 minutes late. But, we landed on time. I know that because the Captain made an announcement saying we had made good time due to tail winds. I pointed this out to the shrugging woman but as I did so, the aircraft door closed and the airbridge was withdrawn.

Surrendering to the inevitable, I went to the transit desk. The airline's solution was simple: we would be put into a hotel and we would have to make sure we were back at the airport in five hours so as to check in for our connecting flight which would depart 8 hours after we the aircraft we were booked on and which had just left.

No way, I said. I've not been to bed for 30 hours. I've already been travelling for twelve. If I go to a hotel and fall asleep there is absolutely no chance that I will wake up to be back here in five hours. The staff at the transit desk didn't care. All they cared about was that Etihad had people it wanted out of the airport so that they became someone else's problem. Making sure we got to the next flight was not Etihad's job, it seemed. I was given a boarding pass for a shitty seat. I gave it back demanding the same seat as I had already had booked on the aircraft that had just pushed back. "That seat's not available," I was told. No suggestion that they would at least try to find a seat similar to the one I'd booked nor how to fix it. "Fix it," I said. A dozen people clustered around, no one being told that the water on the counter was for us, all getting hot, tired, thirsty and angry. I got allocated a seat that was at least not horrible and a boarding pass was thrust at me with a scowl. At least it wasn't a shrug.

I had perishable food items in my bag. Instead of spending the entire trip, except for an hour in transit, in the cold of the hold, now it was going to sit around in Arabian heat for 8 hours. I was told that they would "try" to get it into a cold store (they did and the cheese I was bringing home was fine when I got back).

But as to any form of accommodation, the airport was crammed with people, too many for the seats, many lying around on the floor. I was given snack tickets and told that was all the airline could do. Well, I had five hours to make that not so. It could certainly do more.

My entire sleep pattern, carefully calculated so that I did not suffer jet lag was shot to pieces by the airline's decision to dump me in Abu Dhabi for 8 hours instead of me having a good sleep en route to KL. My meetings were ruined as were my dinner plans. I would arrive home at about 23:30 instead of mid afternoon. And the last thing I would want to do then would be to socialise.

I went in search of a manager. The transit desk staff were still shrugging, not even bothering to answer and it was clear that they did not intend to call a manager to deal with the melt-down that was engulfing them as a dozen passengers were effectively dismissed with a voucher and told to go to a hotel. Later, I would learn that it is standard operating procedure for Etihad to leave junior front line staff with no authority to deal with customers in any way other than according to a process and for managers to avoid contact with customers. But I had not learned that as I went from place to place within the airport, asking information desks, security personnel (who got to recognise me as I wandered through the airport from terminal to terminal following fictitious leads of how to find an Etihad management office). Eventually, a security supervisor came over and said his men were concerned because I was clearly not getting good information. That was nice - the security people were universally helpful and friendly and smiled each time I got scanned. They even stopped asking me to take off my watch and belt: it was becoming silly.

He took me to an office with no visible signs, in a part of the airport that was so quiet and so un-marked it was like no one ever went there, next to an unattended, pristine desk that looked like another transit desk. He knocked on a door and went in. A couple of minutes later, he came out with a young man who said he was there to help.

And he tried. He told me that he was not a manager but that the managers would not come out. The reason, he said almost apologetically, was that they were meeting to discuss what had gone wrong.

Maybe I'm a bit thick but I would have thought that the best person to tell them what had gone wrong was at least one of those who the wrong had been done to. But no, they didn't want to come out.

I pointed out that the connecting aircraft was there when I arrived and that not only I but all the others were there before the last boarding time. I got more story: the airline decided we would be late and that there would not be enough time to get the luggage from one aircraft to another. But we were not late, I pointed out. Even if the decision had been valid when it was made, it became invalid and Etihad must have known that before we landed. I was told we had a long taxi. No, I said. This is a tiny airport. I'm used to long taxis and this wasn't one.

But in any case, they could have let us onto the plane and delayed the onward flight for a few minutes while our bags caught up. I told him about the "hot transfer" tags. Apparently not, because that would have upset the entire airline's schedules because of knock on effects. No, I pointed out: aside from the fact that that's a ridiculous exaggeration, even if he's talking about the schedule for that particular aircraft, it's a long flight and catching up a few minutes would not be hard. It's a flight into KLIA and that's not a busy airport, even if they were a few minutes late, they would slot in easily. The flight is not so long that there's a question of air crew hours. And lastly, for the onward flight, it would be easy to pick up a few minutes on the ground so that the aircraft did not miss its slot out of KLIA. So that's not a good reason, I told him.

I told him that I refused the hotel because there was no way I'd make the connecting flight. He went away and I made several phone calls. He and came back and gave me a voucher (actually he wrote on my boarding pass) for the business-class lounge and told me I could use that and the staff would wake me up.

That solved one problem: I would not miss my flight, someone would make sure I did not and I would not have to sleep on the floor of a crowded airport.

Before dozing, I tried to send an e-mail with a formal complaint. I found several addresses. Each one failed. Eventually, I posted a message on the Etihad Facebook page. Almost immediately, I got an address to write to - and a message from someone else wishing me luck and telling me that his experience was that Etihad would, after an initial contact, just ignore me until I went away. Surely not, I thought: this airline wins awards.

I woke up but could not shower and change because my clothes were in my hold luggage. Of course, everyone else that had been dumped was in the same position. I was heading for almost 40 hours in the same shirt and underpants which is hardly civilised. It wasn't as if I wanted to take part in something that might turn into something like a Dirty Protest without the human waste element. And I still had the Abu Dhabi to KL leg to fly and to get home. I dreaded to think how rank I would be after an hour and a half in the heat and humidity of KL by the time I got home. For sure, I wouldn't want to sit next to me on the train into the city.

So I picked up my stuff, checked my boarding pass, noted the gate number printed on it which was close to the gate that had appeared on the aircraft's display, and went to that gate, in the other terminal, back through the same security gates as I'd been through several times before.

I sat at the gate. No flight information on the screen. No gate crew. Not many people. No one I recognised. No aircraft. I checked my boarding pass. Checked the gate number. Yes. No doubt. I was in the right place. I sat down to wait for everyone else, and the plane, to turn up. That didn't happen.

Instead, some time later, a man in a grey suit ran towards the gate shouting "Anyone for Kuala Lumpur?" Someone else said "Yes." The man in the grey suit shouted that we should go to another gate, then he turned around and ran away again. He did not tell us where the gate was, he did not offer to lead us. I found someone else to ask, only to find out that it was in the terminal I had left earlier, the terminal I'd spent the night in in the lounge, two gates from the plane that we had not been allowed to board 8 hours earlier. I made the same mad dash as I had after leaving the first aircraft, remarkably almost point to point. It's not irony, it's annoying. At the gate, there had been no obvious notice about a gate change. Again, we were just left to find out and that only happens if we disbelieve the information the airline gives us and we check the departure boards. Maybe, if I'd not been up for 40 hours except for a light doze, I'd have done that. But there reaches a point in exhaustion, just before hallucinations start, where you just do as you are told by your captors, and you don't question them.

So, onto the plane. It was fine. It was a bit surprising to have booked on Etihad long haul and to be climbing onto a Jet Airways regional aircraft but by that point I didn't care. If it would have got me home, I'd have been happy in a flying shed with deckchairs.

The change in schedule ruined the next two days from the point of view of being able to work effectively. My meetings could not be re-arranged and, at home, I was in the dog-house for having missed a dinner I was supposed to be cooking although at least I'd been able to make (at my own expense) calls from Abu Dhabi to tell people where I was stranded and that I'd be back far too late to be any use. And I had the most horrible combination of jet lag and recovery from over-tiredness, part of which was due to repeatedly legging it through the airport with my luggage.

The airline had a lot to answer for. But would I get a proper answer? For sure, the decision was made: I had a return ticket and I would use that but that would be the last time I would ever get on an Etihad plane. After all, it's a simple matter: I contract for them to take me from A to B and, in the absence of some catastrophic failure, a volcano erupting or really bad weather, I expect them to do so and if they fail, to make up for it.

That, it seems is not the way that Etihad thinks.

First, despite being told over and over again that our email security systems do not permit the delivery of html content (so all I get is sender, title and any plain text parts of the message) Etihad persists in sending what are, when I get them, blank e-mails. I point out that even their own legal department understands that people block html - and we can tell that because the only thing I receive in the body of a mail is a disclaimer notice.

I make enquiries about the EU compensation scheme where I am denied boarding without good reason. It turns out that Etihad can behave like this with impunity because EU considers an onward flight transit stop to be a separate flight. Therefore, even though I'm on a single ticket booking out of the EU, I'm outside the scheme. Had I made my transit stop in Amsterdam or Paris, for example, I would have been within the scheme. That's a useful fact if you are making multi-hop flights. For a long-haul flight, for circumstances such as ours, the compensation is set at 600 euros per passenger but only for flights, not itineraries, with a direct EU element which kind of makes a mockery of the compensation scheme if you are hubbing through anywhere outside the EU.

Eventually, someone works out how to send a mail I can read. It's full of standardised platitudes - and offers me a derisory number of air-miles in compensation. I point out that I'm never going to fly on their airline again, after using the ticket I've already bought. And even if I was going to fly with them again, the air-miles aren't enough for even a single sector. And I don't feel like roaming through an on-line catalogue to see if there is anything I might want that such a paltry number of miles would provide. So air miles are not a valid form of compensation.

They ignore me.

I go back onto social media. Someone who might actually be a manager sends an email telling me that she will get it dealt with. I get an e-mail from the customer service department.

I'm told that they are busy and that's why it took them a month to reply, nothing about the fact that the reply was prompted. They make a small increase in the number of air-miles. It's still not enough for a sector from anywhere I might happen to be or to anywhere might want to go - it's not even enough for me to upgrade one of the sectors on my return ticket. And there is no way, I remind them, that I'm ever going to have another flight with them.

But, as often happens, life intervenes. I needed to return to the UK at very short notice because my mother died. I know, I thought. We can have a solution that saves everybody face, saves me about five hundred pounds and costs them nothing. Absolutely nothing. I write. I know my ticket has a fixed return date, how about you waive that condition and let me get a flight tonight, I asked. No reply.

There are no published phone numbers for "customer service" for Etihad. But there is a sales number. I call. The man on the sales desk is extremely helpful. He wants to swap the ticket at no cost but a) it's not supposed to be swapped at all, apparently, and b) if he did swap it he would have to impose a substantial penalty, disproportionate to the original ticket price. His manager was, similarly sympathetic. But, he said, he could not even telephone the Customer Service department because a) despite the fact it's a global, round the clock business, their complaints department work 9-5, Monday to Friday, UK time and b) even if it was within those hours, the complaints department don't publish a phone number so even he can't call them.

A month or so later, still no reply to my e-mails, so I again posted a note on social media. Again, I got a blank e-mail. I complained,. They re-sent in plain text. It said:

Thank you for your response.

It is clear from your correspondence that you remain unhappy and I am naturally disappointed that you feel let down. However, whilst I acknowledge your concerns I am sorry to advise you that we are not able to increase our offer of 20,000 miles. Please accept my apologies for any disappointment caused.

If you would like to accept the Etihad Guest miles offer, please do let me know by return, and I will ensure the needful is done.

Mr Morris, we do realize that you have a choice of airlines. However, I sincerely hope that, in spite of your disappointment, you will choose to fly with us again in the future.

Yours sincerely

[name removed]
Guest Relations Officer

I replied promptly, now aware that it is more than three months after the event and increasingly mindful of that post from a victim of another Etihad failure that warned of how the airline dealt with his complaint. I wondered if showing my anger with a hint at bad language might encourage them to pass the complaint to a manager.

At last. An e-mail in plain text.

It seems to me that there is an intention within Etihad to ensure that my complaint is dealt with at the lowest available level.

At the airport, where your action cost me a whole day of effective work, your managers refused to speak to me.

Since then, all I have had is juniors telling me, in effect, to stop wasting their time and - even more annoyingly - wasting my time.

Let me make this clear: the original failure was bad. The compounding of the failure with the result that I have spent far too much additional time is worse.

Etihad's customer service is a disgrace.

It can be summarised as "we will do what we want, if customers are inconvenienced, then that's tough. We will make derisory offers in compensation which are of no benefit to the customer with the result that the offers we make will not be taken up. And we will mess about, causing the customer as much annoyance and costing the customer as much time as possible so that he just goes away."

I have a ticket booked, the other half of the ticket I sadly bought from the UK in December. I will use it simply because it is paid for. I will not be happy. I know you are going to disappoint even against low expectations.

The "offer" of 20,000 miles is derisory. It is of absolutely no value to me unless it is sufficient for an upgrade on at least one of the legs of the trip in April. So far as I can tell, it is not.

Offering me miles on an airline that I will never again travel on is, to all intents and purposes, no compensation at all and fits exactly with the "get lost you pain in the a**e" attitude that started at the gate for the aircraft you would not let me board and continued throughout.

I think you have misunderstood: I am not disappointed. Disappointed was on the flight where you had under-loaded food options so there was little choice by the time the trolley got to me. Disappointed is the initial error where we were sent to the wrong gate. No, this is not disappointment. This is unbridled anger at the "f*** you attitude of an airline that proudly tells everyone about its service. In the air, yes. On the ground? Far below any acceptable level.

If you would care to come up with something that has some value to me, then do. Otherwise, it seems to be I have no alternative but to keep taking steps to make you do so.

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

And, as if to prove the point, the same junior officer replied quickly and told me to get lost:

RQID 290687
13 March 2015

Dear Mr Morris

Thank you for your response.

Please allow me to assure you that we take all feedback very seriously, and your correspondence was no exception to this.

Mr Morris, I am sorry that you continue to remain unhappy with our responses and we have not been able to meet your expectations. However, as stated on my previous correspondences, we do not offer miles as a matter of course, and we believe the offer of 20,000 Etihad Guest miles to be a generous one. Therefore, I regret to advise you that we are unable to offer you an upgrade.

In light of the forgoing, I have to draw this case to a conclusion and now regard this matter as closed; I will not be in a position to correspond further.

I trust the above clarifies your concerns and our position on this matter.

Yours sincerely,

[name removed]

Guest Relations Officer
Etihad Airways
The National Airline of the United Arab Emirates

I have not bothered to point out that I did not actually ask for an upgrade although I did hint that a single sector upgrade might resolve the problem. After all, it's gone far beyond the original issue and has now become a war of attrition over long-term appalling treatment by the airline and a complete failure to understand the scale of the trouble their decision caused.

Nor, incidentally, have I pointed out that the mail can be summarised as "you should be grateful: we treat everyone else even worse than we've proposed we treat you."

There is one thing: at no point have I had any indication that this matter has been reviewed by anyone in a senior position. So far as I can tell, the original decision and the way it has been dealt with has been contained below senior managerial level. Is there a cover-up at junior levels? Is there no internal reporting so that all complaints are reviewed by senior managers? Is there a management culture that says that they only want to hear good news and bad news should be buried? I don't know but something isn't right.

And I wasn't a "Guest" which is the term Etihad uses for its customers. I was, in effect, Etihad's prisoner for 8 hours able to do only as they instructed.

The UAE should be entitled to be proud of its national airline. But, as anyone can find out by am internet search, or even scanning the airline's Facebook or Twitter feeds, my experience is far from unusual. Instead, the UAE should be concerned that its national carrier is bringing the country's name into such disrepute.

It's a simple ethical and moral position: if you mess up, make it right, even if it costs you. Don't crow about your successes and hide your bad behaviour by ignoring your victims. Do not act in bad faith by making an offer that you know has no value to your victim. And don't treat your victim as if he's in the wrong, or is a nuisance.

The most important point is that there was no actual underlying problem: we were all disadvantaged because of an operational decision by Etihad management who were then unwilling to review the situation and to find a way to resolve it without inconvenience to a dozen passengers. I've no idea if any of the others have persisted in their complaints. If anyone knows someone who left LHR on 8th December for KUL and got dumped in Abu Dhabi, then tell them about this note. They, too, might like to press their claims.

Etihad could have avoided the whole problem by simply undoing the decision to leave us and rushing the bags round or even by delaying the onward flight by a few minutes so the bags could be transferred. That few minutes may have been caught up anyway because of the same tailwinds that brought us in from London on time. And they could have diffused the situation by at any time in the process having a manager available instead of junior staff whose attitude, in person and in e-mail, is to shrug and say, in effect, "that's how it is. Get used to it."

I'm not going to get used to it. And nor should you.

If you want to to be able to trust an airline to honour its commitment to get where you are going, when you expect to be there and if you expect your airline to be efficient and courteous and co-operative when things go wrong, then don't fly Etihad.


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