I sent the following letter to British Airways. I’ll let everyone know if/when I get a response back from them.
PO Box 690098
East Elmhurst, NY 11369-0098
Fax: +1 347.418.4395
To Whom It May Concern:
I was a passenger on BA183 from London Heathrow to New York JFK on 27 December, 2010 - the flight that was held on the JFK taxi-way for over 8 hours. I am writing to convey my disappointment in the service received from British Airways and to express my concern for how British Airways handles situations such as the one we found ourselves in.
The flight itself was uneventful, as you would expect. In fact, we landed several minutes early and with little turbulence, despite high winds. In general, I will say, that I enjoyed flying with you very much. The staff was friendly, the seats were comfortable, the in-flight television system was entertaining and the food was more than acceptable.
When we left Heathrow, I was surprised. When our flight took off JFK airport was, according to news reports I was reading on my phone, still closed. I asked a BA employee about this at the gate and they said that they expect JFK to re-open en route. At the time, I thought that this was risky, but I didn’t give it much thought. I was just happy that we were on one of the few New York bound flights that was not cancelled.
After landing at JFK the crew welcomed us and politely asked us to remain seated until we reached the disembarkment point. We were told that the plane would taxi slowly due to snow on the ground.
We eventually came to a stop near terminal 7. After sitting for several minutes, the pilot informed us that we may need to wait for some time for a gate to become available. He told us that we may have to wait up to 2 hours. The passengers emitted a collective groan, but what could we do? The crew was nice enough to turn the entertainment system back on. Some of us slept, some watched movies.
Two and a half hours later, we were still in the same spot. No further announcements had been made by the pilot or the crew. Despite the fact that the seatbelt light was left on, several passengers were milling about the cabin at this point.
I decided to go speak to one of the crew in the middle galley. A flight attendant told me that they didn’t have any news to offer except that the Cathay Pacific flight in front of us had been waiting for 5 hours. I asked for some water and was informed that there was no water left in the economy section. She politely informed me that the only water left was in first class. I was, of course, shocked by this and began to argue. Another crew member eventually left and returned with several liters of water.
After a small drink, I returned to my seat and I must tell you, I was seething at this point. There are no words to describe how trapped I felt and I, personally, have no experiences to compare it to.
I started to wonder, half-jokingly, if I faked a heart attack, would they send an ambulance to remove me from the flight? What if I just went crazy and started yelling? What if I stabbed myself in the arm with my pen? What if I copied a recent Jet Blue attendant’s move and pulled the emergency hatch and just made a run for it? What if I dialed 911 and reported that I was being held against my will?
Of course, I’m a sane person and didn’t do any of these things. I sat back in my seat, boiling in anger that the terminal building was less than 100 yards from my window, but I was helpless to do anything. I was further angered by the fact that the pilot made no attempt or announcements to try and explain what was happening. It was literal silence. Quite honestly, I have never felt so trapped in my life.
After sitting on the taxi-way for about 6 and a half hours, the pilot began giving us updates. We were told the following, over about a two hour period:
- We would be pulling into the gate in front of us as soon as the Cathay Pacific flight currently there was de-iced and removed
- We would be pulling into the gate as soon as snow was removed from the gate area
- We would be removed from the plane, loaded onto buses and taken to the international terminal, as there were no custom agents on duty at Terminal 7.
- We would not but put on buses, but we would rather wait for the morning shift of custom agents to arrive
Eventually we did approach the gate, however JFK employees refused to open the door because customs agents were delayed. I understand that this is out of the control of British Airways, so I won’t go into detail on this.
When we finally did disembark at around 6:30 or 7am, there were only two agents in customs. Luckily for me, they were processing US passport holders first. When I reached the front of the line, there were 5 customs agents on duty, serving a crowd that was literally close to rioting. In all, getting through customs took me over 2 hours.
As all of this unfolded, I was contacted by the BBC, with whom I conducted a phone interview, explaining what happened. I write to you now so that I may clearly express to you the experience that your customers went through, regardless of where British Airways chooses to place the blame.
I would strongly suggest that British Airways evaluate its procedures for handling situations where a flight carrying passengers may become delayed. It is my understanding, through various news reports that I’ve read, that BA holds JFK responsible for this delay. Spokespersons for JFK claim that it is the responsibility of the airline to ensure that a gate is available.
I personally don’t really care who is to blame - I am your customer, so I am speaking with you. I would hope that you are having a similar discussion with officials from JFK, as you are their customer.
In the United States a bill was passed by the U.S. Senate, S. 1451, The FAA Air Transportation Moderization and Safety Improvement Act, which contained, in part, the Boxer-Snowe Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights. This bill requires that airlines allow passengers to leave a flight if it has been delayed on the ground for more than 3 hours. This bill, however, does not apply to international flights. I urge British Airways to voluntary comply with this bill on all U.S. originating and U.S. bound flights.
The bottom line here is that British Airways handled BA183 irresponsibly. You should have never departed Heathrow towards a closed airport unless you were prepared to handle the flight accordingly on arrival.
The only official response I have heard from British Airways was via the British_Airways Twitter account. I was told that the delay was because of 4-5 foot snow drifts at the gate. This seems completely possible, given the amount of snow that fell. What does not seem possible is that it would take 8 hours to clear that amount of snow. At the very least, BA should have provided a stairway and busses to move us to a holding area, off of the plane.
After landing at JFK at 10:30 pm on 27 December, I finally arrived home at around 12:00pm on 28 December. In whole, a completely unacceptable experience from an airline that prides itself on a good safety and service record. I again urge you to reevaluate your policies and procedures and would expect a full apology to myself and my fellow passengers on BA183.
The BBC - Have Your Say
@BBC_HaveYourSay (via Twitter)
@KateHanni (via Twitter)
@British_Airways (via Twitter)