Flight EI123 and the death of the Aer Lingus brand

Without exaggeration, my worst passenger experience in 36 years of flying. From Aer Lingus to Aer Sleazeus

Buckle up, this is going to be the rantiest rant I’ve written in years. It’s mostly about getting it off my chest as, based on our experiences over October 5th and 6th, it will have zero effect on the dire state of Aer Lingus.

Let’s do the timeline first and then dive into the death of once-well-regarded brand.

An early start but lots of excitement

My wife, 5 kids and I woke at 4.30am in Bandon on Friday October 5th to go to Chicago for our mini “summer” holiday and for the Chicago Marathon. This was the first time any of the kids had ever been to America and their excitement had been growing for months. We were only going for 5 days so we aimed to cram a lot in.

We arrived at the Red Car Park in Dublin airport around 9.00am after a toughish drive in the dark and rain.

Pre-clearance - what’s the point?

Initially everything went relatively well despite the insane queues for pre-clearance which had us stressed that we’d miss the flight. I’ve done an equal split of flights to the US via Dublin and Heathrow over the past few years. Only once has pre-clearance been quick. I’ve never queued for more than 45 minutes in the US via LHR. And they’ve heard of air-conditioning in US airports. I just don’t get the value proposition of Dublin any more. And after last weekend, all of my US flights will be ORK-LHR-* from now on if possible.

In any case, we ran from the DHS agents to the gate and were relieved to see the gate was still open. People continued to dribble in for at least another 20 minutes. The plane was filled with people taking part in the marathon on Sunday. Some estimates put it at up to 100 runners out of 300ish total.

Your flight is delayed due to faulty equipment

The planned departure time at 11.30am passed without comment but the main door was still open. After more delay, the pilot informed us that the navigation system was malfunctioning and was being replaced. No big deal, we all thought. Cue jokes about giving them our phones and using them for navigation. Eventually after approx 2hrs, the pilot announced that the replacement part and full plane reboot hadn’t worked. The plane was going nowhere and the flight crew were outside of their working window.

Everyone was deeply disappointed but accepted that shit happens and things break down.

Now we just needed a plan B from Aer Lingus. A big worry was that we’d arrive too late for the race number collection on Saturday and therefore not be allowed to run on Sunday.

5hrs on a plane on the ground

It was at this point that the clusterfuck began.

Aer Lingus proceeded to provide zero information to passengers for hours. Even the pilot was getting extremely frustrated. We still have no idea what the hell was going on during this phase of the hellfest. What we were sure of was that there wasn’t another A330 just idling around the back of Hangar 6.

We sat there until after 4pm. Yup, close to 5hrs sitting on a plane being offered sips of water.

That pointless delay meant that no one could arrange alternative flights via LHR/AMS/CDG.

The main meal was offered without the hot bit. The timing of this was obviously to make sure they weren’t on the hook for food vouchers, as almost immediately afterwards, without warning, we’re all told to disembark. Still without any actual information being provided by ground staff.

Communications, what’s that?

Everyone assumed we’d now get told what the plan was. Hah, LOL. More delays, more waiting. At least now there were promises of updates. Which didn’t occur. Of course no food vouchers were offered because didn’t they feed us a slice of brown bread, mini pasta salad and chocolate mousse already?

Finally around 6.30pm they officially cancelled the flight and told us a replacement flight was being arranged for Saturday. A moment of happiness which was immediately killed when they said that flight would be at 3pm. There was a roar of frustration from the now utterly exhausted passengers. No sorry, actually, we meant 4pm. Jesus they can’t even get the flight time right.

100+ marathoners started wondering if there was any point in even flying.

But our day wasn’t over yet. Oh no.

The organisational geniuses then told us we’d have to queue for new boarding passes for tomorrow. We queued for 2.5 hours to get that boarding pass. They had 2 people and one ticket printer and they printed off each ticket one by one as each passenger presented themselves. We wanted to scream in frustration. Just as we got to the top of the line, one of them says to the other “maybe we should open another gate?”. After 2.5hrs, this brainwave struck her?

Rent-a-heavy

It was during this phase of the wait that the nastiest aspect of the experience occurred. Three Airport “Police” in their faux-SWAT gear arrived. No passenger had been obnoxious. No one was acting in a threatening manner. If anything, I thought we were all ridiculously polite in the face of relentless incompetence. One of those three then stood at the side of the queue looking extremely intimidating, staring people out. The other two were wall flowers at the back.

If your solution to the complete incompetence and ineptitude of your systems, processes and people is to call rent-a-heavy, you’re doing everything wrong.

The Citywest Hotel, Dublin Airport

Sports Travel International could teach all of Aer Lingus how to do customer service and communications. We have used them to do the London and New York Marathons. We’re also using them for Boston next year. We didn’t use them for Chicago due to all of the kids and it being a combined race/holiday trip. But the superb Martin Joyce didn’t differentiate between those who were travelling with him and those who weren’t. He found out exactly what we’d need to do in order to collect our race numbers at 5.30am on Sunday morning and then got on the tannoy to tell us all. I can only imagine how garbled that message would have been from Aer Lingus. If you want to do an international marathon I can’t recommend Martin and his team enough. Absolute professionals who deserve all of your business. I can only hope he doesn’t use Aer Lingus for Boston next year. I’d happily take Norwegian out of Cork to Providence. But of course IAG intends to acquire Norwegian and ruin them too.

After we got the boarding passes and collected our luggage, we headed downstairs to be told which of the airport hotels we’d be shuttled to for the night. It was now nearly 9pm. I was completely shattered. What did we find? Another goddammed queue with another two staff members trying to handle everything.

They told us a bare-faced lie that the airport hotels were now full. Unfortunately for them, one of the passengers had just rung the hotels direct. They had plenty of rooms. Aer Lingus were clearly just not willing to pay the room rate.

Where did they send us? Citywest! Over 30 minutes away on a bus. Other people on the bus were checking out flights via Heathrow and seemed willing to spend over €2000 for a one-way flight in order to extract themselves from the clutches of Aer Lingus.

Oh holy cow, I just heard that one of our neighbours was put up in a hotel in Gorey recently by Aer Lingus after a cancelled flight. That’s 111km away!

More than twelve hours after we arrived in the airport, we finally got to leave.

The Citywest Hotel could teach Aer Lingus a few things about dealing with groups of people. They had all of the key-cards ready when we arrived. In two ticks they got us adjoining rooms. They had signs with information about the return bus back to the airport and they had food (albeit pretty awful) ready and waiting. We wolfed down some of the food and hit the sack. I was honestly ready to give up and go home at this stage.

The Comfort Suites on North Michigan Avenue could teach Aer Lingus a few things about customer service too. My wife rang to tell them we wouldn’t make it that day but to please hold on to our booking. Not only did they hold on to the booking, they decided (unprompted) not to charge us for that first night despite there being zero chance of them renting it out with such short notice.

Just to make the day perfect, some dumb darts-playing fuck set off the fire alarm twice in the hotel at 2.30am. Twice in one day that I had murder on my mind.

After a big breakfast, we booked a large taxi and got ourselves to the airport as early as possible. Under no circumstances were we going to take the shuttle bus back and get into another damned queue with all of the other Citywest passengers.

We asked each other as we headed around the M50 “I wonder how they can screw things up today?”. Oh in many many ways.

My favourite error - UserExceptionError

Up to the self-service baggage tagging machine we went and scanned the first boarding pass “UserExceptionError”. Second one - “UserExceptionError”. And so on.

Are you fucking kidding me? Did we really wait 2.5hrs in a queue the previous night for a set of boarding passes that didn’t work??????

Oh yes we did.

Over to one of the ground staff. She prints out 7 more boarding passes.

Back to the machine.

  • “UserExceptionError”
  • “UserExceptionError”
  • “UserExceptionError”
  • “UserExceptionError”
  • “UserExceptionError”
  • “UserExceptionError”
  • “UserExceptionError”

Fist of death  

We were brought up to the counter so that the staff could check in the bags for us and issue the third set of boarding passes.

We process 10,000 carcasses a day

And here we finally get to one of the key reasons why we are being treated like cattle heading to an abattoir rather than human beings. An older, presumably senior staff member was there. I quietly passed comment that “you know 300 other people are going to have to go through this?”. To which he boasted “we process 10000 people a day, we can handle 300”. Holy shit, clue-meter reads zero. He had managed to completely miss the point. He didn’t give a damn that 300 frustrated tired stressed people would be going through the same ridiculous rigmarole, he thought that the whole process was all about Aer Lingus’s needs. How can anyone in a customer facing role think and communicate like this in 2018? But I don’t blame him. More on that later.

Beside us was a family with a tiny baby. They were simply asking for either a bassinet or the assurance of an empty seat beside them. Stony faced refusal to guarantee anything. The grandmother was made of stern stuff tho and rightly hounded them. “You expect us to hold a baby for 8 hours on a plane?”. The robots were unmoved.

Another person was crying.

Another person missed a special party being thrown in her honour.

Another family also had a tiny baby.

People who’d paid for Business Class customer service stood mouth agape.

Stoney faces in response. Computer says no.

 

We had to go through the pre-clearance hellscape again. Luckily it flowed a bit quicker. We had lots of time to spare and hung around the gate in case there were any more surprises.

Which of course there were.

We apologise for any inconvenience caused

The scheduling geniuses in Aer Lingus put our flight on an hour before an existing scheduled flight to Chicago. We should have known things were about to go wrong again when three more Airport Police heavies arrived. The youngfella on the desk barked into the tannoy “Welcome to Aer Lingus flight EI1123. Due to an issue with catering, this flight is delayed. We apologise for any inconvenience. Click”. A massive roar erupted from all the passengers. They may as well have used a Dalek to deliver that message. The heavies were on standby. Several more delay announcements ensued.

You have fucked with 300 people non-stop for more than 24hrs and you make zero attempt to get things right on day 2 or show even the tiniest bit of humanity? It was quite clear that all of their focus, including the catering, was on the scheduled flight. Which of course managed to leave before us.

Finally we began boarding. Dalek-boy continued barking out updates over the tannoy. He then did a full-on Meet The Parents scene, continuing to board by row number, despite the departure gate being completely empty. I see that Gaylord Focker was going to Chicago too.

 

Oh you wanted a seat with your ticket?

We finally got on the white charter A340-300 | 9H-FOX from HiFly. Whilst I hadn’t relaxed yet (did I mention my entire neck and shoulder was seized with stress since the previous night?), I thought we were finally done with the stupidity.

Silly Conor, there weren’t done messing with us yet. Wait for it - Aer Lingus had assigned my wife and four of my kids seats that did not exist on this plane. The flight attendants said they didn’t think there were any spare seats. My wife was really starting to panic but kept it from the kids.

How in the name of fuck can you not know the layout of the plane you have just chartered? How can every one of you be so utterly useless at every single step of this process? Your planes break down every day (more on that later) so how can all of this seem to be such an apparently unique situation to you?

After everyone boarded, seats were found for my family, as plenty of people had either given up on the trip in disgust/frustration or had arranged alternative flights. I think/hope the people with babies were also sorted out by the Portuguese charter staff.

I didn’t sleep. The rage kept me awake. Also the slop they now serve as an in-flight meal on transatlantic flights. The kids were utterly dejected at this stage. So much for their amazing holiday to the USA. The name Aer Lingus was now dirt to them. You might as well have renamed it Trump Airlines, they were so disgusted with how everything had gone.

Arrival

We landed. Down to baggage reclaim. As one last fuck-you, the baggage from the two Aer Lingus flights and a Frontier flight were all on the same tiny carousel. Hundreds of people milled around. Can you explain the benefits of Dublin pre-clearance to me again? After another long wait, we got two cabs to the hotel.

It was now late local time. We trotted out to the closest convenience store, a 7-11, bought some shitty sandwiches, gobbled them down, and went to bed. The rage was still pulsating and I was seriously considering not running the following day due to exhaustion and stress.

After a few restless hours sleep, we got up at 4.30am and jogged in the rain down to the late-number-pickup office in the Hilton. Most people there were from our flight. The staff/volunteers could not have been nicer.

The Chicago Marathon

A decent bite in Pret (first tasty food in 48 hours) and we went back to the Comfort Suites to relax (aka stress out) for a bit. We then walked down to our starting corral and finally began cheering-up and feeling the amazing buzz from everyone around us.

Dropping and smashing my phone did not help however.

And then we were off.

I went out far too fast, mostly fueled by the burning rage of 1000 suns towards Aer Lingus. But unfortunately rage can’t make up for a complete lack of sleep, exhaustion and being completely stressed out. Instead of getting my hoped-for personal best, I just got around in the usual time. However the rage helped keep me going during the eight middle miles of nausea which were probably stress related too.

We finished, gulped down the free can of beer, walked back to the Comfort Suites, showered and headed out with the children to start our summer holiday which was now 20% shorter.

A brilliant few days ensued and I highly recommend visiting Chicago. Via a different airline obviously.

The return trip was uneventful. Thank fuck.

A big congratulations to everyone on that flight who finished the marathon. 20 Irish people did sub 3hrs. If any of those were on EI123, you are legends. Mark Smith of Eagle AC in Cork finished in a time of 2h 34m 21s.

Honourable Mentions

I would like to mention those Aer Lingus staff who showed some empathy towards the 300 passengers - specifically the captain of the original flight and the flight attendant who is also a runner and knew what a huge blow all of this was to her fellow athletes.

I did not hear the word “sorry” outside of that, apart from the classic legal-speak “we’re sorry to hear that”.

What does Aer Lingus stand for in 2018?

Now let’s talk about the bigger picture and how “Shite But Not Cheap” is not a long-term sustainable business model for Aer Lingus.

I mentioned several times that I didn’t necessarily blame the individual staff for the EI123 fiasco. I still don’t know how much was incompetence and how much was the obnoxious Standard Operating Procedures. In either case it’s a management failure. The rot starts at the top. Either the staff aren’t trained correctly, are chronically understaffed, their support systems are missing, or the SOPs are now so anti-customer as to be offensive.

The outgoing CEO of Aer Lingus talked recently about the success of their value model. Do they really think they are the value option in comparison to actual low-cost airlines? Check any route and compare Aer Lingus to the real value options. They are often 2x or 3x the price. So what exactly are we paying for apart from the semi-state legacy? Horrendous customer service, unreliable planes, food slop that costs them a max of €2 per head and some movies on a small old LCD?

I loved their ridiculously misguided tweet when Norwegian launched from Cork and Shannon:

Now let’s rewrite that the other way, to be accurate:

  • Overpriced ticket with bag included?
  • Seat row number that doesn’t actually exist on your plane?
  • Included slop you wouldn’t feed your cat?
  • Pre-clearance that takes 1.5 hours to get through?

Cheers Aer Lingus, you’re grand. I’ll take a genuinely cheap flight, my own sandwich, podcasts and Netflix offline any day.

Side-note biz idea: Deliveroo/UberEats to the Gate. Impossible with modern airport security but damn that would be awesome.

As I said above “Shite But Not Cheap” is not sustainable. The one thing Aer Lingus used to stand for was high quality transatlantic service. You knew they had your back. If things went wrong, they’d be all over it to make sure you got to where you needed to go. You were confident and relaxed in your travel. Everyone was good-natured and friendly. You relied on them.

Most of all you felt like you were dealing with humans in the past. Now it feels like a bunch of robots who have had stock phrases and responses drilled into them and where “operational efficiency” is the only metric by which they are measured.

Why would anyone choose Aer Lingus over a genuine discount carrier now? A misguided sense of patriotism?

The dead heart of the Aer Lingus brand was really driven home to me by the contrast of the all-white charter plane and the nearby Rugby-player-liveried plane. On the one hand you had the faceless brandless plane of HiFly which was going to take 100 brutalised exhausted athletes to their marathon. On the other you had some marketing bullshit about how much Aer Lingus supports our rugby players.

An honest Aer Lingus livery would be all-white. “Aer Lingus, we stand for nothing, except profit margin.”

I was reminded of brand values again on our drive back to Cork when we stopped at the Motorway Services near Rathdowney. Like all the other Topaz garages, it has recently been rebranded with the hilariously awful Circle-K design from North America. Like something you’d expect to see in Deliverance. So this huge amount of money has been spent on making all the garages looking “right”. But when I went to the restrooms, the seat was falling off the toilet.

These conglomerates all share the same mindset. As long as it looks pretty on the surface, who cares if it’s a shitshow underneath. Or to use the most accurate description - lipstick on a pig.

Customer Service (again)

Any company that uses the phrase “we apologise for any inconvenience caused” when things go wrong, is telling you in no uncertain terms “give us your money, shut the fuck up, we don’t care”. It’s the language of the legal department.

A real highlight of the trip was this accidental comedy routine from the Aer Lingus social media team.

Modern tech companies understand that the most important thing to do during an “outage” is to communicate. What’s happening as it happens. ETAs for fixes. Explanations. Realtime updates. And then published post-mortems and commitments around how they are going to avoid the problem in the future and what they have already changed.

Not vague lies about passing it on for internal review.

Aer Lingus is stuck in some 1960s timewarp where passengers are to be treated like idiot mushrooms and the internet was never invented. They seem to be basing their biz model on the worst of US airline behaviour. Why would you use 50 year old business models unless you are completely out of ideas?

And just to show that nothing works in there, what did they do this week? They sent us a customer satisfaction survey about the cancelled flight.

Ireland’s National Airline - Ryanair

Ryanair is the national airline. Aer Lingus is a Stage Oirish regional branch of a Anglo-Spanish multinational. You can only fool some of the people some of the time. I feel particularly sorry for old Americans who still think it’s the classic Aer Lingus and are expecting Darby O’Gill and The Little People. Instead they get this:

Leprechaun  

Internet word of mouth is fast and brutal. This is going to catch up on Aer Lingus sooner rather than later.

Remember all those idiots who fought to make sure Ryanair, the most successful airline in Europe, wouldn’t get their hands on Aer Lingus, in case they’d ruin it? Same idiots who told us not to be talking down the economy in 2008. Same idiots who spent €160m on a white elephant terminal in Cork instead of increasing the number of flights/destinations. Official Ireland. All surface, no depth. Enjoy your slop on your next Paddy’s Day flight.

When you fly with a genuinely low-cost airline like Ryanair, the understanding is clear. I pay you almost no money, you provide me with a flying-bus and zero customer service. And if shit happens, well, I paid you almost no money.

In contrast, we paid Aer Lingus over €3700 for our flights. That’s a different understanding and a different expectation. If I’d paid Business Class on Oct 5th, I’d currently be looking into legal options beyond statutory compensation. Particularly if I was that elderly couple in Business Class who were forced to haul their heavy bags out to a bus and stay in Citywest. The Merrion it ain’t.

Incident Management

If Aer Lingus wants to join the 21st century, they need to publish how their incident management system works. Based on Oct 5th, I strongly suspect they don’t have one. Hence all the headless chickens and complete lack of comms or joined-up processes. Naive me thought their multi-million euro Enterprise Service Bus from IBM would enable a whole new generation of systems and processes in the airline. Not UserExceptionError.

As soon as they knew the navigation system was faulty, incident/exception management should have kicked in with a single person in charge of the entire situation (no not “Johnny” in a hi-vis) with formal handovers as shifts ended. That person would be the single point of contact and coordination. A passenger liaison on the ground would work with them to ensure all passengers knew immediately what what happening and what the plans were. Not some clueless youngfella promising over the tannoy that we’d have a “substantial” update in 40 minutes after 7 hours of waiting. An update which of course came after more than an hour.

“Everyone” has a smartphone in 2018. Everyone has a phone. Most people have the internet. We should have been getting timely updates (once every 30 minutes) on exactly what each delay was about and what they were doing. And if the update was “we’re busting our balls here trying to get a charter plane to Dublin tomorrow so you can get to your marathon, it’s proving very difficult on a Friday afternoon. No we haven’t all pissed off to Nora’s going-away do in the Radisson Blu”, everyone would have been grateful and relaxed just a little bit because of the clarity and honesty.

Information is power. When people feel powerless, they get frustrated and angry. This is a fundamental problem in most airlines and airports still. And most of it is easily solvable with current technology. You just have to commit to communicating rather than calling rent-a-heavy.

Actually, I’ll send you what we’re working on for an event in early November when it’s ready. It’d be perfect for airlines/airports. And all Open Source so it won’t cost you cheapskates a penny. No internet access needed.

Realtime comms is what your airline app could facilitate. Again it’s 2018. But IT was one area where they recently boasted they had saved money. Oh bless, no one in Aer Lingus got the memo - All companies are technology companies now. Maybe don’t lowball the people writing your apps. And yes I used to work for FeedHenry. So I know.

The fact that your Aer Lingus online account has no connection to the online check-in process shows just how prehistoric their systems are. The former can’t even pass the reference number to the latter when you go to check-in. Top programming tip, use: ?ref_num=XYZ123

I completely understand that running the operations side of an airline is very very hard. It amazes me how well it works most of the time. And it requires everyone to be efficient. But that’s table stakes, all airlines have to be able to do it. It’s how you act when things go wrong that define the quality of your organisation/systems/processes. And that’s where Aer Lingus is clearly completely broken.

Cost Savings

In their most recent annual results announcement, Aer Lingus stated that “it saw significant cost savings through efficient growth with higher productivity and from cost initiatives. This included areas such as maintenance, selling and IT. “

EI123 on October 5th was the outcome of those cost savings. From the broken down plane to the non-existent customer service to the UserExceptionError. I spotted on Twitter that other passengers had cancellations/delays to/from Chicago on the 4th and the 9th. If that was St Munchin in every case, then it’s not fit for flying.

Anecdotally from people I talk to, Aer Lingus planes seem to be breaking down a lot. Maybe don’t try to save money on maintenance. Because we all know what the final outcome of that will be. My 50th birthday was almost ruined when, on my previous flight from the US, the Aer Lingus LHR-ORK leg was cancelled due to breakdown, followed by another customer service fiasco in DUB.

Are breakdown statistics published anywhere? Most of the data I’ve seen is US-based and mostly about delays. There are some interesting stats on European cancellations here. IAG-owned airlines, including Aer Lingus, are very prominent.

Final Words

As I said earlier, the rot in any organisation starts at the top. I see the outgoing CEO stated “By any objective measure Aer Lingus has been successful in recent years and continues to have significant opportunity to build upon the strong fundamentals of our value model”. Any objective measure except customer service, IT and maintenance.

If you treat customer service as a cost to be minimised, you are on the way to being disrupted. Those who can’t compete on price have to use customer service as a differentiator. What else is there for Aer Lingus to use now? Watching BA plummet to near the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys is a preview of what’s going to happen to Aer Lingus soon without a fundamental change in attitude (management).

IAG’s numbers have been great over the past couple of years. I don’t know how much of that revenue growth has been due to the increase in numbers of people flying globally in general or due to M&A. How much non-M&A market share growth have they had? Same question about market share for Aer Lingus. Everything was going gangbusters in 2007 too. When it all goes bang again (hello Italy), which airlines will survive?

I honestly can’t wait for the next generation of airlines to come along and wipe out these 20th century dinosaurs. They’ll be forgotten in an instant. Does anyone under 40 remember TWA? Exactly.

I’ve just found out that my next US flight is in a week. I’ll obviously be taking the safer option of ORK-LHR-RDU. Sadly that first leg will have to be with the dreaded green leprechaun.

I’ll leave the final word to my 11yo daughter who created this on her phone on day 2 as we entered the even longer pre-clearance queue:

Conor O'Neill

Tech guy who likes running slowly

Bandon, Cork, Ireland https://conoroneill.com