Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
It had all gone rather well.
The flight from San Francisco to London was on time. The plane was actually clean.
Our connecting flight to Oslo was also on time. The onboard food, despite the fact that you had to pay for it, included one of the best bacon sandwiches I’ve ever had.
In fact, I was rather liking British Airways. (Not a phrase you hear every day.)
Then there was the flight back to San Francisco from London.
We arrived at Heathrow, ready to check our bags. We’d flown in from Lisbon on the very pleasant Portuguese airline TAP. We had one suitcase each. (We being my girlfriend and myself.)
Then we were confronted with — for us — a strange sight. There were three check-in staff with whom we could drop our bags. We, however, were directed to a bag drop machine.
I confess I’ve never seen one of these things before. The idea is that you scan your boarding pass, place your bag on the belt as usual and the machine then starts the belt rolling.
The Machine Says No.
There was one little problem.
The machine decided that my suitcase was too heavy. 1 kg. too heavy.
Oddly, the nice man and machine at TAP thought it weighed 23 Kg. British Airways’ robot decided it was 24. So it simply wouldn’t let my bag roll along.
The machine just stood there, like the sad, numbskull robot it is.
It merely informed me that I should go and speak to a customer service representative.
The machine, you see, refused to recognize that my baggage allowance was for two bags (we were in World Traveler Plus, BA’s Economy Plus), each weighing a maximum of 23 kg.
I had one bag to check, as had my girlfriend.
A human being would have let it slide. After all, together we were using less than half of our baggage allowance. It’s not as if we were going to overload the plane. I suspect the extra alleged kilogram wasn’t going to permanently incapacitate a baggage handler either.
But machines don’t think. They merely control.
The Human Says Obey The Machine.
So I resorted to asking a human for help. Which, you might conclude, rather defeats the object of the machine.
Surely the human would see sense, as human customer service agents have done so very often. Well, at least sometimes.
“Your bag is 1 Kg too heavy,” said the lady from customer service, illuminating the situation not at all.
“But if you were behind this bag drop desk and saw we have a much larger baggage allowance, you’d just let it through, wouldn’t you?” I asked.
“Yes, I would,” she replied.
“So don’t you think this is a little bit, well, nonsensical?” I said, withholding the idea that this machine would likely soon put her out of a job.
She freely admitted that if I’d gone to one of the three bag drop desks that enjoyed a human, there would be no problem. She didn’t, however, offer to override the machine.
Now I had to remove 1 Kg from my bag or the machine wouldn’t let it go on board.
And this is supposed to enhance the customer service experience?I took one pair of summer shoes out of my suitcase. In fact, after pulling just the first one out, the machine seemed to decide my bag was suddenly approved.
But it had taken far more time than it would have with a human.
The customer service representative tried to make me feel good about my extraordinary success in pleasing the machine.
She then offered me a classic, beautiful, sad and monstrously myopic sayonara: “Don’t you realize?” she said. “The machines are now in charge.”
She admitted it was absurd and maddening. But this was now the way of the world, so deal with it.
The Airline Says Machines Benefit Customers.
As far as the airline is concerned, though, the machines have been programmed. You, little people, simply have to comply. There is no gray area. There is no negotiation or understanding.
This all happened one day after British Airways had finally cleared up one of the biggest customer service debacles ever, after its machines had completely crashed around the world, leaving passengers lying on airport floors and, in the case of Heathrow, not even being allowed into the terminal.
Then, customers complained that staff hadn’t a clue what was going on. Now, here was a member of staff freely admitting that this was a (malfunctioning) machine-driven company.
I asked British Airways for its thoughts. It apologized and says it’s looking into it.
BA’s CEO Alex Cruz has already come under heavy criticism for being, many say, solely concerned with cost-cutting.
His explanations for last week’s IT outage were a touch vacuous.
Would it be a surprise if some bean-counting halfwit persuaded him that putting these bag-drop machines in would save money (rather than passenger time), as it would lead to fewer staff being needed?
But if this is the customer service of the future, what a sad place the future will be.
Yet the airline spends money on these asinine machines, because the machines don’t need to be paid overtime.
Customer service is so often about judgment, anticipation and the little things.
Now, it seems, the human touch is dead.
Welcome to a world in which being a customer means obeying the robots.
Oh, look. Delta is testing these machines too.