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What banks can learn from British Airways

Something happened to me this week that made me think of big bank friends. It’s a different industry and one that, last month, I said we could learn from:the airlines. So, here’s a sobering, learning lesson.

I’m a gold member of most airline networks, having flown Star Alliance and One World for years. I’m a British Airways Executive Club member and have been since 1992. I’m nearing the level of a lifetime gold member. One of their most cherished customers. I give them $1,000’s every year, for what? An upgrade once in a hundred flights? A free mileage flight every five years to the place I didn’t want on the dates I didn’t choose but hey, it’s free, enjoy it.

No. I am loyal to BA because they are the main airline from London to The World. That’s it. I don’t like them, think their service is erratic, resent paying for a Marks & Spencer sandwich as a Gold Class member, and just grin my teeth and bear it because I’m British and that’s what we do. Keep calm and carry on.

I’ve been BA Gold on and off for twenty years. They should know me. I travel with them on and off every month and have become so accustomed to their lounge at Heathrow Terminal 5 that I even have a favourite toilet cubicle and workstation. Yea, I’m that sad.

So, here’s the thing. After 26 years of travelling BA, I get a flight booked through an agent who doesn’t add my Executive Club number and now, suddenly, after 26 years, they don’t know me. They have my passport information, my date of birth, my full christening name … but they don’t know who I am … because I left out my loyalty number.

As a result, I get a middle seat when, for 30 years, they know I always choose a window seat. I’m not allowed in the lounge for their top tier customers, because I’m just a customer. They put me in a relegated boarding group because Tier 1 is reserved for loyal customers … like me.


The funny thing was that I didn’t know they didn’t have my Executive Club number on the booking. I had added the booking late to my BA app, which showed it was tied to my loyalty number but … as it turned out … it wasn’t. That’s because their app is not related to their core legacy database.

I arrive at Heathrow from a long-haul flight for a connection and head to the lounge for a rest and they say: who are you? You can’t come in here! You’re just an average pleb!

I get into an argument with the agent and she says: so, do you have an Executive Club number? And I say, damn right I do. Lifetime member since 1992. About to get Lifetime Gold. Look it up.

She does.

Her face goes stony.

So why wasn’t this on the system? she says.

Because it was booked by an agent, I says.

So why didn’t you give the agent your number? she says.

Because no one ever asked, I says.

She lets me in the lounge … reluctantly.

But I’m sitting there simmering. I’ve been a BA Gold frequent flier for as long as I can remember and a member since 1992. I have their app and all bookings I add to the app. The fact that their app didn’t recognise my status and update it to their systems, is because their app is not connected to their systems. In fact, their app is crapp.

BA’s issue is the same as many large traditional banks. Behind BA’s app is Amadeus, a large mainframe travel booking system developed in the last century. It’s batch and not real-time, hard to use and based upon code, not ease-of use. To access Amadeus, you need ticket numbers or booking references. That’s why your online check-in is such a painful experience. And, if you forget to add the correlation between your frequent flyer program and your booking reference well, stuff you. It has zero intelligence to recognise that the passport number and date of birth and zip code and email address are all correlated with their loyal customer of over twenty-five years.

In fact, due to the fact you have not added that one bit of information, you are a nobody. Just a turned up today one-off customer.

This is how I feel about legacy banks and their legacy systems. They cannot correlate who you are with the information you give, unless you give an account number and sort code. You could be with your bank a lifetime, and they turn to you and say who are you? because you left out the number 62854334. Without that number, you are just no one.

But, I say, today, that I am not a number. I am a free man.

I am not 62854334. I am Chris Skinner, born on this date, in this place and living in this place, on this date. If your systems are so awful that you cannot correlate my name and post code with a quarter of a century of being your loyal customer, then how come you’re here in 2018? What is your role? Why am I dealing with you? Stuff you … I’m gonna fly Amazon Air from now on.

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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