Robert Fisk: It's easy to be snotty with an airline so haughty that it regards its own customers as an inconvenience

BA should be broken up and left with a core institution. Deportation or Rendition Airlines

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:59

Oh, those wretched "disruptive" passengers! Poor British Airways. They can't even ship off a crying man to Nigeria with the boys in blue to keep him quiet without passengers objecting and disrupting and disturbing their lovely aeroplanes. No wonder all the economy-class passengers were chucked off flight BA075 to Lagos on 27 March rather than have them object to the deportation of a crying man. Quite right, too.

Indeed, having long ago abandoned British Airways – arrogant check-in staff and Roxy usherette stewards and stewardesses – I've always thought the airline should be broken up and left with a core institution. Deportation Airlines, for example, or – if that sounds a trifle downmarket – Guantanamo Airlines, or even Rendition Airlines.

Of course, it's easy to be snotty with an airline that can be so haughty that it regards its own customers as an inconvenience. I won't recount the episode some years ago when I was asked at Heathrow if I had any sharp implements in my hand baggage. I do not have any sharp implements in my hand baggage, I replied. That was not good enough. "Answer 'yes' or 'no', Sir," I was admonished. My God, what had I done wrong? Was I in danger of suffering something worse than capital punishment: for instance, the British Airways "life ban" which has apparently been imposed on Ayodeji Omotade, who was arrested, stripped of his cash and abandoned at Heathrow because he objected to the deportation of the young man – anonymous, of course – on BA075.

What quite took my breath away was the outrageous letter that Jim Forster wrote to The Independent this week. Rejoicing in the title of "Manager, Government [sic] and Industry Affairs, British Airways," Jim Forster wrote with apparent indifference to passengers' feelings, which I consider symbolise his awful airline. For it seems that quite a lot of the other 136 passengers in economy class were also distressed at the way in which the deportee was being treated. Indeed, Jim admits in his letter that the deportee's presence "led to a large number of passengers causing such a serious disturbance that it required the intervention of 20 uniformed police officers to regain control of the situation. Given the level of disruption it was not possible to pinpoint which passengers were the most involved ..."

Now hold on a minute, Jim. Do you mean that 20 coppers – in addition to the four or five already keeping your deportee quiet, though crying – all marched into economy class to repress those "disruptive" passengers? Or did they hang around at the gate, thereby exaggerating the extent of the "disruptiveness"? And I don't mean to be rude, but – after the catastrophe of Terminal Five – don't you realise that the most disruptive institution at Heathrow is called British Airways? But I get the point. It's okay to ship thousands of your passengers' checked baggage items off to Milan – but they've got to shut up when you allow a weeping man to be dragged aboard for deportation.

Then there's the killer line at the beginning of your letter. "British Airways, like all other UK airlines, is required by law to carry deportees at the Government's request." Not so, Jim. A pilot has full discretion not to fly if a passenger – even a mere deportee – boards in a state of distress. You did, of course, choose not to mention in your letter that passengers (no doubt highly "disruptive") objected to the treatment of a female detainee forced aboard a Sabena flight at Brussels airport some years ago.

The pilot refused to fly her, the police restraining her were ordered off the plane and the passengers commended the crew. I can see why this wouldn't factor into your own letter because – and again, I am sure you are aware of this – the woman deportee subsequently died from her treatment at the hands of the Belgian police.

Then there's your unpleasant reminder that "we also have a zero-tolerance approach to any type of disturbance an aircraft ..." Well yes, I would hope so. But then explain to me, please, what kind of "disturbance" Salman Rushdie was causing on your planes when you banned him from British Airways after Ayatollah Khomeini uttered a death threat against him? Remember, Jim? British Airways was so frightened of carrying Rushdie that they simply refused to fly him. Now I'm no Rushdie fan,but does that mean that if one of my books gets up the nose of an Iranian ayatollah you're going to slap a ban on me, too? Does that make me a "disruptive" passenger, Jim?

Now I don't believe that airlines are all bad. I fly Air France – everywhere – and say this in all innocence. Other than a frequent-flyer card I have no financial interest in this excellent airline, and I urge British Airways passengers to transfer their affections to Air France next time they have to travel long distance. But I calculate that my lecture trips probably net Air France up to £60,000 a year and I guess it was inevitable that, some time ago, British Airways encouraged me to fly with them from Beirut to the American continent.

Just one trip, they told me, and I'll see how British Airways treats its passengers. And of course, sucker Bob bought a business class return across the Atlantic, found the crew polite and friendly, but then – on returning to Heathrow for my onward connection to Beirut – was downgraded to economy class. Flourishing a fistful of dollars in compensation, the Heathrow staff told me that the flight was overbooked.

No, it wasn't their fault, Jim. I know that. But it was the same old BA story. Too many of us animals had turned up for your flight and the last donkeys in transit got sent to the stalls at the back. I suppose I should have been grateful that I didn't have the pilot of BA075 at the controls. But I never returned to British Airways. So there's not much point in giving me the only honour I would like from you – a life-ban in case I am ever tempted to fly on your wretched aeroplanes again.

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