I have been travelling with BA for many years, choosing between BA and another British carrier long haul but always BA in Europe.
You see, I was born deaf and started going blind in 2011, registered deafblind at 12 years old and becoming a Guidedog owner at 16 years old.
Travelling has been a love and desire of mine especially whilst I still have the tiniest window of vision. I have been fortunate to have been able to incorporate travel with my work in digital, accessibility, usability and raising awareness of sensory impairments including Usher Syndrome the condition that has robbed me of my hearing and sight.
I'm sure you will appreciate travelling is incredibly challenging and as a result I do have real anxieties each time I am flying. Not just because I am deafblind and use a Guidedog but because I have experienced real discrimination, lack of understanding and awareness and yes, I feel very vulnerable at times like these.
As a result I have formed what I would have described as a good relationship with BA Social Media team, a team I have trusted. What this means is once my flights are booked and before I fly I will contact this team who are aware of me and my needs as a result of previous difficulties, they will call me, confirm I have all I need to fly and done everything necessary. An idea of this is they contact special assistance and ticketing, will offer me reassurances of my seat numbers, that provision of space is there for my Guidedog and that crew and staff are aware of me and my support needs.
I had never considered I could not trust this team or that I should check up on what they said or did for me, this was clearly my mistake.
Anyway, this has been the case for many flights to Europe and return with my previous Guidedog Unis and my current Guidedog Isabella, no different.
My Berlin trip was no different, I spoke to BA Social Media Team before I left the UK on Thursday morning, everything was fine.
The flight went well, I worked in Berlin on Friday, short experience of the City on Saturday morning, then spoke to the BA Social Media Team who offered me their usual assurances that all was in place for Guidedog Isabella. Thereafter arriving in good time for my flight back to UK - nothing done any differently to any previous flight in or out of the UK.
The flight went ok albeit the air crew were not as attentive as they should have been, they did not advise me where emergency doors or toilets were. The safety demonstration is something I cannot see particularly on the smaller planes that do not have individual screens so I had to rely on my smart hearing aids picking up the audio description which was ok accept BA have paired up with Comic Relief or Children in Need, can't remember which to provide a comical safety instruction video which would be fine if it was fully accessible and inclusive. Using words like “here” and “there” are a real no no for blind people, after all where is here or there? I didn't have a clue!BA please watch it back and amend to be more inclusive and appropriate, I shouldn't have to point these things out! Humour is great but it has to work.
I thought that was bad until my world fell apart at Border Control.
Having waited in the queue I was greeted by not just one but three Border Control employees “What a beautiful dog” followed by “A pet passport, never seen one of those before” yes, not even one person unaware but three, resulting in them referring the pet passport belonging to Guidedog Isabella being paraded around the staff and then onto a supervisor who disappeared with it for 30 minutes or more another of the staff eventually returning to say Isabella’s chip needed to be checked! Must be a random thing I thought as I had heard of people trying to pretend their dogs are assistance dogs. Fair enough, nobody wants anybody doing anything they shouldn't or bringing in anything they shouldn't.
To my horror a young guy from Animal Services eventually appeared, with Isabella’s passport. He speaks at me, not to me, clearly unaware from looking at Isabella’s red and white harness that I am deafblind and in a noisy bustling environment it was almost impossible to hear him, without at least some lip pattern. I pulled him up on this to which he smiled and asked me which flight I had arrived on and from where. I advised him I had travelled on BA0993 from Berlin to which his response was “Where is Berlin?” I could barely believe somebody working in and around an airport wouldn't know the answer. He then looked through the pet passport and stated there was no information in the passport about Isabella having been given tapeworm medication in Berlin. My response was why would that happen, she doesn't need it “Yes she does, it should have been given to her in Berlin” as she hasn't had it she has to be quarantined.
My dad who had come to collect us from the airport was sent home to get Isabella’s health book which detailed her medications to later be told whatever my dad could find it wasn't good enough for them as the medication should have been administered in Berlin.
Shock would be an understatement here, I was beside myself. Conversations were had with BA Social Media Team who appeared to be as shocked as I was!
A BA representative was requested and a more senior representative from Animal Services, perhaps one who would at least know where Berlin is.
The young guy was laughing and appeared to find my distress very amusing.
I tweeted my dilemma in the hope a vet would respond and clarify my position, instead whilst I received copious support I was horrified to see fellow Guidedog owners vilifying me, suggesting not only was I blatantly entering the country illegally but that my precious Isabella was potentially carrying nasty diseases into the country. It shouldn't need to be said that a Guidedog to an owner is not only precious but priceless and it's care is put above everything else. Isabella is healthy, well cared for and of no threat to anybody.
As I stated I have travelled to Europe and back on numerous occasions always with BA going through the same Border Control without any problems and now this!
A more senior man from Animal Services showed up and after calling me Isabella and Isabella Molly several times, even after being corrected insisted my precious girl would be taken away. I was absolutely distraught and in complete disbelief at the position I found myself in.
The continued insistence that Isabella should have been medicated in Berlin, a fact I knew to be incorrect but still they had me questioning myself.
A BA representative eventually arrived and spoke to Animal Services and in what I found to be a very patronising manner spoke to me, she was quite unprofessional in trying to hug me whilst I was clearly in distress. I did not appreciate this and wanted answers to which she had none except to say Isabella would have to go with these two men, one not knowing where Berlin was and the other calling her Molly - the final insult thrown in my direction was from the younger of the two Animal Services representatives, could I read my contact details from Isabella’s passport, surely he might have noticed I have a Guidedog “I am blind”. Clearly zero understanding, awareness or compassion at the fact they were taking away my eyes and my independence.
My Mum contacted the Guidedogs for the Blind emergency number, they did not offer much assistance accept to speak to the more senior of the men from Animal Care who from what I could gather had assured Isabella would receive a tapeworm tablet from their vet that evening and that I could collect her 24 hours from that time - I knew it would be the longest and most painful 24 hours for me and worse, possibly for my girl, I was heartbroken,
The BA representative made phone calls, I left her to it I was so devastated. My mum escorted me away over 3 hours later, I was in shock, physically and mentally traumatised.
The BA representative did call my Mum to advise BA would pay any quarantine fees which was quoted at £480 and would be made using a compensation card to be collected from Heathrow Terminal 5. The BA social media team also confirmed this.
Later on Saturday evening my Mum received a call from BA Social Media Team to advise that Animal Services had not kept their word and that the vet would not see Isabella until Sunday morning meaning I would not be able to collect her until Monday morning assuming she was medicated on Sunday.
I was distraught, hurt and most of all disappointed that there was no urgency put on the fact I have a Guidedog for a reason and as importantly Isabella is only 20 months old and we are a newly qualified partnership. I was so worried about possible separation issues and the thought that the hard work put into the training of her and she and I might be destroyed if she felt as distressed as I with strange people in strange surroundings.
My parents offered me reassurances that Sunday would go quickly as I was involved in a charity event and that Monday would come soon. It didn't help with the nauseous feeling I had that I had let my Isabella down and that I had been let down by organisations who should know better and who's staff should be well trained in all fields, assistance, assistance dogs, customer care, quality control and of people with disabilities in accessibility and usability - how has this happened and why did my user experience turn out so badly even after forward planning?
You might think my trauma ended there but no.
On Sunday morning my Mum contacted Animal Services who had quarantined my beautiful Guidedog to be told the vet used by the service did not attend and administer the tablet they insisted she needed and that she was expected to do so that morning.
Animal Services contacted us by phone to advise the tablet had finally been given at 8.45am and that Isabella could be collected at 8.45am on Monday morning. Apologies were given and a promise that all paperwork would be ready and Isabella could finally come home.
Mum asked for the address of quarantine to be emailed through for ease the following morning.
That email arrived giving full details of time and address along with details of cost, the additional night spent at the kennel would not be charged as the vet not coming as promised on Saturday night was not our fault.
The figure was not the £480 quoted on the Saturday!
On arriving at quarantine, I was made to wait. Some 30 minutes went by and I was then informed the paperwork wasn't complete!
Thereafter a lady came out to talk to me and to discuss the situation.
This lady was the first person at Animal Services to show any level of humility and to explain a few things:
Firstly she offered apologies for the actions of her colleagues, she appeared to be in a state of disbelief and said her colleagues would be spoken to.
Secondly she confirmed that Isabella did not require medicating in Berlin as she had been given Drontal in the UK the day before travelling and that re-medicating would have only been necessary had she been abroad for more than 5 days, we had been away for 48 hours. This confirming her colleagues had given me incorrect information.
She also was concerned that our vet has never signed the passport of my first Guidedog or Isabella's to say Drontal has been given and in actual fact it should be them administering it and not me or my family.
She could barely believe that firstly Border Control officials had always allowed me and my previous Guidedog into the country without questioning why the tapeworm details were not in her pet passport but then again why would they as none of them at Heathrow on Saturday afternoon had even seen a pet passport let alone known what should be in it!
This lady seemed quite horrified by the way I had been treated, it was heavy handed and without an ounce of concern.
Clearly there is a complete lack of training which needs to be urgently addressed.
I am pleased to say my Isabella was as excited to see me as I was to her and thankfully so far she seems to be unaffected by her expeience in quarantine.
Lastly my Mum contacted our vet surgery to be advised by the receptionist that Isabella should have been given Drontal in Berlin, this we know to be incorrect as I said previously we were not there long enough for this to be the case.
Mum insisted on a call back from the vet manager who was advised of exactly what I had to endure on Saturday evening and that the Drontal tablet had been given to us for my journey on collecting the passport in readiness for my trip to Berlin, naturally it was given to her by my father the day before travel just like every other time I have travelled and this is also incorrect procedure as the vet must do this and state details in the pet passport. The manager advised the vet who issued the passport had provided me with a handout amongst some other paperwork and yes she had, however, paperwork is of little use to me as I am registered blind and need to access text digitally and I won't be the only blind / visually impaired person with this requirement so again lessons must be learnt.
I am a fairly regular traveller who now fears travelling abroad with my Guidedog knowing how ill or not at all informed so many staff members are right across organisations like BA, Government Services - Border Control and from the Animal Reception Centre staff, poor knowledge, communication skills and zero humility.
There is no need for such poor customer care when there are shining examples of fantastic training in areas like customer care, customer assistance and accessibility.
The world is not fully accessible to people like me and it becomes even less so with experiences like these.
I am digitally reliant for information, I will not be alone in this respect. If I cannot trust people in the areas I cannot access myself who can I trust?
The painful irony that I work in the fields of digital accessibility, usability and enablement, raising awareness of sensory impairments and my services are called upon around the world, however, I now feel my feathers have been clipped and once again my mobility a bigger concern than it should be!
I am aware BA are investigating this matter and look forward to hearing the result of the investigation as soon as possible.
I'd like to think comprehensive training will be provided in all failing areas outlined here and that nobody will ever face the distress I did on my return to the UK with my gorgeous Guidedog Isabella on Saturday night.
Please, please please offer some assurances that there will be change.