The BA bed bugs story: Interview with Zane Selkirk

“Good night, sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite”, is a common phrase you tell children at night before they go to sleep and I’m sure you’ve said it many times yourself. But have you ever come across those mean little creatures? I hope you haven’t as they really are nasty. Zane Selkirk from California recently experienced the little biting creatures first hand. But not in some scabby hotel room, nor in a run-down backpacker, no, she got bitten on two occasions on British Airways flights.

Zane, outraged by the ignorance of the British Airways staff after reporting the issue, created a website called ba-bites.com. She welcomes her visitors by writing that

This small site was built after two horrendous flights taken in January and February of 2011 on British Airways. During the first, I turned on my light to find bugs crawling on my blanket and a bedbug-blood-spattered shirt. On the return journey, I left my 10-hour flight to find my body covered with 90 bug bites. The worst part was the nonexistent customer service throughout the 10-day ordeal.

The website then lead to additional media attention from the Financial Times last week to The Sydney Morning Herald of today who reports that BA now even grounded one Boeing 747 due to the infestation. Exclusive to LateDeparture, we got hold of Zane and were able to ask here a few additional questions:

Zane, LateDeparture discovered the original story in the Financial Times. How did the whole thing started to get media attention?

I officially started sending public traffic to the site on Tuesday evening. I sent the story out to friends and family and asked them to share with their friends, and also made an announcement on Twitter. In addition, I emailed some major news outlets on late Tuesday, early Wednesday – although that list did not include the Financial Times.

The site was already gaining traction early Wednesday thanks to a couple of key people taking a really active role in getting the story out there to their contacts. By before noon on Wednesday, the Financial Times had already tracked me down after seeing the buzz on Twitter. They had identified the story as something they expected to go viral, so to get ahead of it conducted a quick interview with me later that day and the story was published online by the following morning.

The hope in building ba-bites.com at all had always been to get enough people to see it to create a public conversation about bedbugs on airlines, but I was surprised (and very happy) to see how quickly that actually happened.

In the article it says you got frustrated that no one believed you. Do you think this is a British Airways issue?

I don’t want to speculate about BA more generally. What I do know is that my personal experience with BA was inexcusable.

If BA has bedbugs, all airlines have bedbugs. The problem is that while there has been a very public conversation about bedbugs being a problem in hotels, schools and other public places, the fact that bugs are on planes has largely been ignored. While it’s not reasonable for airlines to be completely bedbug free, they must be held accountable for acknowledging these types of customer reports and handling them in a thorough, customer-friendly way.

Did BA reach out to you for a personal apology or how did the episode continue after your success with the website and the media attention?

I was contacted by both the Financial Times and the Daily Mail early on Thursday to say that they had quotes from BA that the airline had apologized to me. In reality, I did not receive an apology from BA until sometime after they’d told the press they’d apologized.

One of my primary issues with my experience was the fact that I was literally treated as a liar by multiple people on their staff. Yet, their big talking point around this scandal is that they “take reports of bedbugs very seriously.” How can they be “taking reports seriously” if their stated policy is that unless you complain on board and have insects in hand to show the staff, they refuse to actually acknowledge any issue? Before press had contacted BA they hadn’t bothered to acknowledge – much less, I have to assume, investigate – my report of bug bites from the second flight.

I have not heard from them again since the press picked up the story

And finally, Zane, since you seem to travel a lot, what would you change on the ground or in the air to make air travel more pleasant in general?

Doing customer service well is the single most important thing that an airline can invest in to make travel more pleasant. Airlines have been pushed so far down the road of cost savings that they’ve completely lost sight of the fact that at the end of the day they’re still dealing with people. Do I enjoy having my knees jammed into the seat in front of me in standard economy seats on some airlines? No way. Do I love being able to lie down between deluxe meals of filet mignon in First? Of course. But the thing is, a flight attendant (or other airline agent on the ground) can single-handedly make or break either of those experiences. It doesn’t matter what you spend on your cabins or what freebie you dangle in front of me: If your staff doesn’t treat me like a human being, I won’t have a good experience.

Thanks a lot, Zane, for your time!

[Image composed by LateDeparture with source pictures from Wikipedia – some rights reserved]

  • I was bitten on a BA flight in September, 2010. I complained on the flight, and wrote BA. They were less than helpful. Here’s my story. After hearing about your experience, and realizing three to four months went by where their bedbug problem grew, I’m horrified to think how many passengers must have been affected by BA’s refusal to fumigate and believe passengers like me.

    I reported that I had bites, and had found a bug, on the plane. The BA stewardess let me change seats, but asked, “well, did you bring them on board with you?” I was insulted—she made this nightmare of being bitten on their flight and finding a giant bedbug on me seem like it was my fault. BA denied that there was bedbugs on board, but I’m betting my plane was the same you were on, or that the problem is more systemic than BA is admitting. Here’s their (abbreviated for length) letter to me, responding months later.

    I still have the scars from BA bedbugs on my legs and had a hellacious experience in general flying BA. They owe me an apology.
    ___

    Thank you for taking the time to write about your past experiences on British Airways. I do apologise that you did not receive the usual level of service that we pride ourselves on.

    British Airways management emphasises standards of concern and care, and this certainly includes courteous and helpful staff. We do take pride in our standards of service, especially for those employees who directly serve our customers. I would like to reassure you that we will listen and take account of what you have told us. I am concerned to hear your account of the itchy welts you developed after your flight with us, and that you suspect some kind of insect onboard our aircraft may be the cause. Thank you for letting us know.

    After investigation I have not been able to find any reports from other passengers who traveled on that aircraft. Having said that, I have reported your experience to our inflight maintenance team who will thoroughly inspect the seat and surrounding area of that particular aircraft.

    I have recorded the details of your complaints and will include your comments in our customer service review to be shared with the managers of all departments that provide service to our passengers.

    Thank you for taking the time to contact us. I realise we have not lived up to our usual high standard on this occasion. I hope you will give us the opportunity to show you the better side of British Airways the next time you fly.

    Sincerely

    Gina McCall-Pyne

    British Airways Customer Relations

    Your case reference is:8493273

    Reply

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  • worst experience of my entire life! My family and I were attacked on vacation and since then have trouble sleeping. My young kids are traumatized as well. I have found a product that i spray down our beds and bedding, and bed frames with called BedBugLogic. It is all natural and smells good and the company that invented it had it tested in a prestigious entomology(sp?) lab by scientists. It is made of enzymes and does kill the bugs. It really gives me peace of mind. It is from the U.S. and completely eco-friendly. We use for daily maintenance.

  • It is sad when major airline companies tend to neglect the needs and the issues of their passengers. These experiences are just so traumatic.

  • Those bugs are filthy looking far afar, even more when up close.
    Its British Airways, one of the first world countries, and yet they don’t know how to clean their plane thoroughly.

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