International students have a lot to contend with when they first touch down on English soil. The young travellers must haul luggage between the crowds in the terminals. Many are nervous about interacting with locals, worrying their English vocabulary is not up to scratch. Basic cultural differences present a problem for nearly all students, as they do not want to seem rude, impolite or awkward when trying to purchase a coffee. This is common knowledge for our staff, therefore, we were not surprised to stumble upon the Huffington Post article titled, ‘UK’S Poor Customer Service is Biggest Bugbear for International Students’, in which Elspeth Brown, director of Only Student Concierge, explained that foreign learners struggle to adapt to the harsh attitude of many British employees.

The Huffington Post article reads, ‘Those working in the service industries are often the first point of contact for these new arrivals to Britain, and therefore often shape their opinion of the UK’, and if this exchange is a bad one it can ruin a portion of your trip, if not the entire experience. In most cases, an Airport Angel is the first meeting a student has with a company, and with this knowledge we work as hard as possible to provide a positive attitude for new arrivals. We pride ourselves on customer service and strive to put a smile on students faces. Our Angels also attempt to acclimate new arrivals to the service industry by accompanying them to purchase food, drinks and, most commonly, sim cards. We aim to deal to with store staff, so students can witness how interactions play out. To put parent’s minds at ease, we have come up with a few examples of interactions we deal with, and the situations we encourage new arrivals to attempt, and overcome, to avoid the dreaded worries of customer service communications- resulting in an overall enhanced experience while studying abroad.

First of all- shopping in the terminal. This is a struggle for most people who have recently landed. Many that we meet are often hungry and thirsty but fear going to the shop unaccompanied in case they have issue with communicating what they want. Our staff make a point to ask groups we meet if they need food or drink and we always offer to escort them to restaurants or coffee houses (we know which places have the best deals, so listen up guys). This relieves the pressure on the student while first encountering customer service personnel in the airport. It also gives us a chance to help them learn the currency. A question we are constantly asked is, “what is this one?” while a student pushes a coin in our face. We take the hands-on approach and try to teach them coin and note values in the shops. Many relay to us that this ‘diving head-first’ approach helps rid them of the stress of shopping. Another helpful piece of advice we impart is teaching students British idioms and common courtesy to make their future interactions easier. We teach them that “sorry” doesn’t always mean sorry and if you’re “at a loose end” choosing what to buy, go for the option that’s “cheap as chips.” Shopping can be confusing at the best of times, and Angels aim to make the process simple for anyone under our supervision.

There are thousands of workers at Heathrow and Gatwick, which can become complicated when looking for help. Our team deal with many of the airport teams directly to avoid stressful situations for those we accompany, but the most difficult to talk with are usually those in charge of transfers. All of us have been involved in transfer troubles, from missing taxis and delayed coaches to phone conversations with service operators that can’t seem to understand our point. The transportation portion of an international student’s journey is always an element that requires extensive planning, and often needs an Angel to resolve. Our staff order shuttles from the coach marshals, direct groups through the terminal to the correct pickup location and make calls to coach companies should the process not run smoothly. The last point is crucial as Brown wrote, ‘Call centre staff came up top of the faults chart with more than a third saying they had been treated badly by call centre employees’. At Airport Angels, we take it upon ourselves to bear the brunt of uncomfortable interactions with customer service agents and workers to make the transition from airport to school the easiest, most comfortable part of any traveler’s trip. And yes, it is our job to deal with the grumpy coach drivers. You’re welcome.

We cannot control what happens during the student’s stay, but at all times in the airport our Angels endeavour to make all interactions fast and simple. This is true for returning students on their travels home. Most airline staff are wonderfully professional and treat all passengers with the courtesy they deserve, but, should they be busy and stressed, our team is present to take charge of check-in desk encounters. Angels take the lead on check-in procedures for students that are still uncomfortable interacting with customer service agents. However, we often find that returning students wish to engage with staff themselves, having a newfound confidence in their linguistic abilities. It is wonderful to see such a change in pupils; their confidence soaring from the school syllabus they have learned during their stay. Nonetheless, our role requires us, if needed, to take control of the situation and resolve potential problems including, excess baggage, boarding passes and rude staff. Most students are sad to leave England and wish they could stay longer, and we’d let them if it were allowed but unfortunately, we must say goodbye. The final part of our job requires us to say, “throw away water bottles over 100ml.” We’re sorry to be the bad guy but it saves a search at security- another encounter you do not want to face.

The service industry is a vital cog in airport operations, they provide meal deals to fuel us, phone providers to connect us, and information desks to guide us.  Not all customer service personnel are rude, in fact, most we encounter are personable and leave us with a “have a great day” or “enjoy your double espresso sir” on those early mornings. However, we have all dealt with rude workers that have ruined our day, and Brown states that ‘for many a seemingly small issue has become a huge hurdle’ to overcome and this poor experience in retail has led to ‘60 per cent [of students to] rate it as the most daunting aspect of studying overseas.’ This is a troubling number for Airport Angels because studying abroad is a life-changing experience that we hope everyone gets the chance to try. The definition of angel, in the non-spiritual sense, is ‘a person of exemplary conduct or virtue’ and while we are on the clock we aim to encompass those attributes to make the first and last experiences students have in England, the best part of their journey. The airport can be a tricky place to navigate- that’s why we’re here to help.


Let us know of any encounters you’ve had, positive or negative, via Facebook or Twitter, or contact us using our website Finally, credit to Huffington Post for the article referenced above. We’ve attached the source material in the link below for you to read. See you next week!