Let me start by declaring I am a loyal British Airways fan. For me flying does not get better than to experience British Airways service at its best, be seated on one of their planes knowing it is superbly maintained, listening to the dulcet tones of a British Airways pilot and looking out of the window to see Rolls-Royce engines ready to power us aloft.
But sadly, listening to some of my clients together with various well-publicised recent events, something appears to be going badly wrong, so let us examine the past in order to fully understand the future.
Long before my time there was Imperial Airways. This was an early British commercial long-range air transport company that operated from 1924 to 1939 serving parts of Europe but principally the British Empire routes to South Africa, India and the Far East, including Malaysia and Hong Kong. In 1939 Imperial Airways merged with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) which in turn merged with British European Airways Corporation in 1974 to form British Airways.
Since 1974 onwards British Airways has gone from strength to strength and like most leading brands, as it expanded, it has had its ups and downs in terms of vision, service and delivery. Prior to its present difficulties British Airways turned to its formidable history to rediscover its heritage, many of you may remember a superb marketing campaign with the tagline “To Fly. To Serve”
Let me remind you of some of the key= messages British Airways delivered in this campaign:
To fly to serve is who we are. It’s what we do. We’re putting customers back at the heart of the operation. It’s what our brand stands for and it’s what our customers look for when they choose to travel with us.
To our customers, British style conjures up an image of sophistication, understated design, quality and meticulous attention to detail. Our thoughtful service makes customers feel treated as individuals and their needs are understood from the very moment they book a flight with us.
Keeping our promises means we will live up to our customers’ expectations, from consistent service to punctual departures, to reliable in-flight entertainment, to bags arriving safely and on time. If we say we will do something we will do it, our service is warm and approachable, we are experts in flying and that’s because we do things properly.
This was British Airways message circa 2011 onwards, it was brilliantly encapsulated in a superb range of videos that are still available on YouTube and when you watch them, they made you feel proud that BA is our national brand. At the time the experience lived up to the marketing.
So what has changed in the recent history of BA to bring us to the currently perceived low ebb?
Well quite a few things. In January 2011 British Airways and Iberia, the flag carrier airlines of the UK and Spain, respectively merged into International Consolidated Airlines Group, shortened to IAG, with its operational headquarters in London and officially registered in Madrid for taxation and currency purposes, with British Airways holding 55% of the newly formed company.
In October 2011 IAG created Iberia Express, a new low-cost airline which began operations in March 2012. In April 2012 IAG completed the purchase of British Midland International (BMI) from Lufthansa, which increased IAG’s share of Heathrow Airport slots from 45% to 54%. In 2013 IAG took control of Vueling, a Spanish low-cost airline based in Barcelona. In December 2012 IAG completed the merger of the cargo operations of BA, BMI and Iberia into a single business unit, IAG Cargo.
In August 2015 IAG took over Aer Lingus in a £1 billion deal. In March 2017 IAG announced the launch of a new low-cost long haul airline named LEVEL operating out of Barcelona. In November 2015 Alex Cruz was appointed chief executive and chairman of British Airways, his background is that he was founder and chief executive of clickair which then became part of Vueling in 2009, at the time Vueling was Spain’s second largest airline with 163 destinations.
If we review the history of British Airways since 1924, we can see that change and mergers are no stranger, indeed the one thing about the aviation industry is that change is constant, but clearly there are other issues at play here. Currently the main issues seem to be crew disruption caused by mixed fleet integration. Put simply BA have been recruiting new crew on new contracts, the terms of which are fundamentally different from legacy BA crew. It is the crew on the new contracts that appear to be causing the disruption and BA have put much resource behind keeping their services operating during this dispute.
Then there was a much-publicised removal of inclusive food and drink on short haul flights and on talking to my client base the biggest gripe appears to be not around M&S sandwiches but the removal of free gin and tonic.
And finally, we move to complete shutdown of BA’s IT systems at Heathrow which has received much press coverage. This resulted in huge disruption for BA’s clients and has caused many questions to be asked. My guess is BA will, for very good commercial and security reasons, not make public what happened. However, I do believe that IAG must explain to their shareholders how such a threat to their investment is possible, as well as reassure them there will no recurrence.
Given that as of August 2016 Qatar Airways, who are the state owned flag carrier of Qatar, announced they now own 20% of IAG it could be a very interesting time ahead.
So looking back at this history I believe there are lessons to be learnt, clearly within IAG there is much appetite and emphasis on low-cost travel. I also believe that in terms of the BA brand, IAG felt it had to do something, as we all know what happened with Kodak and the denial of the digital revolution.
However, as it currently stands I believe nobody is clear what the British Airways brand stands for anymore.
So again turning to history, a past American president whose good friend had been charged with very serious offences was asked by the marauding press if he was a friend of the president. His reply was firmly “NO!” The president then said, “He is a very good friend!” Thus giving the press nowhere to go with the story.
My suggestion for British Airways is to acknowledge that you are a little more expensive, because you’re worth it, deliver on all the brand promises that have always been at your heart, listen to the people who work for you, who are so proud of what you have been and so desperately want to be part of what you could be.
Set out a bold and clear vision that British Airways is the premier brand of the skies and no matter where you encounter or touch that brand, it will be superior and above all, reinstate the free gin and tonics.
If you’d like to know more, please contact me on John@Uniglobepreferred.co.uk