I am currently attending the largest travel industry event for the UK, World Travel Market at the Excel in London. Much of what Alex Cruz, CEO and Chairman of BA, covered was also featured during the Capital Markets day but he did give more detail and a couple of very interesting answers to questions we all have. John Strickland, a well known aviation analyst, took the helm interviewing Alex after his initial speech.
Before I actually heard Alex Cruz speak in person and got the chance to question him about buy on board, I will confess to not being his biggest fan. It has felt to many that BA had lost its way with endless cuts and its premium products falling behind the competition. So how would I feel after actually hearing from Alex face to face?
Vision for BA
Finally, it feels like Alex is giving his staff and customers a clear vision for where he wants to BA to be. Up to this point it felt like a mish-mash between a low cost airline in economy and a middle of the road national airline in the premium cabins. Alex was very clear that he sees the proposition as a premium airline in all cabins but still the UK’s national airline with its inherent Britishness.
I think this clearer focus should help BA head back towards being able to compete with the Middle East carriers and even the US carriers that have substantially upped their game across the Atlantic. He felt that it was a time of increased competition and that BA wanted to stay ahead of these competitors. Alex said that BA need to modernise and change otherwise their competitors will keep their current edge in the premium cabins. His desire to “stay ahead” of their competition is a tall order seeing as their premium cabins are already well behind the likes of Qatar’s QSuites. To achieve this BA will be investing £4.5 billion over the next 5 years. This includes refurbishing the cabins of 128 aircraft, so that they “look and feel new”.
Alex confirmed that the new Club World will be all aisle access but he wasn’t giving much else away in terms of details. However, it was clear from what he said they have realised that BA are being left behind by the Middle East and American carriers business class products and they need to keep up. The rumours that BA’s new seat could rival Qatar’s QSuite could be true….
The new Club World bedding and catering have been well received by customers and customer satisfaction in Club has increased. I shall be reviewing the new bedding next month.
Buy on Board
This was one of the most interesting areas for me. Alex admitted that things had not gone smoothly with the introduction and they had been surprised by the uptake of BOB being much higher than anticipated. They have learnt a hard lesson from what has happened and they are doing their best to put it right. BA have already started to rectify the issue with the new simplified menu I talked about here and rostering more staff on busy flights or times of the day.
The most interesting part for me was what he hinted at for the future. I asked Alex whether they had discounted the SouthWest Airlines model completely where customers get a free soft drink or the AA model where frequent flyers get free drinks and food. Alex remarked that those airlines had been doing buy on board for many years unlike BA which have only just started. He admitted that they had not ruled out the models in the future, in particular for frequent flyers and those on more expensive full fare economy tickets.
This was a strong hint that they are likely to introduce something similar to AA with free drinks or snacks forfrequent flyers. In my opinion, it is something they should have done from the start as BOB did not go down well with BA’s business and frequent flyer customers travelling economy. It also would have cost very little for a soft drink but added huge goodwill rather than encouraging customers to simply fly the cheapest carrier.
This was the other area where Alex put to bed rumours circulating that BA may get rid of First altogether when they introduce their new Club seats from 2019. Alex confirmed exactly what I had been speculating. BA have no plans to get rid of First in the future as he put it “First is here to stay”.
However, there are some routes where they do not need as many as 14 seats (I assume he means that they could reduce the cabin size or use a different aircraft such as the B787 which has less seats). BA currently have several B787-10 on order. Alex also said there are some routes that do not need First at all. He remarked that they would need to do something “very special” with First in the future but for the time being their focus was on Club World improvements.
World Traveller Plus and economy
BA are planning to increase the size of some of the WTP cabins and I wonder if this will be when they start refurbishing the B747s that I talked about in this article. Alex also revealed they may refurbish some B777s too.
Alex expanded on what was announced at Capital Markets and confirmed that the improved economy meal service would include better snacks and full second meals on longer flights. He hinted that BA are looking at whether they will provide something similar to AA for full fare and top tier frequent fliers in economy with added extras such as extra legroom and free food or drinks.
New route announced
Alexa announced another new route for the first time at WTM. BA are trying to use their slot portfolio in a more flexible way now. This means that BA will be introducing Corsica Figuri from Heathrow next year. The new route will bring the total to 37 new routes over 2 years, an increase of 17%.
Automation and technology
Alex announced that the automatic boarding gates will be rolled out to all flights at Terminal 5. I actually welcome this as it has the ability to control the boarding process better and was faster when I have used it. He also wants to develop the BA app further to make it the best airline app in the world. BA have already added additional features this year such as upgrades and disruption rebooking options. I was pleased to hear that the in-seat power previously mentioned at Capital Markets will be for all cabins, not just the premium ones.
Overall I felt this was a positive session, with Alex admitting to some of the mistakes BA have made and presenting a much clearer vision for the future rather than just cost-cutting. I can only hope that BA manages to deliver these improvements in time to catch up with the competition who are several years and two generations of seat ahead in terms of premium products.