British Airways most amazing recent achievement is that it is still flying at all. The airline is torturing staff, passengers and competitors with a slow death from a thousand cuts. After peaking at 40 million passengers carried in 2002 the airline has been haemorrhaging money, services and customers month by month ever since. Deregulation has created a glut in airline services especially in Europe and the vultures are circling round BA, expecting their carcass to drop at any minute. If they do, it will provide the others with some much needed respite. BA dates from 1974 when the British government merged its two state owned carriers into one. It was privatised in 1987 and expanded through acquisition to become ‘the world’s favourite airline’. BA helped form One World and was one of two airlines to operate the supersonic Concorde which it retired in 2003. The carrier has been embroiled in marketing scandals, union disputes and price fixing fraud. In 2011 BA and Spanish carrier have merged, but will retain distinct branding.
On board service is not that bad. Staff are mostly politely spoken older British citizens. If you are able to strike up a conversation they are usually very experienced and have a rich personality. With this experience comes a high degree of jadedness. The airline’s uniform is sophisticated and even overweight crew look fetching. Crew are intelligent and worldly and do not need to be instructed on what to do when something goes wrong. Crew can recommend a good bar, almost anywhere on the planet.
British Airways once spanned the globe. If they didn’t fly there, it wasn’t worth going, but things have changed. Routes and flight frequencies are continuously being cut and BA now serves many countries in a token manner. Their domestic and short distance European network has been mauled by competitor airlines and rail. Even on their home turf they have been smashed by airlines flying to secondary airports. For example passengers travelling from Norwich to Brisbane will find the best service is KLM while Newcastle to Auckland passengers can fly most direct by Emirates. BA has maintained excellent connections to major US cities, but most are from London. London’s privatised airports are comparible to the worst run in Europe and will no doubt be blamed if BA does eventually fold.
BA is very competitive in overall price but a little extra money will often buy a ticket on a superior airline on long distance legs. From the UK to Europe BA is a safe and value-for-money bet, but is pricier than the numerous no-frills carriers it competes with. BA’s services however fly to better airports closer to the city centres, ticket and baggage issues will be resolved rather than fobbed off and ignored. Cancelled flights will be handled professionally. Business travellers to London city can fly to the Dockland’s quaint airport which is a short train ride to the CBD.
On long distance flights BA could not possibly cut anything further from their meal service and still claim to have one. Literally anything that is capable of downsizing or economising has been already. Catering is meagre, even in Business and First Class. Of course they are better than Economy but don’t compare with competitors or 1960’s on board banqueting. World Traveller Plus class has the same catering as Economy. Short distance flights have snacks rather than meals and some legs have nothing at all. On flights without meals it’s hard to see how BA can continue to claim being a Full Service Airline.
BA’s entertainment service depends on the aircraft and the leg being flown. Short distance flights have nothing more than the magazine which is fine on a 45 minute hop to Holland, while longer flights such as to Sao Paulo or Los Angeles will have the seat back screens and audio channels. The airline makes few concessions to non-English speakers and has an adequate choice of audio channels to go with their average movie choice. Their in-flight magazine is nothing to write home about.
British airports have a terrible reputation largely surrounding the antics of budget travellers and the shocking ‘service’ provided or not provided by no-frills carriers. BA should not be put in the same category as these as the airline tries very hard to provide the best service it can with what it’s got. Cutbacks naturally have resulted in lower service but ticketing issues and problems are usually sorted out quickly by professional and understanding staff. London Heathrow was one of the worst reputations for losing baggage in the world and unfortunately this is BA’s main airport. Transiting baggage has a strong chance of missing connecting flights and luggage does get lost. Most of the airlines baggage issues are not of their making. The airlines excess baggage rates are both outrageously expensive and can be unfair.
BA’s premium passengers can escape to a better world of travel by flying in Business and First Class. BA was an early pioneer of its fourth class; World Traveller Plus; economy service and baggage allowance from a Business Class sized seat. This class should be considered by bigger passengers and the elderly. BA’s premium interiors are very ‘English’ and have homely touches but lack a ‘wow’ factor. BA’s lounges resemble large well appointed cafes with business meeting areas. They can be crowded. Overall BA’s premium products are extremely ordinary and functional rather than indulgent.
Economy passengers typically get what they pay for. Fares are reasonable, food is adequate, drinks are scares, entertainment is sufficient to relieve the boredom and crew range from being entertainingly humorous to coldly snobbish. A BA Economy experience is just a flight and passengers can sense the airline has seen better days. BA Economy passengers can also rest in the comfort they are unlikely to be sharing their flight with rowdy drunken football hooligans who prefer to patronise Ryan Air and easyJet.
BA’s higher tier frequent flyers are as much concerned about the status their membership implies rather than the benefits they get from the scheme. Their Executive Club is a comprehensive programme typically only of value to very frequent travellers. Miles can be notoriously difficult to redeem for peak services but customers who want an upgrade or complimentary flight on an unpopular flight will be fine. BA’s scheme stretches to their One World partners and numerous other airlines and travel product providers.
BA’s management board was once a sine que for friends of Corporate Britain or the Government. After a successful business or Civil Service career a reward was to receive an appointment to BA’s board. A knighthood occasionally came with the job. However as the airline’s passengers deserted the airline for budget minnows and as profits disappeared the board has come under intense pressure to perform. Management has stooped to incredible lows to defeat both competitors and the airline’s unions but their methods have typically resulted in fines, resignation and a loss of reputation. While low cost carriers unashamedly pay crew, pilots and ground staff minimal pay, BA is burdened with a poor performing staff pension scheme and higher pay rates left over from better times. Understandably staff are not enthusiastic about smaller pay packets and declining working conditions and are putting up a fight. BA’s management-staff relations are toxic.
BA has a mixed fleet of Boeing and Airbus variants which are maintained to a superior standard than many competitors. The airline’s safety record is routinely scrutinised by the media and many of their ‘incidents’ have highlighted the high degree of professionalism and skill of its crew. BA has had one fatal incident and several close shaves. In 2008 a 777 skidded into Heathrow missing the fence by inches with UK Prime Minister watching the miracle in person. However Flight BA9 in 1982 is the stuff of Hollywood. When all four engines gave out from volcano ash the crew’s calmness and skill saved the day as they literally glided the 747 to safety making the most understated announcement in the history of aviation. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress’.
The airline tries hard but has been eclipsed by competitors and is seldom the best option.
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