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British Airways has gone to the dogs. Everyone says so. Write about BA in the FT, and the readers’ complaints come taxiing in.
The consumer rankings confirm “the world’s favourite airline” is no longer anything of the sort. Among long-haul economy airlines surveyed recently by Which?, the UK consumer organisation, BA came third from bottom — way behind top-ranked carriers such as Singapore Airlines, Emirates and its UK rival Virgin Atlantic. Only American Airlines and United fared worse.
I should have tales of woe too. According to the “my flightpath” section of the BA website, I have flown 295,207 miles with the airline since 1998 — nearly 12 times the circumference of the Earth. In the past three years alone, I have taken 44 BA flights to and from destinations from Amsterdam to Tokyo. I have flown in all four classes — economy, premium economy, business and once, due to a freak price offer, first.
Have I joined the anti-BA chorus? Not really. Almost all my BA flights have got me there and back, nearly always on time. The only disruption I recall was a cancelled trip to Berlin from London City airport. Another flight, from New York to London, departed three hours late, and without food or luggage. But that was because, with a storm closing in and whipping wind, ground staff couldn’t open the hold doors. BA decided to load the passengers at least, and get away before the weather shut the airport, so I count that a success.
Unhappy customers are a problem. Going out of business would be a bigger one
Possibly I have been lucky. According to BA’s figures, as many as one in five of its flights was delayed last year. That, however, seems to be an industry-wide problem. Even Japan Airlines, the world’s most punctual airline, was late 15 per cent of the time, according to OAG, the flight data company. I have probably been lucky with BA staff too. Unlike some of my colleagues, I have found BA people friendly and helpful. When, on a recent flight, I did not have the right adapter to charge my phone, a flight attendant lent me her own.
But even I can see that there is a problem with BA: its cheese-paring. BA’s motto is “To fly, to serve”. It could as easily be “To fly, to shave (costs)”. The airline received some bad publicity by ending free food on its economy short-haul flights. It is not just at the back of the plane. More than its rivals, BA crams seats into business class, so that high-paying customers have to step over fellow passengers’ legs. Some of its Boeing 747s are shabby.
BA knows it needs to do something. It has refurbished 18 of its 34 747s, with another nine due for an upgrade. In any case, the last of the 747s will be phased out by 2024, to be replaced by 72 newer-model Boeing and Airbus planes. What happens after that depends on how much you are prepared to pay. BA plans to squeeze yet another seat into each economy row on its Boeing 777s, although it says this just brings it into line with airlines such as Emirates and Etihad. BA will also introduce a cheaper economy fare, for long-haul passengers who do not want to check in luggage or choose their own seats. In business, BA says it will introduce better seats — and each one will have access to the aisle.
Will this restore BA’s once-lustrous name? Posing the question misunderstands the challenge the airline faces. Unhappy customers are a problem. Going out of business would be a bigger one. Traditional airlines, particularly in Europe and the US, face ferocious competition from cut-price carriers, even on long-haul flights.
Big names have disappeared from the skies: Pan Am, TWA, Sabena. No airline has an automatic right to stay in business. BA’s revenues and profits rose last year. So did its passenger numbers — up 2 per cent to 45.2m.
BA’s planes will look smarter in future, its business passengers will have an untrammelled path to the loo and its economy cabins will be even more crowded. But as long as convenience — that huge Heathrow presence is a massive advantage — keeps the passengers booking, BA can live with their moaning.