The sudden departure of British Airways’ Chief Executive, Alex Cruz - who stepped down today - is an indication of the huge pressures currently faced by the airline industry. Much of the criticism of Cruz has centred on his handling of job cuts at the airline and employment terms and conditions for those that managed to keep their jobs. But where do BA’s passengers fit into the picture?
Let’s put the immediate crisis to one side for a moment, and assume that the airline industry manages to get back to some kind of normality by – say – next summer. What should the BA’s priorities be then?
The best measure we have of the airline’s pre-Covid performance from its passengers’ point of view is Telegraph Travel’s annual readers’ survey. Until relatively recently, BA was riding high – consistently winning the short-haul category 2012-2016 and performing at least respectably in the long haul category. But from 2017 to 2019 it has fallen back sharply in your estimation.
While relative newcomer Jet2 soared to the top of the table in last year’s awards, BA, which was celebrating its centenary, had sunk to mid table. Its performance for longer flights was even more disappointing. While its long term rival Virgin held 8th place, BA dropped to 34th, beaten by much lesser-known names including Ethiopian Airlines and SriLankan Airlines – carriers that have nothing like BA’s resources or marketing power.
It is starting to look more like steady decline than just a blip. So what has been going wrong?
The airline has certainly had some severe turbulence to cope with. The disastrous IT power failure in 2017 – which led to chaos at Heathrow – and the theft the following year of hundreds of thousands of its customers’ credit card details were serious reputational setbacks.
But there has also been a slow erosion of its offering to economy class passengers – who comprise most of those surveyed. For example, in 2017, free refreshments were withdrawn on all short haul flights and two more rows of seats were squeezed into the back of its A320 and A321 Airbus aircraft, which cut legroom in economy class on some flights from 30 to 29 inches. Both were part of a longer-term process of cutting back on the service at the back of the plane – those small extras, inclusions and comforts which can make such a big difference to the convenience and pleasure of flying.
It’s important, of course, to remember the challenges BA has faced, and in many ways you do have to salute its achievements. This is the airline which had to transform itself from atrophy in the public sector into a thriving public company, and – almost immediately – had to take on fierce and relentless competition from a new wave of upstart low-cost competitors including Ryanair and EasyJet.
Until Covid-19 hit, and despite the recent decline in customer ratings, it remained a hugely profitable operation, which was taking steps to rebuild its offering. Its fleet is being steadily updated with new planes and, only last week, it retired the last of the old 747 jumbos. Meanwhile, last year, it launched a new Club World with a reorganised layout and promised improvements to food and amenities in all cabins.
Now, of course it is in a fight for survival. In July, its parent company, IAG, reported a loss of £3.8bn forcing it to make a €2.75bn rights issue. And it has warned that it doesn’t expect passenger numbers to return to last year’s levels until 2023 or 2024.
The new chief executive, former Aer Lingus boss Sean Doyle, will have his hands full trying to restore the balance sheets. But if he wants to win back enough passengers to do that, he will need to start impressing them again. There are three key areas where I think BA needs to make progress in the medium term:
Better customer service
A recurring theme in the feedback from readers which I have seen over recent years, has been how difficult it has been to get both a response and a satisfactory resolution to complaints, and also unhappiness about how problems have been handled on the ground. Last year, BA did announce a £6.5 billion investment on staff training and resources in this area. Time will tell if this has paid off.
More World Traveller Plus
One of the airline’s big successes from a passenger point of view has been its premium economy service on long haul flights. It is much more comfortable than economy and much cheaper than Club class. The problem is that it is often full. More seats on more services, please.
More comfort at the back of the plane
The vast majority of BA customers are not the pampered few in Club class, who are travelling on expenses, but leisure travellers who fly economy. It looks certain that - as a result of Covid-19 - the number of business travellers will drop sharply. Leisure travel is the future, and BA is behind the curve when it comes to looking after those at the back of the plane. For example, a seat pitch (which indicates the amount of legroom) of 31 inches is typical on its long haul flights. Singapore Airlines, which came top of last year’s Telegraph survey, and Emirates, which came second, offer 32-34 inches. BA’s economy class passengers need more room, more comfort and better service.
What could BA do to improve its service in your books? Leave a comment in the box below to let us know.