British Airways: what happens now?

Simon Calder
·4-min read
Flag carrier: British Airways is still seen by some as the nation's property (Getty Images)
Flag carrier: British Airways is still seen by some as the nation's property (Getty Images)

The worst job in the aviation world? Cleaning out a newly arrived long-haul flight is not exactly a-laugh-a-minute (and the premium cabins are worst, in my experience). And while working in airport security is more of a person-to-person experience, like many other jobs on the ground and in the skies, it involves some fairly extreme shifts.

Neither, though, compares with the hypertoxic chalice that is the top job at British Airways. So I imagine Alex Cruz, who stepped down as chief executive at BA on Monday, may feel a planeload of excess baggage has been lifted from his considerable shoulders. He is staying on as non-executive chairman, with Sean Doyle of Aer Lingus taking over the heavy lifting.

“The role of BA’s CEO has always been to achieve a fine balance between shareholders, customers and staff,” says Jamie Bowden, former spokesman for British Airways.

When Mr Cruz took the top job in 2016, the brief was clear: reduce the cost burden that accompanies any “legacy” airline. Many loyal, long-serving and highly professional staff were on employment terms that BA had gladly agreed in an era of high fares and low competition.

Passengers, too, had legacy expectations, such as the complimentary gin-and-tonic on a short hop from Edinburgh to Heathrow and a full meal, yes with wine please, on a trip to Athens. Turning this considerable expense into a revenue stream was never going to be popular – akin to the BBC announcing the end of The Archers.

Even though British Airways was privatised 33 years ago, many people still feel they own part of the airline. Being a “mother brand” brings many benefits, but it also has drawbacks – such as a profound resistance to change among customers.

The mother of all IT foul-ups came along on Mr Cruz’s watch, too. An inadvertent tripping of the “off” switch for BA’s reservations and operations system destroyed a bank holiday weekend of flying in May 2017, and the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people. The airline’s recovery was not as gracious as it might have been; just as Ryanair did with its self-inflicted pilots’ roster cancellations later the same year, British Airways initially appeared to swerve its obligations under European air passengers’ rights rules.

Add the data breach that allowed the credit card details of half a million customers to be stolen, and Mr Cruz has suffered more than his share of the misfortune that inevitably dogs every top executive at BA.

But did the outgoing CEO prioritise shareholders ahead of passenger and staff? Former king of spin at British Airways, Jamie Bowden, believes so: “While Alex has overseen some very good financial results, it has arguably been at the cost of BA’s brand reputation, and undoubtedly the motivation of the BA workforce.”

After his flight from Dublin to Heathrow, Sean Doyle must be surveying a “to-do” list that is longer than a passenger manifest for a (still grounded) Airbus A380. So I offer him a trio of quick wins that he can tick off.

Passenger benefit: get rid of the obsolete rule that says, “If you don’t use your outbound flight, you lose the inbound leg too”. This outdated term was created in the bad old days of punitive pricing, and these days serves only to cheese customers off.

Environmental benefit: at the same time, stop selling one-way transatlantic tickets for two or three times the cheapest return fare. You know and I know that it just means people buy a round-trip ticket and throw away the return half, thereby becoming a wasteful no-show.

Revenue benefit: I love the 46kg cabin baggage allowance that British Airways confers even on the cheapest passenger, but I have no idea why BA continues to offer it. I’ll happily pay extra for the privilege.

The most profound challenge for the incoming Aer Lingus man, though, is to become inspirational – and boost the morale of BA’s bruised and depleted staff.

“Ultimately British Airways is a service industry,” says Jamie Bowden. “The only way Sean Doyle will bring BA out of this crisis successfully is to re-engage, re-energise and re-motivate the workforce.”

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