British Airways In The 2010’s. A Fall From Grace

Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s the airline was seen as the cream of the crop. If you wanted to be seen, you’d be flying BA. Hence the motto “The Worlds Favourite Airline”. So where did it all go wrong? Well, a rebranding from the much loved Landor colour scheme to the disastrous World Tails scheme could be seen as the first part to crumble, however it was more than just a colour scheme.

When I first flew the airline in early 1997, my first impression was that they weren’t as good as fierce rivals Virgin Atlantic purely because they didn’t offer seat back TV screens in their flagship of the time, the Boeing 747. Fast forward to my next flight in October 2001, the airline still offered a full cooked breakfast on the London Heathrow – Manchester run. Still sounds pretty decent, right? Another Manchester flight followed for me in 2004 – again, on the 40 minute run, sandwiches, snacks and drinks were available. This was my last flight with the airline until early 2012 – by which point the former CEO Rod Eddington had left and been replaced by former Aer Lingus and (briefly) Virgin Atlantic top man, Willie Walsh, followed a few years later by Keith Williams when Willie Walsh had taken the top job at IAG.

So what did I make of this first flight with them after eight years? Well, it was much the same as the last few flights I’d taken all those years previously. And of note, that included the seating which was looking rather worn by this stage. Also, this flight I had taken from Heathrow’s terminal 5 which had opened in early 2008. During 2012, I took a few more flights with the airline, as well as flights with Lufthansa and KLM, who I actually thought were a little better. During 2012 I also sampled the airlines premium offering for the first time – on a flight to Madrid on one of their targeted online upgrades. As I was a lowly BA Executive Club Blue member at the time, this was also the first time I had sampled the Airlines’ lounges. I was highly impressed with the offering at T5. There was a great buffet spread in their business class lounge, plus packets of biscuits to take away, ice creams and tasty sandwiches on offer. Also, as my flight would departing from T5C, I was able to claim £15 worth of goods from the Starbucks there due to the lack of a lounge – great! On to the flight itself, and that didnt quite go to plan. The ageing 767 developed a technical issue and the flight had to be cancelled. However, the crew still provided the onboard service – the much debated afternoon tea, which in those days was a lot more substantial.

The following year, I earned Silver status with the Executive Club, therefore flew the airline a lot more. This included a couple of long haul flights in their World Traveller Plus cabin. The older cabin on their 747 wasn’t anything to write home about, however the refreshed cabin on the 777 was a steep improvement.

On the lounge front, 2013 was a turning point. Long time catering provider Compass group lost the contract and was replaced by Baxter Storey. Far from being an improvement, it was quite the opposite. The change from mid 2013 was met with widespread criticism. Gone was the appealing buffet that I had experienced in 2012 and in were what can only be described as troughs of brown slop. It wasn’t just the customers that had noticed either. The food inspector rated the lounge catering facilities in Terminal 5 just 2 out of 5 and was placed in the bottom 10% of all food places to eat in the UK. To the caterers credit, the kitchen facilities were improved after this and it should also be noted that they can only work with what they have been given – if BA only provide them with a budget for basic food, then thats all they can provide. At the time of writing in March 2019, I have noticed small improvements in the catering offering in the First lounge over the last couple of months.

From an onboard perspective, not an awful lot had changed in 2013. Still the same old worn and torn seats, plus a basic on board offering in Euro Traveller of biscuits/crisps on the shorter sectors or a more substantial sandwich/wrap on the longer ones.

The following year saw not so many changes in the lounges, but one of the bigger ones regarding the onboard product in recent years. The airline finally got rid of the tatty and worn old blue leather seats and replaced them with a much smarter looking dark charcoal (almost black) setup along with a complete refresh of the cabins including new carpets and the famous BA Speedmarque in chrome on the bulkhead wall. Unfortunately, as is seemingly common with the airline recently, it was one step backwards and two backwards. Although the seats and cabins took on a much needed refresh, this came at the cost of general space. Gone was the extremely generous seat pitch of 34 inches in the Club Europe cabin (and the first rows of Euro Traveller depending on where the curtain was placed) and in came a standard seat pitch of around 30 inches throughout the cabin, with the exception of row 1 and the exit rows – of which themselves aren’t as generous as they once were. By mid 2015, the older blue themed cabins on the Airbus fleet was no more, however they could still be found on the Boeing 767 fleet due to the fact they were refurbished in 2011/2012 and were due to be retired by the end of the decade.

British Airways A319 Aircraft Seats Taken: 8th September 2016 Picture by: Stuart Bailey / British Airways

On to 2015, and this was another year which would prove to be somewhat trying for the airlines loyal customer base. And potentially one of the biggest hitting for members of the Executive Club. January of that year came the announcement of a massive de-valuement – gone were the minimum of 1000 Avios per flight, gone were the minimum of 10 tier points per flight and for Silver members, their bonus Avios was cut by 50%. It wasn’t just the higher tiers that were affected however, as earning rates across the board were slashed by up to 75% in some cases. This wasn’t the only issue however. Redemptions were generally more expensive too – a First class redemption I made in late 2014 that cost 90,000 Avios would now cost 102,000 at least, and potentially up to 120,000 Avios depending on whether it was classed as a peak or off peak ticket. Also gone were the free domestic connections, meaning that a previous routing from MAN-LHR-JFK would only result in the LHR-JFK sector being charged now meant you’d have to stump up the Avios for the MAN-LHR sector too. The positive spin that the airline put on this however was that more reward seats would be made available. From personal experience though, I still seem to struggle to find available reward seats, despite supposedly “more than 9 million extra” were to be made available.

Also of note in late 2015 was that Alex Cruz, founder of the short lived Click Air and formerly of IAG partner Vueling would be taking over as CEO from Keith Williams in April 2016. After a hard hitting few years, 2016 was time for some slight relief – nothing too drastic was changed this year, other than a restructuring of the short haul fare structures. Out was “Hand Baggage Only” and in came a clearer “basic” fare that included basically nothing. Even top tier status holders were expected to pay up to £20 to choose a seat at any time. Previously anyone could choose for free at online check in, however it was now chargeable throughout. Dumped in seat 28E? Too bad, you’ll have to pay up to move. The benefits of the “Plus” fares included checked baggage and seat selection up to 48 hours in advance. Another benefit was free same day flight changes, however this was extremely short lived and quietly withdrawn within a couple of months.

2017 saw quite possibly the most unpopular move of all for the airline. After rumours circulating for a good few years, it was finally announced that the airline would ditch free catering in Euro Traveller and instead shift to a buy on board concept, provided by Tourvest, supplying Marks&Spencer food products. The early days of this was met with nothing but negative comments from all angles – not helped by the fact that the crew were unfamiliar with the payment technology used (I speak from personal experience) and there were frequent occurrences of not enough food being loaded. In some cases just ONE sandwich for a pair of flights!

This was somewhat overshadowed however over the May Bank Holiday weekend. A power failure in the airlines IT centre caused an estimated 75,000 passengers to end up stranded due to their flights being cancelled. It wasn’t just passengers that were affected however – even members of cabin crew trying to log on to the BA intranet to train for their upcoming SEP training were unable to do so. The airline had hit rock bottom. Alex Cruz appeared online (complete with a now infamous hi-viz vest) to explain that the failure had been down to a power surge, however the local electricity providers said there had been no evidence of such an occurrence at the time. Whatever the cause, it cost the airline an estimated £170 million and there were calls for Alex Cruz to resign.

On to the more recent days, and from my own personal point of view it would appear that the senior management have realised that maybe the cuts have done more to alienate their loyal customers (and to a certain extent the staff) than anything else. Once more, top tier frequent flyers can now select their seats for free on the basic fares and I have on the odd occasion been given a free cup of tea and biscuits when in Euro Traveller. As mentioned earlier, whilst in general the lounge catering still isn’t the best in terms of presentation there have been a few improvements to it. The airline has also invested in the lounge hardware – new furniture in the Heathrow lounges and new lounges entirely at London Gatwick, Rome, Aberdeen, Dubai, Boston and Singapore have opened in recent years.

Fleet wise, the Airbus A320neo has been added, along with slimline seats towards the rear of the plane. Having experienced them myself, they’re not quite as comfortable as the previous Pinnacle seats, however they are more comfortable than what the Lufthansa Group offers on their Airbus fleet. A sign of the times. A new Club World product has been rumoured for a few years and the airline teased a few pictures of it on their social media accounts in March 2019. Around the same time, improvements of the soft product in their First cabin were announced including refreshed amenity kits, new pyjamas and crockery. The recent introduction of Do&Co catering for Club Europe flights out of Heathrow and Gatwick has been received positively and the airline has announced it will cover all long haul cabins from 2020.

LONDON, UK: British Airways Club Europe food photographed at 21 August 2018 (Picture by Nick Morrish/British Airways)

Despite the tough times seen in the 2010’s, the airline seems to be making efforts to become more favourable in the eyes of the public once more. Let’s see what the 2020’s hold for the airline.

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