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The Hard, Fast and Shameless Fall of British Airways
Thursday, March 22, 2018 -- Want to understand how far and how fully British Airways has fallen since it pioneered lie-flat beds in business class in 1999? Take this simple quiz:
Which carrier is BA better than in business class across the Atlantic?
Certainly not Aer Lingus or Iberia, like British Airways subsidiaries of the International Airlines Group. Both have notably better seats, newer lounges and hubs that aren't Heathrow, the avatar of much of what's wrong with modern business travel.
Not Air Canada or the U.S. legacy carriers, all of which have upgraded their premium classes since 2006, BA's last modest update of its Club World transatlantic cabin.
Not BA's primary continental competitors--Air France/KLM or Lufthansa and its vassals--or BA's hometown rival, Virgin Atlantic.
Not the other airlines on the geographic edges of the continent--SAS, Finnair, TAP Air Portugal and Turkish Airlines. Not even perennially cash-strapped European flag carriers such as LOT Polish or Alitalia. They all offer newer, more spacious, more comfortable and cheaper business class rides.
Aeroflot is better, too, with longer and wider lie-flat beds and in-flight WiFi, something BA is only now begrudgingly and belatedly installing. Even tiny Air Serbia has a better business class: It has WiFi and each of its lie-flat beds has direct aisle access, something BA's seats don't offer.
So, um, what's left? BA Club World is better than Icelandair. Although they have WiFi and cost dramatically less than BA, Icelandair business class seats have only 40 inches of pitch. La Compagnie charges a fraction of BA in business class, but uses angled-flat beds. And Ukrainian Airlines. I guess BA is better than Ukrainian, too.
BA's new seat in 1999 (left) was the first lie-flat bed in business class. The 2006 version tweaked the design, but did not enlarge the bed, now an outdated 20x72 inches.
How did BA fall so far, so fast? Two words: Willie Walsh.
The pugnacious Irishman took charge of British Airways late in 2005 and has dragged it down ever since. Now the boss of IAG, Walsh simply does not believe in quality airlines. Only pack-'em-in, fill-'em-up, run-'em-cheap carriers that make him plenty of bonus cash. In his dogged pursuit of every extra penny, Walsh has robbed BA of its international cachet and left the once ground-breaking Club World to rot.
Don't take my word for it. The guy currently running British Airways, chief executive Alex Cruz, agrees with me. When I talked with him in late 2016, Cruz was blunt in his assessment.
"There are a lot of things wrong with Club World," he said then. "We just don't have a competitive product anymore."
Cruz promised 16 months ago to fix BA's business class. He hasn't.
Other than new duvets that have yet to be deployed systemwide and new in-flight catering that apparently exists only on the New York-London route, Cruz has done nothing. Well, that's not entirely true. He did write a letter that infuriated flyers by claiming "British Airways is and always will be a premium airline," but also saying it'd take five years to right the listing ship.
BA's most pressing need, a replacement for its 19-year-old business class seat, won't even begin deploying until late next year. (Imagine how long it'll take to equip the entire fleet when BA still hasn't gotten those duvets into service systemwide after nine months.) No one's particularly encouraged by word of the new seat, either. An in-house effort to design it was reportedly scrapped and BA now is mulling off-the-shelf replacements crafted by third-party suppliers.
But no one really knows because Cruz has gone to ground. Even though he promised to talk to me again at the end of last year for an update, he's entombed in a cone of silence. Except for one or two generic, we-get-why-flyers-hate-us interviews with the British press, he's not talking to anyone who'll ask hard questions.
With BA mum, we have only the existing record on which to judge. And the record is depressingly clear: Unless you buy BA Club World at a deep, deep discount, you're better off flying almost anyone else.
BA's problems in 2018 are the same as they were back in 2016, when Cruz was so disarmingly honest about BA's wretched condition. BA's seat still stinks, its clubs are older and even more busted, the in-flight service is cold and impersonal--and often just nasty--and the Willie Walsh-era BA remains reliably penny pinching. After all, this is the only self-proclaimed "premium" airline that charges most transatlantic business class flyers for an advance seat assignment.
Should you brave Heathrow to connect on BA to fly elsewhere in Britain or Europe, your seat in Club Europe "business" class will have just 30 inches of legroom. In other words, coach. The only substantive difference? BA blocks the middle seat. But because this is the Walsh-era BA, word's out that the airline soon will eliminate the drop-down tray table that converts the empty middle seat into something like usable space.
There's no excuse for this state of affairs other than Walsh and Cruz think they can get away with it. BA controls more than half of the market at Heathrow and has noisily opposed any long-term expansion at its primary hub. BA and American are in a "metal neutral" joint venture across the Atlantic and dominate the lucrative Anglo-American runs. In other words, if you are headed to London--the end point of eight of the ten busiest transatlantic routes from the United States--Walsh gets his share of the business no matter how poor the BA product.
Going elsewhere in Europe? Walsh competes over Dublin with Aer Lingus and Madrid with Iberia. He's even developing Level for price-conscious flyers and hooking it up with Vueling, a Barcelona-based IAG subsidiary. Headed even farther? Qatar Airways owns 20 percent of IAG. Qatar Airways and British Airways continue to expand joint operations worldwide.
Ironically, though, it is the tie-up with Qatar Airways that underlines the tatty condition of British Airways.
When BA endured its annual summer meltdown last year--this time due to another strike by crewmembers who have been vilified by Walsh's vindictive approach to labor relations--the airline's customers expected the worst. Instead, Walsh brought in a fleet of Qatar Airways aircraft and Qatar Airways crews idled after one of the periodic political flare-ups between Qatar and its Arabian Gulf neighbors.
Startled London flyers heading to and from Europe were suddenly boarding newer planes with much more spacious coach and business class seats. They received complimentary meals and beverages. (BA even charges for hot water, the better to ding flyers who tote their own tea.) The Qatar Airways crews were engaging and accommodating.
"It was a very pleasant experience, really," one grateful BA customer told a British newspaper. The Qatar Airways aircraft and crew were "much better than what we're accustomed to."
Of course, almost everything in the skies is much better than BA these days. And no matter what they claim or what they promise, BA executives seem just fine with that.
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