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Giving BA's Business Class the Business
December 1, 2016 -- Like a lot of you, Alex Cruz isn't a big fan of British Airways' business class across the Atlantic.

He doesn't think the food is good enough. He believes the in-flight service must improve. He feels the "soft" product such as blankets and pillows needs an upgrade. He's convinced that BA lounges at key U.S. gateways aren't up to par. Most importantly, he knows that the British Airways Club World seatbed, which in 1999 basically invented the idea of fully flat beds in business class, is horribly outdated.

The difference between you, me and the 50-year-old Cruz? He's in a position to do something about BA's shortcomings. After all, he is chairman and chief executive of the airline.

"There are a lot of things wrong with Club World," he admits. "We just don't have a competitive product anymore."

If you're shocked to hear an airline boss admit his product doesn't rate, join the crowd. I was prepared to argue BA's up front failings with Cruz and point out that Club World's popularity among U.S. business travelers these days is primarily due to frequent sales that drop fares below $2,000 roundtrip.

But Cruz, who took over BA in April, beat me to it. He was so disarmingly honest about BA's long-haul business class that I never got around to asking about the airline's decision to continue cheapening coach and eviscerating its short-haul Club Europe business class. When you claim to be a high-quality airline but you sell business class seats with 30-inch pitch on intra-Europe routes, you are, um, cruising for a bruising.

Still, it's the quality of transatlantic business class that wins U.S. reputations and influences high-yield frequent flyers, so Cruz throwing shade at his own product is big news. But the Spanish-born, U.S.-educated Cruz, who did turns at American Airlines and created a low-fare European carrier, would not diss his own business class if he didn't have a plan to improve it.

He passionately and rapidly ticks off a list of upgrades both on the ground and in the air that will cost a total of more than $600 million in the next few years. That doesn't even include an investment in a new seat, which seems further away from reality than many current or potential BA flyers might accept.

Before we talk about the convoluted future of the seat, however, let's give Cruz a chance to talk about the improvements he says the airline is committed to deliver quickly.

As BA outlined to analysts a few days before I caught up with Cruz just before Thanksgiving, the goal of a reorganization and retraining of premium class staffers is to increase quiet time, especially on night flights. On the comparatively short New York-London run, for instance, Cruz thinks the new staff procedures will "increase quiet time by an hour and a half. And that's what customers tell us they want. [Service] that allows them to get better sleep."

To that end, BA is also changing pillows, duvets and other elements of the in-flight "soft" product. "It will definitely be a step up in quality," he insists.

Food and beverage service? While BA is eliminating free meals on shorter-haul flights down the back, Cruz promises a "radical" upgrade in quality and presentation in transatlantic business class. The key to delivering? Allowing flyers to pre-order meals, something many carriers already permit.

Back on the ground, Cruz says BA knows it has fallen far behind other airlines in lounge quality and other perks such as security-bypass lanes and quick transfers. In fact, Cruz was in New York last month just as BA was announcing a five-year, $110 million initiative to improve its U.S. airport facilities.

Some of that will be devoted to the new destinations that BA has announced, including Oakland and New Orleans, which will bring the carrier up to 25 U.S. gateways. Some of it will go to upgrades in San Francisco, where BA is expanding to accommodate the A380 on the SFO-London/Heathrow run. Some of the money will go to a new lounge at Boston/Logan, where BA is relocating operations. (Separately, British Airways is due to open a new lounge next month at Gatwick, the secondary London airport where several of BA's new U.S. routes will operate.)

More than half of the $110 million investment--about $65 million--will go to what Cruz calls a "quite heavy refurbishment" of Terminal 7 at New York/Kennedy Airport. If I were being polite, I'd call T7, which BA controls but shares with Cathay Pacific, Iberia, All Nippon Airways and several smaller players, overcrowded, unfriendly and tired. If I were being honest, I'd call it a dank, ugly pit.

I need not remind you of the disproportionate financial and cultural importance of the NyLon route between New York and London, so you will understand BA's desire to concentrate on JFK. Cruz says the first design work will be completed next year and he expects new lounges, refurbished check-in and security positions and other building improvements.

Which brings us back to the metaphoric winter of BA's business class discontent, its outdated seat. Even when it was shiny new and groundbreaking back in 1999, the seat and its layout were controversial.

Lots of folks didn't like riding "backwards," a concession BA made to space considerations. Seatbeds presented real or imagined privacy concerns that cradle seats did not. Aisle access was a problem, too, as customers at the window seats and in middle seats in the center rows had to climb over other flyers to get to the aisles. Not to mention the contortions flight attendants had to master to serve window and middle-seat customers.

More than 15 years after they were introduced, and even after a several generations of upgrades, the BA seatbeds are irretrievably outdated. They're too narrow (20 inches wide) and too short (72 inches long). The lack of aisle access for all passengers is a drawback. There's not enough storage space and not enough privacy. The in-flight entertainment system is limited and there's no WiFi. The awkward service issues as flight attendants navigate around and over aisle customers to serve middle- and window-seat flyers remain.

Originally designed around a floorplan for BA's workhorse Boeing 747s, the seatbeds are woefully out of place on newer aircraft such as Airbus A380s and Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Worst of all, BA doesn't just trail its global rivals, the current Club World seat isn't nearly as good as business class accommodations offered on Aer Lingus or Iberia, two carriers owned by BA's parent company, International Airlines Group (IAG).

"The current seat is not competitive," Cruz concedes without the slightest hesitation or equivocation. "The time has come to try something different. There's lots of evidence that we have to evolve."

Cruz says BA is working on new designs and talking to seat manufacturers although a decision isn't imminent. And he says the fast, obvious choice--adopting Iberia's beds (26 inches wide and 78 inches long) or the sterling Aer Lingus product--isn't really so fast or obvious.

Coalescing around a single business class seat for all of IAG's international carriers, Cruz says, "would have to come from Willie," referring to IAG boss and former BA and Aer Lingus chief executive Willie Walsh. "And Willie is actually pretty good at giving [the operating units] latitude."

In other words, "this is going to be a BA solution. We'll get there. We have a good idea what the premium passenger wants," Cruz insists.

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