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British Airways has a nostalgia problem

British Airways passengers can long for silver service in the clouds. They get a free bottle of water and a packet of chips.

New boss Sean Doyle has vowed to restore the airline’s reputation for first-class customer service. That’s a sensible strategy. BA has been pursuing it more or less successfully for decades. The problem Doyle faces is that compared to what passengers want, what BA can deliver can only end in disappointment.

It’s not just about the sandwiches, but it’s a little about them. When then-CEO Willie Walsh provided free food for short distances in 2009, it was seen as the triumph of cost savings over customer service standards. The saint was sacrificed for a saving of only £ 22 million. Later boss Alex Cruz did it all again in 2016.

There have been plenty of other reasons to complain. It was the IT outcome in 2017 that stranded passengers. The “national disgrace” that was the chaotic opening of Terminal 5. BA’s less than generous legroom on short-haul flights. The fact that its setup of eight across business class meant you had to climb over a stranger to answer nature’s calls at night, and its seats became more and more shabby.

So if Walsh and Cruz were cost-saving, Doyle is the customer champion. Thanks to him, free water and snacks are back on the BA menu. He also cited other improvements in an email Sunday morning to executive club customers, not all of which were sops: table reservations in lounges, a new baggage tracking system, and upgrades to customer call centers to reduce waiting times.

Perhaps these changes count as premium in a time when short-haul luggage is a luxury. Still, they lack the grandeur that the airline’s opera commercials have encouraged potential passengers to imagine over the years, but which would require the budget of a Golf carrier to implement.

British Airways recognizes, like everyone else, that in economy class, it is primarily competition on price, not frills. That’s what achieved industry-leading operating margins of about 15 percent pre-pandemic. Thrift on that front is what will preserve future returns for the shareholders who spent $ 2.75 billion. EUR to support the parent company’s IAG 2020 issue.

That said, BA’s premium product has lagged behind. It can no longer afford to be complacent that first-class Heathrow slots will do the hard work, with business class customers from New York’s JFK sucking up a substandard product, provided they land in London at Now that the pandemic has shaken the industry, BA has to tempt passengers to travel at all.

Business class – and the profits it provides – are supported by leisure travelers. This trend may disappear once cash-rich tourists have given out their excess lockdown savings, but one that will not is premium economy. The swollen rows of the world’s massive will continue to pay for a little extra legroom, a slightly more exclusive cabin and a price tag that uses some of the children’s heritage, but not the whole thing. For IAG, the appeal is obvious. HSBC analyst Andrew Lobbenberg estimated last year that its premium economy margins per square meters of floor space was about 35 percent – higher than business and more than double economy.

The problem is that such travelers are likely to be less sensitive to slots, so their experience on board actually matters. Doyle can thank Cruz for a seat improvement program that is already underway. But Cruz’s second legacy is a problem: staff are understandably tired of an employer threatening to fire and re-employ them on less generous terms. The moral deficit shows up, and so does the feeling that the cabin crew is overworked. Unless Doyle can turn it around, BA’s premium appeal will suffer.

One of the Saatchi admins behind BA’s hopeful campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s believed that the airline was an analogue to the state of Great Britain. BA’s business class at the time embodied the late ’80s dizziness in the city, he said. A nostalgia for British Airways from that time is understandable, but a return to it is unattainable at a sufficiently attractive return for investors. Neither call centers nor crisps will restore its status as the world’s preferred airline. But then BA would do well if it was just Britain’s favorite.

cat.rutterpooley@ft.com

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