How flyers fell out of love with British Airways

It famously claimed to be the world's favourite airline - but passengers are now running out of patience

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Bride Klara Buck put her faith in British Airways for one of the most important trips of her life — her honeymoon.

Because of the Covid pandemic her flight from the UK to Japan was cancelled in December 2020 and again a year later.

She was in the same boat as millions of other travellers and understood that it was not the fault of the airline.

But Ms Buck's experience dealing with customer services to rearrange the flights was such a nightmare that she very much doubts she will fly BA again.

“Their Twitter feed is shocking. I have sent more DMs [direct messages] to them than I have had hot dinners,” she told The National.

“In previous years BA would have been one of my top choices but I don’t know if I will trust them again.”

The administrator, 28, from Kent, will be flying Japan Airlines when she finally jets off this year with husband Jamie.

Jamie Vadasz, 28, a technical services manager from Warwickshire, had his BA flight from Heathrow to Hanover cancelled last week because of an IT glitch that upset the travel plans of thousands of passengers.

After his journey was rescheduled he enjoyed a weekend in the German city before BA lost his suitcase on his return flight.

“They have told me that staff shortages are causing problems but no one seems to be bothered,” Mr Vadasz told The National.

“I’ve worked in customers services. Mistakes happen. But you cannot have people not taking responsibility or people not trying to help you when things go wrong.”

The UK’s flag carrier airline has, like other flight operators, weathered the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic but in recent months has hit more hurdles as it tries to recover.

Quote
Mistakes happen. But you cannot have people not taking responsibility
Jamie Vadasz, passenger

This week, thousands of BA passengers found themselves in a similar situation when hundreds more flights were cancelled, for a variety of reasons.

The third IT glitch to hit BA’s system since the start of the year caused about 900 flights to be cancelled or delayed, and led to thousands of passengers being stranded at airports.

Arrival and departure lounges at UK airports, particularly Heathrow and Manchester, were scenes of chaos and misery as queues snaked around terminals and frantic passengers tried to find a spot on a different plane.

It was not supposed to be like this.

Jamie and Klara Buck on their wedding day in November 2021. Photo: Jamie and Klara Buck

The golden age of travel

Back in its heyday, BA was the envy of carriers across the globe and a prize of Britain’s travel industry.

It was so proud of is reputation that its marketing slogan in 1983 was "The World’s Favourite Airline", which it based on the fact that it flew more passengers than any other carrier.

Considered a trailblazer in its field, the airline in its early iteration was hailed for ushering in an era of innovative travel.

On August 25, 1919, Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited, a forerunner company of BA, launched the world’s first daily international scheduled air service, between London and Paris.

A 1980s British Airways advertising campaign, which used the slogan "The world's favourite airline". Photo: YouTube

In the decades that followed the airline built a sturdy reputation for itself in the realm of international travel and stood apart from the crowd for its renowned customer experience.

Its image was further boosted in 1976 with the launch of the Concorde, a supersonic passenger service that offered three-an-a-half hour flights between London and New York.

The service was withdrawn from BA’s schedule in 2003 but its reputation lived on.

It dropped its favourite airline slogan in 2001 when it was overtaken by Lufthansa. Last year it failed to make the world's top 10 airlines, according to the World Airline Awards from Skytrax.

British Airways through the years – in pictures

Return to the skies

After the best part of two years operating on reduced schedules, BA and the rest of the world’s airlines were desperate for global travel to be restarted. It played a prominent role in lobbying the UK government for travel restrictions to be reduced or scrapped.

It eventually got its wish, and with a return to some form of normality as the pandemic dwindled, this month was due to herald the return of aviation. The company expects to reach 85 per cent capacity over the whole of 2022.

The Easter school holidays were the cue for desperate trippers to buckle up, sit back and fly off.

Instead, BA has suffered a PR nightmare. It has been at the forefront of ruined holidays and cancelled business trips.

Its social media feed has been awash with irate passengers demanding to know why their trip was ruined and when they could finally take off.

“You useless company.” “The entire BA experience is bad every time.” “Still no response from you. Shame,” read some of the more palatable tweets.

Shares in BA's parent company, International Consolidated Airlines Group, were down 1.2 per cent to 138.08p each on Wednesday.

“Aviation has been one of the industries worst hit by the pandemic, and airlines and airports are experiencing the same issues rebuilding their operations while managing the continuing impact of Covid,” the airline said.

Plethora of problems

The cause of the catastrophe is multi-layered.

Some of it is not BA’s fault. Covid has ripped through cabin crew and airport staff causing massive staff shortages.

EasyJet has faced similar problems and has also cancelled hundreds of flights. Airport staff are also scarce.

Many of BA’s cancellations were not last-minute decisions. After optimistically putting seats on sale for a bumper season, it then had to backtrack and reduce its schedule until May because it could not find the staff.

Analysis by the London-based World Travel and Tourism Council, published in December 2021, warned that one in eight UK travel and tourism jobs would be unfilled entering this year, with 205,000 vacant roles.

But part of the lack of workers lies with the decision at the start of the pandemic to axe 10,000 jobs.

BA has tried desperately to recruit thousands in the past few months, including former employees and new recruits, but has been unable to fill positions fast enough.

From the time a role is advertised it takes more than six months to recruit, train and obtain security clearance for a new worker.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said at the time the recruitment programme was announced: “There was never any need to sack thousands of dedicated BA staff.”

Ms Graham said BA was the first major employer to embark on the “abhorrent practice of ‘fire and rehire’," sacking thousands of dedicated staff before “insultingly” asking those crew to reapply on substantially reduced terms and conditions.

“It is yet another bad-faith act from a business that should be focusing on repairing both a tattered workforce and customer relations,” she said.

Confounded by technology

When broadcaster and journalist Simon Calder, ubiquitous on British media whenever there is a travel crisis, hit the airwaves and TV stations this week you knew there was trouble.

Calder had also been caught up in problems in February when another IT glitch grounded flights.

He was in Qatar at the time and said: “With yet another weekend’s flying severely damaged by what BA calls ‘systems disruption’, the airline evidently has a pressing need to invest in IT.

“At a time when BA is still losing money at a prodigious rate, it can hardly afford to pay out tens of millions of pounds in recompense for its technical shortcomings. But that is exactly what the airline faces.

“Longer term, the reputational damage is rising with every cancellation.”

In late February, the airline was forced to cancel all short-haul flights from Heathrow for several hours because of a hardware problem.

Passenger Ed Hall, 54, a TV executive from Woodstock, Oxfordshire, described BA as “running on paper” when he was stranded on a plane for more than an hour after touching down at Heathrow Terminal 5 that weekend.

"The pilot’s system that calculates weight, loads and distribution had gone offline and we had to go back to the gate from the runway to get a [manual] copy," Mr Hall said.

There have been several other high-profile IT incidents to hit the airline.

Passengers queue at the Arrivals entrance of Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 in February, as British Airways cancelled all short-haul flights from the airport. PA

Last summer, BA settled a legal claim over a major data breach that affected 420,000 customers and staff.

The breach in 2018 included the leaking of names, addresses and card payment details and led to the Information Commissioner’s Office handing out a fine of £20 million ($26.1m).

On July 18, 2018, computer problems hit BA operations at Heathrow and the airline cancelled short-haul flights after the incident involving a “supplier IT system”.

In May 2017, 75,000 bank holiday travellers were stranded after a glitch forced the airline to cancel almost 726 flights over three days.

The cut was suspected to have been caused by human error after an engineer disconnected and then reconnected power supply to the data centre in an “uncontrolled and uncommanded fashion”.

The meltdown was blamed by some on aggressive cost-cutting and outsourcing of jobs.

Aviation consultant John Strickland, of JLS Consulting, said the airline was left “floundering” when it faced problems such as those at Heathrow this week.

Mr Strickland said a shortage of staff became more noticeable computers went down.

“Maybe if that extra issue wasn’t there in the background, maybe less flights would have been delayed or ultimately cancelled," he said.

“Once the dominoes start to fall, if your manpower is not up to proper planned establishment then you’re really floundering even more.”

Mr Strickland said the carrier was “in the process” of improving its IT systems, but “you just can’t click your fingers and have it all change overnight”.

He explained that low-cost carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair are “better placed” because their systems are more modern due be them being younger companies, and they have simpler operations without multiple cabin classes or a sizeable proportion of passengers taking connecting flights.

David Nicholson, the first chairman of British Airways after the merger of UK airlines, proudly displays a model of the Concorde in 1973. Getty

When the rot set in

Some long-term BA customers might suggest problems have been brewing for decades. There have certainly been blunders.

In 1997 it ditched its well-known and patriotic red, white and blue tailfin logo and replaced it with “ethnic” designs intended to reflect its cosmopolitan world image.

Passengers were unimpressed. Former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher at a Conservative party conference covered a model aircraft sporting the design with her handkerchief, calling it “awful”. It was dropped after two years.

British Airways Chief Executive Bob Ayling during the unveiling of the new tailfin logos at Heathrow Airport in 1997. Getty Images

Others point the finger at a lowering of standards.

In 2009, free meals on thousands of short-haul flights were scrapped in an attempt to cut losses, and charges were introduced to check in a bag. But it served only to incur comparisons with no-frills carriers.

It has certainly faced more competition. Short-haul has seen the likes of EasyJet and Ryanair take a chunk of their business.

Longer, more high-end routes also face greater competition.

BA flies to and from almost 200 destinations worldwide, including 115 European airports, 28 locations in North America and 17 in the Middle East and Africa.

The emergence of major Gulf airlines on to the scene in recent decades has jolted BA’s strong position in the industry as competitors offered luxury in the skies as an alternative.

Others simply did not like a changing of the guard. In 2008 a merger was mooted with Spanish airline Iberia, its co-share partner.

Both were turning in sizeable losses. BA posted a loss of £531m in 2009 while Iberia lost £381m .

Joining forces made sense and in 2011 International Airlines group was formed, although the carriers kept their brands and liveries.

The fightback

BA has sought to improve its appeal by catching on to the rise in the trend for eco-conscious travel.

In 2019 it added the Airbus A350-1000 to its fleet, boosting it with one of the most fuel-efficient aircraft flying anywhere in the world.

The A350 boasts reduced carbon dioxide emissions and lower fuel burn, and its nitrogen oxide emissions are nearly a third below the industry standard.

In February BA become the first airline to use sustainable aviation fuel produced on a commercial scale in the UK.

It has agreed to buy enough of the fuel to reduce its lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 100,000 tonnes, which could power the equivalent of 700 net-zero flights between London and New York.

BA chief executive Sean Doyle said: “Progressing the development and commercial scale-up of sustainable aviation fuel will be a game changer and crucial to reducing the aviation sector’s reliance on fossil fuels and improving the UK’s energy supply resilience.”

It introduced plant-based menus at airport lounges as part of its efforts to boost its sustainability.

At Heathrow, the carrier has installed water stations and is replacing plastic water bottles with glasses.

It aims to remove single-use plastic across its business.

Quote
There was a saying many years ago and it’s sort of come back again. It’s a play on ABBA - anybody but British Airways.
Chris Tarry, aviation analyst

Being greener is not its only tactic. In March, BA and Qatar Airways joined forces to allow passengers who hold executive club membership with either airline to use points on both carriers.

But Joshua Jalloul, a London brand consultant, said such tactics might fall short of what it would take to salvage BA’s public image.

“It’s a weak move but it’s something that at least they’re trying to do. It’s not going to be enough, though,” Mr Jalloul told The National.

“Their brand was the thing that held them apart in terms of heritage, recognition, trust and of course service. Those things are all in jeopardy now and they have been for a while.

British Airways chief executive Sean Doyle talks to the media at Heathrow Airport during an announcement on the airline's sustainability programme in September. PA

“Brand erosion began I’d say in 2008. They had a massive fall from grace where profits crashed and they were losing hundreds of millions a year.

"What they have done since is cut corners and expenditure, and as a result the quality of the product declined massively.”

Mr Jalloul, a lecturer and doctoral researcher in marketing, consumer behaviour and ethics, and founder of Brand Hatch Consultancy in London, expressed doubt over whether BA could bring back its golden age of travel.

“Consumers are taking massive issue with the ethical considerations of laying off people who worked for BA for decades,” he said. “It wasn’t the kind of thing that was seen as becoming of a brand like BA.”

Chris Tarry, an aviation analyst and founder of consultancy CTAIRA, also appeared sceptical that the airline could rebuild its reputation.

“If you lose a passenger and they go try something else and like it, they’re not going to come back to you and it costs you an awful lot more to win that passenger back,” Mr Tarry told The National.

“There was a saying many years ago and it’s sort of come back again. It’s a play on Abba — anybody but British Airways."

Quote
Progressing the development of sustainable aviation fuel will be a game changer
BA chief executive Sean Doyle

But Chris Bosworth, an aviation analyst with more than 30 years’ experience, said BA appeared to be nowhere near to succumbing to its problems.

The founder of Bosworth Aviation Consultancy said that despite the issues, BA remained a “fairly trusted brand” in international travel and would do best to “build on what they’ve already got”.

BA was known for exceptional customer service, and offering a unique first-class travel experience 25 to 30 years ago, Mr Bosworth said.

“I think it’s fair to say that in the interim, as the Gulf carriers emerged and as they came a lot more powerful, and they’re all fighting for the same market share, [BA] have had to become as innovative, if not more innovative, than they used to be.

“In terms of BA building on what it has now it has an extremely strong Heathrow slot holding, which clearly puts it in a position it can build on.

"Consumers generally tend to be quite loyal to airlines they fly with. If BA can turn this around reasonably quickly and get things moving again, then I think longer-term people will continue to fly BA.

“There is a lot of pent-up demand for travel [as] people haven’t had a holiday for two, maybe three summers and the demand has come back a lot quicker than people expected.

"As a consequence we’ve got the situation that’s arisen today.”

Mr Strickland believes most BA customers will continue flying with the airline despite its problems, but warned its profitability relies on keeping customers who travel in premium classes.

“Anybody is going to be annoyed, whether you’ve paid for the cheapest ticket or most expensive, but those high-margin customers are theoretically much more likely to want to go elsewhere,” he said.

After the nightmare headlines of Easter, improving its service by the summer holidays will be crucial if BA is to become a flyer’s favourite once more.

Updated: April 13, 2022, 7:46 AM
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