My flight from Gatwick to Heathrow – or, what’s happening at BA?

We like to think that Head for Points is an aspirational travel site and we don’t get any fun from writing critical articles. But with Buy on Board in Economy, 2-4-1 downgrades with zero compensation, no checking through baggage on separate tickets, Club Europe hot meals removed on some routes etc many of our recent news stories about British Airways have been far from positive.

To “tell the true story of what’s going on at BA”, BA organised a press trip with Chairman and CEO Alex Cruz.  We started at Gatwick Airport and flew to Heathrow to see the new Club World dining concept and talk about upcoming investments.

British Airways has launched a special website to highlights its planned improvements which you can find here.

My day:

I was told to arrive at Gatwick in the morning and check in at the designated BA 9244 desk.  I had problems finding it at first as it was ‘hidden’ within the new Priority Check-In area (which I must say looks good).

Priority check in BA gatwick

I hadn’t been to the new Gatwick Business and First Class Lounges before, but Rob wrote a review and shot a video a few weeks ago so I won’t go into detail.  I did like how spacious the new Business Class lounge is and how the various seating arrangements work.  The toilet signs could be more obvious as the size of the lounge means you can easily walk off the wrong direction but apart from that I was impressed.

The 40 or so journalists from the UK, US and Australia (!) gathered on the mezzanine level, which is supposedly the quiet area of the lounge.

quiet zone BA business lounge gatwick

Here we got Alex Cruz’s first speech of the day.  It covered:

  • the new Gatwick and Boston lounges
  • new lounge plans for Aberdeen, Rome, Geneva, San Francisco, Johannesburg, Manchester and Chicago
  • the fact that BA was the most punctual airline ‘in London’ in 2016 and in the first quarter of 2017 and
  • how he was amazed to receive six positive emails from customers the previous day – these were people who had used the new Terminal 5 First Wing which had just opened, and which I will discuss tomorrow

Then it was time to board the flight:

flight screen

We all got Club World seats on a new B787-9 Dreamliner with a ‘decorative’ head rest cover with the hastag for the day: #BAinvesting4U.

787 business class

For those who were as confused as me that the flight from Gatwick to Heathrow was going to take 3 hours, here is the flight route.

(By the way I did raise the question whether BA had to cancel another flight in order to get this slot and was assured they didn’t!)

route gatwick heathrow

After take off and a drinks service, Alex Cruz gave speech number two to tell us “what’s happening in the air”.  I have summarised the key points:

Club World seating:  

BA has announced a plan to ‘invest £400 million’ to improve the Club World experience.  Whilst it was repeated a lot, this number could mean many things.  British Airways had to build new Gatwick lounges, for example, and has to buy some seats for its new aircraft, whether they are a new design or not.

The good news is that British Airways will (finally) move away from their 20 years old Club World seat arrangement where many passengers have to step over other passengers’ legs in order to reach their seats.  The plan is to have all seats with full aisle access as BA “has fallen behind some of their competitors”.

However this was all the information he could give at this point.  No-one asked him what he thought of the new Qatar Airways business class ‘suite’ with closing doors which is rolling out from June.  It will be installed on the A350 and Boeing 787-10 aircraft when they are delivered so that will be 2019.

It isn’t clear if it will be this seat design which leaked out last year or if they have decided to go for something more radical.  It would be a genuine sign of progress if they chose to move to something like the current Qatar Airways, American Airlines or Finnair seats.

There are no plans to remove First Class.

Wi-Fi:

Another investment, although one that has already been announced, is wi-fi on long and short-haul flights.  Long-haul passengers will be able to use wi-fi from this month on selected aircraft (North American routes will be prioritised) whilst short-haul passengers need to wait until later this year.

The long-haul wifi will be via satellite and the short-haul via ground technology. Currently it looks like a low bandwidth connection (‘Simply Connect’) will start from £4.99 and whilst ‘Connect Plus’ which will let you stream Netflix etc will start from £7.99.  Passengers might also be able to pay with Avios but that is not finalised.  Monthly subscriptions are also being considered.  This is a very positive step forward.

Bag drop and boarding:

Another area where BA was keen to talk up its investment is at the airport, trying to speed up the bag drop and boarding process.

At Heathrow T5 BA currently has one gate with self service boarding for domestic flights (you need to pass a biometric facial check in a similar way to the new electronic passport gates) and will soon have three.

Self Service Boarding Gates at British Airways Heathrow Terminal 5 for Domestic Flights Taken: 21st March 2017 Picture by: Stuart Bailey

At Gatwick and Heathrow BA has also introduced self service bag drop.  In theory you will soon be able to board a plane with luggage without having to look anyone in the face.

Whilst it wasn’t mentioned on the day, we also understand that BA is about to introduce automatic entry gates for the Heathrow lounges which will operate via a scan of your boarding pass.

ba bag drop gatwick

Club World in-flight:

One of BA’s aims is working on improving passengers’ sleep.  In response ‘to customer feedback’ British Airways will be working on changing the service routine in order to maximise sleep hours on overnight flights.  The aim is for a flight like New York to Heathrow to maximise the quiet time to 5 hours.  We were told that this will be achieved by ‘changing the food service’.  Is there a way to make this work without removing the second meal?

From July there will be new pillows, duvets and mattress toppers.  It will initially be available on the New York JFK route with other routes following in 2018.  The supplier was not announced as apparently the contract has not yet been finalised.

Alex Cruz speech on board

British Airways is going to introduce a new food menu from this Summer and eventually move away from tray service in Club World.  A trolley-based service will be introduced with food carts, initially operating from September between Heathrow and New York and then rolled out on other routes in 2018.

food cart ba cabin crew

Alex Cruz kept emphasising that his focus is on the presentation and quality of their product.  We got to to sample some of the new food during the flight.

This was the food menu:

food menu

Don’t get too excited by the picture below.  As we didn’t get a main course we got all three starters instead.  On a regular flight you would be able to choose one of the three items pictured on my plate. The salmon with the wasabi dressing was gorgeous, I admit.  The two slices of tomato and a ball of mozzarella however didn’t convince me.

starters and bread

The cabin crew also served us all dessert options.

I wasn’t able to eat the chocolate cake as BA loves to put hazelnuts in their chocloate desserts, but the tart was very good. The strawberries weren’t really ripe, but then again it’s not June yet.  Again, you would only receive one of these three items on a real flight.

I put a photograph on the HfP Instagram feed (click) showing the new glassware which is definitely an improvement, although they will still not be using stem glasses for wine and champagne.

desert

Lounge catering:

Last week we revealed the exciting news that bacon rolls would be remaining in the Heathrow lounges until 11am instead of 9.30.

Lounge catering was not mentioned during the event.  This may have been an oversight as British Airways launched a ‘coming soon’ website yesterday which states that “more choice and better quality food and drink” will be available in lounges from June.  This is definitely good news if delivered.

New Heathrow lounges:

The Concorde Room at Heathrow will be overhauled this year with new furniture.  The ‘secret door’ from South Security into this lounge will be closed, and First Class passengers will need to use The First Wing, walk through and exit Galleries First and then head into The Concorde Room.

Further lounge refurbishment at Heathrow is under discussion but not for the short term.

Buy on Board:

During the Q&A with Alex Cruz towards the end of the flight we finally heard his opinion on Buy on Board on short haul economy flights.

He admitted to a rough start with the crew facing different problems than expected after the training they received.  However, according to Cruz “BoB is going great”.  BA met their sales targets from day one and BoB is now about to reach “a stable point”.  BA has apparently seen a “significant increase in sales” over the last 12 weeks and is looking at other ways to improve the service.

He reportedly said at the event that only 2.5% of flights were running out of fresh food.  As we noted yesterday, however, Cruz believes that he still has to educate passengers into not expecting to find their first choice of food available.

He went on to say that, looking at the stats for March. “it will almost seem that people are flying with us because of BoB. It was a perfect decision to make.”

There are no plans to introduce free food for status customers or those on pricier tickets.  Cruz feels that there is already a premium (Club Europe) option for people who want inclusive food and drink.

There will be additional trolleys on longer flights and apparently M&S wants to experiment with the menu. Cruz believes “the possibilities are endless”.  What differences BA’s BoB from other airlines, according to Cruz, is the major brand affiliation, contactless payment (now working) and the option to pay with Avios.

To quote:

“As for the perception of us in the market, we are a premium airline and we offer a premium service for those who have paid for it. But if you have paid £29 for a single to Rome, you expect a lot from BA and we give you a lot, but not free food and drink. I know there is a change. People email me and say “How could you start charging for seats?” Well I didn’t. It happened five years ago.”

“BA is a premium airline. We are going to continue being a premium airline, and we are going to look for new ways to be competitive for those price conscious travelers. We are not giving up on price-conscious customers.”

Alex Cruz also told us about his new target group:

“The premium leisure sector is up and coming and we’ve been targeting products towards this. Premium leisure travellers and millennials are the up and coming new types of customers which we believe to be adapting to. Connectivity and the overall presentation and price will make the product attractive.”

I did get the impression that Cruz wanted to convince us that BoB is amazing and that everyone who flies to Rome with BA pays just £29.  To be honest for that price I would be willing to pay for my sandwich too.  The reality is that BA’s most valuable customers are paying substantially more than £29.  Even at £29, in my experience the cheapest prices for BA EuroTraveller still exceed the likes of easyJet and Ryanair and I’m not sure if a branded M&S sandwich will or should convince people to pay much more for their flight ticket.

As for the rest of it …. wi-fi on board is a must if BA doesn’t want to be left behind and a new seat in Club World is long overdue – and still not launching for two years.  BA also refuses to commit to retrofitting the new seat onto the existing fleet.  The new food options look promising although the portions we were served were small.

There is a lot more to be done and said on this topic.  Let’s see where BA is actually heading and whether they can deliver what they promise to the price conscious as well as to the premium passenger.

And then ….

We landed in Heathrow at around 4:15pm and after a quick glass of champagne in the arrivals lounge we went to the Galleries First lounge via the new First Wing check-in and security area.  More on this tomorrow.

More information on BA’s investment plans can be found on this special website here.

(Want to earn more Avios?  Click here to visit our home page for the latest articles on earning and spending your Avios points and click here to see how to earn more Avios from current offers and promotions.)

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Comments

  1. DarrenT says:

    Does absolutely nothing to address the very big issue of service CONSISTENCY..! I’d have been happy with everything that was, if I could be assured of the same service on every flight. It is so hit and miss I would never pay my good money for anything other than a club sale. An airline that provides consistently good service gets my money.

  2. Graeme says:

    “it will almost seem that people are flying with us because of BoB”

    Good to see that Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf is working again.

  3. Do & co raspberry tart.. yum.

    Bob still a disaster on my recent flight…. I don’t need ‘ educating ‘ about expectation on BOB.
    EasyJet can stock a wide range and so can Ryanair and Aer Lingus….. stuck on a 4 hour flight back from Larnaca with kit kats for tea is no fun….

  4. If I was a competing airline right now, I would do the following
    1. Introduce a status match/challenge for BA silver and above members.
    2. Allow a 2x transfer of Avios in to their own program
    3. Make sure their own Economy and Business products are 10x better than BA. I would increase Economy pitch to greater than BA.

    Ba needs to be hit hard, and the problem is except for Norwegian and EasyJet no big legacy airline has the guts to take these very aggressive steps. Lufthansa, Turkish, Etihad, Qatar etc… I would just do this. The time is perfect to get the big spenders.
    BTW sitting in a mediocre BA lounge in JFK, The food was aweful, they are so lazy to even top up the food. It is just so disappointing.

  5. These damage control measures are too little and too late. This ex-Vueling CEO has totally destroyed this great British brand and our loyalties. If he wants to make it low-cost, then create a low-cost brand or just downgrade BA to a true low-cost. Don’t pretend to be a full-service carrier and charging a premium while taking away everything they are supposed to offer for that price. After all, I’m sure a lot of us fly BA for its brand, Service, Avios, OneWorld Status, and all other things not offered by the low-cost carriers. Year by year, one by one is stripped away to achieve this CEO’s profit margin target. BA has come to a point that it is even worse than AA in its product offerings. If Alex Cruz only cares about the numbers, then why should we care about being loyal to and paying more for this gradually degrading brand.

    We have switched to EasyJet for short-haul economy class flights in Europe and any other OneWorld airlines (including AA!) for long-haul business class flights. In a recent booking for flights to Milan in July, I asked my self why I should pay more than double the price (> £250 in number) for just 10 tier points and a pathetic tiny amount of Avios points and still have no seat choice as a Gold Card member? For my long-haul flights to Asia in September, I asked myself why I should pay £1,500 more for an extremely narrow and lack-of privacy business class seat, horrible service, and inedible food when I can earn the same or probably more tier points and Avios on other OneWorld carriers with newer seats, newer aircrafts, better food and drinks, attentive service, and free wifi? Not difficult to find the answers……

    • Genghis says:

      If you’re flying EZY SH and OW (but non-BA) LH, why limit yourself to OW for LH as what do you really get for your BA Gold card?

      • Genghis says:

        Assuming all LH is in business

      • Executive Club is still the easiest to achieve OneWorld Emerald status.Also I’m only 5000 points away from lifetime gold status. (Maybe this is Alex Cruz’s next target for the cuts!)

        • Genghis says:

          My question was more what do you actually get for your OWE (if you’re flying J anyway LH and use EZY SH)? F check in and F lounges I guess but is that worth paying a premium for over just going for the cheapest (you actually want to fly) carrier regardless of alliance?

          • For long haul flights, elite status makes a difference. For short haul, don’t care. I got your point that if I’m already paying for business class for LH, then why bother about the elite status with an alliance. In my opinion, having an elite status still makes a difference even when you’re already flying in business class, like priority standby when there’s a flight disruption.

  6. Whilst I agree with much of the BA bashing, I have to report a positive experience we had recently. We were very impressed on our way back from Philadelphia on a 241 First flight. It is the shortest distance I have ever walked at any airport in the world from taxi drop off to boarding gate via check-in desk, security, and the First Lounge. The Lounge was small, but perfectly formed. Food and service were amazing. Once on board, the amazing service and food continued. We rarely pay for long haul but always fly Club on 241’s and occasionally First. I can never remember such good service on any flight, anywhere, including being personally escorted to our seats which I don’t think has ever happened. We even received a ‘gift’ after the Cabin crew picked up that this trip / flight was a special occasion for us. If BA gave that sort of service all the time, I would always fly them but, sadly, they don’t. I’ve managed Silver status the last two years, due to short haul CE, but have become disenchanted with CE and will only now pay a small premium to try and get Silver again. As an aside, I also had no trouble getting EU compensation for a delayed flight back from Valencia in February (thanks Anika for the tips on claiming which you published shortly before that particular trip!)

  7. Patrick says:

    Whilst this all looks good BA have been dumbing down their service and perks for a few years.

    The biggest failing is the staff. Recent flights have ranged from OK to down right rude & horrible.

    I stopped fliyng long haul after Mexico City & MRU in 2016 due to the very poor staff. Other airlines get this money and to be honest, often cheaper and better service.

    Other airlines make you feel valuable and wanted regardless of class and this is BA’s big failing -STAFF STAFF STAFF

  8. Robin Henagulph says:

    As an aside I notice Rob has a nut allergy. So does my wife and we travel Club in trepidation several times a year with Epi pen at the ready. They serve nuts as a starter and manage to get bits in a lot of their desserts. Staff are nor sure what is in the food. Is it not time to remove nuts (and peanuts) from their menus?

  9. In its search for elusive profitability BA had hitched its planning to an apparently unrealistic belief that most of its passengers are proud Brits who’ll remember the glory days, salute the flag and march on board to whatever conditions await them. If this is BA’s admission that they’ve become self-damaging cheap-aholics I hope they understand that they’ll have to go to all the meetings and keep to the path for years before they recover.

  10. What’s happening at BA? Well, since you ask…

    * Senior management have been so focused on IAG that they’ve forgotten about its constituent parts
    * No idea whether BA is a premium or low-cost airline (Cruz’s comment there being a prime example: “We are going to continue being a premium airline, and we are going to look for new ways to be competitive for those price conscious travelers.” Well, which one?)
    * Wave after wave of mass redundancies at Waterside mean few people give a damn
    * Replacing [sic] those made redundant with offshore contractors mean few people have a clue
    * In general, a complete absence of strategic vision, planning or purpose