Year-end musings on British Airways sparked by Emirates new Birmingham service

Emirates announced just before Christmas that it was launching a third daily service into Birmingham International from 1st August 2015.  Operated by a Boeing 777, it will be the first EK service out of the airport to have a First Class cabin.

The march of the ‘big 3’ Middle East carriers continues apaceQatar launched Edinburgh this year and has announced plans to go from five flights a week to seven.  It is also doubling its Manchester service to twice daily next year.  Etihad has just announced an upgrade of its in-flight service as it launches its first A380 service to Heathrow.

If you read my review of my Qatar Boeing 787 business class flight this Autumn, you will know I hold them in high regard.  We have also switched – at the insistence of my wife, ironically – to Emirates business class for our regular trips to Dubai to visit my sister-in-law and her family.

Meanwhile, over at British Airways, here is a photograph which tells you everything you need to know about the current state of the airline:

British Airways business class bathroom

I took this photo in a Club World toilet in October.  If you don’t know what it is, it is the flower holder.

‘But where is the flower?’ I hear you say.  The answer is that flowers have been culled by BA management because they cost (let’s guess) £2 per flight.  They were meant to be retained in First bathrooms but I know that was also on the list for culling.

We could put together a long list of other penny-pinching measures, even down to the cancellation of the British Airways Open Day this year.  The downgrading of World Traveller meals and the removal of sparkling wine, for example – although you rarely read about that online as forums tend to be focussed on travellers in premium cabins.  You may remember my course-by-course comparison of Qatar, Emirates and BA business class food this year, which did not end well.

This is before we get to the ludicrous new short-haul interiors, where the Club Europe seat pitch has been slashed from 34 inches to 30 inches.  At the back of economy on some short-haul planes, legroom is now less than you get on Ryanair (29 inches vs 30 inches).  Ryanair is retaining a 30 inch pitch on its recent order for 200 new Boeing 737 aircraft.

Can this really end happily for BA?  The current problems at Tesco seem very relevant, a business which turned to capex freezes (and allegedly dubious accounting, of course) to shore up profits instead of responding positively to Aldi and Lidl and is now paying the price.

It is not difficult to see a scenario within five years where Qatar, Emirates and Etihad – all of whom offer a service vastly superior to BA in premium cabins – are flying 50 planes a day out of the UK.  I imagine it is already close to 30.

Even BA’s oligopoly on North American routes could be under threat.  Historically a lot of people would fly from the US to Heathrow and then transfer to Paris, Frankfurt etc because they valued the flat-bed Club World product.  Flat beds are currently being installed by Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Aer Lingus, Finnair etc.  airberlin, Iberia, LOT and others are already 100% there – and in general they are better seats than Club World.

Why fly in an inferior BA Club World seat with inferior food to face the overrun transfer desks at Heathrow and a 30 inch seat pitch on your connecting flight to Germany?  Again, look forward five years and British Airways will have the worst long-haul business class product of any major European airline.

There is no doubt that the lower oil price will flatten the British Airways numbers in the short term.  In the longer term, though, the current penny pinching mentality of the airline is going to lead it into a corner from which there is no obvious exit.

(PS.  Since I wrote this last week, I have discovered that Emirates is feeling the pinch as well.  Via One Mile At A Time, it seems that Hennessy Paradis – £525 a bottle at The Whisky Exchange – is being removed from First Class and the business class bar.  Tough times indeed ….)

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  1. MrHeckles says:

    Look how clean that flower holder is!!

  2. My Silver card due to run out in March next year. was going to renew it with a return trip to oz but maybe i should quit trying to get tier points with BA and look elsewhere. What are your thoughts on the best airline frequent flyer program?

  3. MrHeckles says:

    While acknowledging that CW is some way behind the curve for business class, and on a downwards trajectory – it has a long long long way to go, before I would fly indirect to the U.S.A. via Dubai or Doha (or indeed via Paris or Amsterdam). Now – if Emirates starts flying direct from UK to multiple US gateways, then BA has a very real problem. Until then however, they are in very little peril whatsoever – which I suspect they know.

  4. Personally I would not choose any of the ME carriers as I dont fancy a stopover in the Middle east.
    A 7 -8 hour flight is for me too short to catch some sleep so when travelling to SE Asia/ India/ Japan / China,.. I would chose BA (possibly ex EU) or TK, Swiss, Austrian,.. as they would give a nice 10-14 hour flight in a flat bed given sufficient time to rest / sleep rather than two 7-8 hours flight. As I often skip the meal on the plane (preferring to take my breakfast at arrival (lounge), the nicer food on the plane would not swing me over

    • Glad it’s not just me. The middle east is full of nasty dictatorships. I don’t believe it is moral to feed my money to such regions. Not where there is an easy alternative anywhere. Sometimes there isn’t an alternative (and for so long as our transport system runs on oil the alternatives are always going to be partial anywhere).

      But when I fly to Australia I’d prefer the profit on my airline ticket to stay with a company based in the UK, Oz, or Singapore than one based in a dictatorship. And if I was going to fly with a state owned airline, I’d rather my money went to support the democratic, progressive, government of Finland than the repressive absolute monarchy of Dubai.

  5. Recent BA LHR-HKG business class dinner was disgusting. Large slabs of tough tasteless duck on a sea of globby rice with a huge watery chicory-like vegetable laid on top, all soaked in a dark brown glutinous tasteless gravy – really the worst meal I have had anywhere since state school dinners in the early 1960s. On return the staff were inattentive, if not officious – my wife sought a pain killer for headache and was lectured about the procedures involved and had to wait standing whilst forms were filled out by an impatient wholly unsympathetic ‘hostess’. Breakfast is weird – lukewarm tea/coffee with roll butter jam and pastry are brought round, with no mention of the cooked breakfast referred to on the menu. When I asked about that after waiting for 15-20 mins, I was told it looked as if I did not want it because I had not finished my roll/jam and pastry. Is it not normal to have toast/pastry after a cooked breakfast, not before? When the cooked breakfast was brought I had to restrain the steward from taking my pastry away. Pleas for a hot drink rendered no more than a slightly warmer lukewarm. In future I will try to stock up / eat before flights and just survive on cold drinks and whatever palatable snacks are available in flight.

  6. Metatone says:

    It’s easy to get caught up in particular penny pinching moves and argue the value (the flower, the razor, etc.) but I agree with Raffles on the big picture. Key is that BA seems dedicated to penny-pinching everywhere. Also, it seems to have surrendered any thought of working with Heathrow to actually make the flight experience better – it’s no good having your own terminal if the experience remains crappy. And lounges aren’t really the answer – if I’m not transferring, I don’t spend enough time there for it to make up for the rest of the indignities.

    Of course, flying via Schipol or elsewhere is not ideal. But it gets more and more tempting, esp. as BA’s service level gets less and less impressive. It may seem like good economics to try and push us to breaking point, but given their price positioning, I think it has dangers. Eventually they will need some customer loyalty – and if they use up the goodwill now, it could be fatal.

  7. +1 for British Airways, they helped me today for no extra cost to bring me home to attend a funeral. To be honest after 3 tweets, my first phone conversation ended in no service. After 3 tweets BA management contacted me that they would help me at no cost. But still a nice service.
    Greetings Pascal

  8. Interesting to read the comments here. Lots of grumbling about service from those who, like me, pay hardly anything for their business class seats. For me, I’m delighted to get 4 seats to Singapore in CW for £2400 using the double Amex 241 voucher opportunity. And yes I get it, the cost-cutting seems very petty at times and makes one feel undervalued, when a good chunk of the business/first experience is about feeling a bit special.

    That said, it would be interesting to understand what’s really going on behind the scenes. Why does BA feel its margins are so tight – have prices fallen in real terms or costs increased. I’m guessing the Middle Eastern airlines have lower costs due to weaker staff terms e.g. no unionisation, unpaid maternity leave?, shorter stays on a turnaround, lower salaries, lower quality hotels and so on. And do they actually make a profit or are they subsidised by oil-dependent gulf states keen to diversify their economies by developing tourism and financial services sectors?

    • I know Emirates funds its planes at standard rates using the same bank debt as other airlines. Where they benefit is lower staff costs, hugely efficient new aircraft (BA has stated that the A380s reduce fuel cost per seat by 20 per cent) and no legacy pension or cost base issues. The airport in Dubai runs 24 7 off multiple runways – Heathrow is estimating landing charges of £40 per person to fund the 3rd runway which may kill BA shorthaul.

      It is not a fuel issue. Remember that ALL airlines get tax free fuel.

      As global wealth spreads, Dubai is also a more logical global hub than Heathrow.

      • Yes and no re fuel.

        Everyone benefits from tax free fuel but the price does still vary by airport and zone.

        Obviously BAs purchasing power is better than smaller airlines but they will still pay more than the Middle East airlines on average. It has been a while since I have priced it up but as I recall, West Africa was extortionate, and the Greek islands weren’t much better. Dubai was (comparatively) an absolute steal!

  9. as someone who works for BA, I do at times feel the cost cutting is being pushed a little too far. The main problem is the the directors, particularly the CFO and CEO are on bonus schemes weighted heavily towards hitting the 2015 profit target. The recent departure of Frank vd Post and his ‘sign-on bonus’ should give a rough idea of what the payout is likely to be for the average director. Unfortunately this is at the cost of long-term thinking – capex is being delayed and you could argue the company is heading towards a fiscal cliff.

    On the other hand, BA sits quite comfortably at LHR and that alone makes it feel (in the short term) protected. In a way, it doesn’t make sense with no airport expansion in the forseeable future to start putting less seats on the aircraft – of course until enough traffic is diverted elsewhere

  10. All this talk about woes and problems of an airline that is indeed on course for a billion pounds profit for 2014… Operating profits at IAG rose to €900m (£708m) in the three months to 30 September, up from €690m a year ago.

    A billion £ PROFIT.

    This comes together with high surcharges on redemptions, never passing fuel price drops, poorer quality of both Club World and World Traveller (Economy), outstation BA lounges being worse than third-party…

    We all use BA for convenience (eg, European redemptions, short-haul) but a smart traveller would direct their main spending elsewhere.

  11. andystock says:

    If going to the Far East, CX is a much better product than BA. CX staff are very helpful and polite rven in economy. Coming back from HK a member of Cabin Crew showed me to my seat in Economy, did not get this with BA in CW. CX business class on the 777 is far superior to BA.

  12. My big problem with BA is their staff… The food and seats could be better in all classes but the staff really put me off flying with them… They are more often than not rude, sour, demoralised and completely nonchalant. BA have a very tough recruitment process and this is the best they can come up with?

    Also, the fact they have not reduced their fuel charges despite the dramatic fall in fuel prices is downright criminal… just another excuse to thieve from their customers. I wrote to them twitter about this but received no response.

    I travel a lot with work and have good status with them but I am thinking of switching allegiances and seeing if I can get my status matched with a Star Alliance carrier.

  13. Hmm, I find that the key with BA is to adjust your expectations to avoid disappointment!

    Since 90% of my flying is within Europe and to/from North America, where the alternatives are all worse than BA, I will stick with them on the basis that they are the “least bad”

    Yes, CE is a pretty poor product in itself, but it’s so much better than ET (if you don’t have status anyway), and in turn ET is so much better than the LCCs.

    Likewise, F is poor for a First Class, but I will continue to fly it on special occasions because it is so much better than CW. CW is poor for a LH business class, but it is so much better than Y+/Y that I will continue to fly it for business.

    I know that being resigned to “least bad” is hardly ideal, but I’d honestly rather keep on being able to score cheap Avios deals and ex-EU fares than have a flower in the loo.

    • All true. It is also true, of course, that if BA took out some CW seats to make the cabin more spacious, Avios availability would suffer. That said, other airlines make the same density work with 1-2-1 business seating by having your feet slot into a hole beneath the seat in front.