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

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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.

We tend to have been the bearer of the bad news in most cases – even The Economist described us as “Head for Points, the travel blog that first leaked the story” on the BA service cuts.

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.

What you’ll find below is part trip report, part strategy report and, if we’re honest, partly a genuine critique on what the airline thinks it is doing.  Despite writing about British Airways virtually every day, we are not beholden to them and, whilst they bring it on themselves, Rob and I know that they are not always keen of our coverage.  The truth tends to hurt like that.

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, due to the switch to the South Terminal, and has to buy some seats for its new aircraft, whether they are a new design or not!  Dressing this up as ‘investment’ is not necessarily the whole truth.

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.  The new British Airways seat will be installed on the A350 and Boeing 787-10 aircraft when they are delivered so that will be 2019 – but no comment on whether it will be retrofitted.  My understanding is that it will not be.

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.  Is this progress or not?

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?  It seems unlikely.

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.

Lufthansa manages to make this work successfully in First Class, so I believe that this could be a genuine improvement.

food cart ba cabin crew

British Airways will have to radically up its game in food presentation, however, if they are to pull this off.  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.  Little things like this matter if you are a frequent BA traveller.

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.


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Comments (194)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • AB says:

    BA is my travel of choice should no other option be available, they reached that level from being my number one preferred airline, maybe I was just being patriotic and was trying to give them some slack, with that said, everything reaches a breaking point and they will have zero of my money

    • Martin C-C says:

      Seconded!

      • Really says:

        “Thirded”!

        I recently had to buy some tickets from exactly the same starting point to exactly the same end point on routes offered by BA and other carriers. Surprisingly BA was ~15% cheaper or so for similar times, but my conscience just wouldn’t let me book with them.

        Scr*w them. Went with another carrier – hope we all vote with our wallets.

  • shd says:

    “From July there will be new pillows, duvets and mattress toppers (…) the supplier was not announced as apparently the contract has not yet been finalised.”

    Q: Who actually cares who the bedding supplier is?

    • Sam says:

      Same people who care about the brand in the amenity kit? The blankets on CW were nasty though. Last one I got looked like it had a urine stain on it and had seen at least 500 cycles through a washing machine.

  • Sam says:

    Common sense would tell BA management that no one chooses to fly BA because of BOB M&S. If someone was that desperate for an M&S sandwich they could surely buy it in the terminal. The only reason people still “prefer” BA is because easyjet and Ryanair are seen as “cheap” whilst BA doesn’t have that stigma but it won’t last.

    • Callum says:

      His phrasing (“it will almost seem”) implies he’s saying that they’re still growing despite this, not because of it. I.e. those forecasting doom and gloom were talking rubbish.

  • James67 says:

    Thanks Anika, a good report. Unfortunately for BA all I am left with is an impression of an airline that is half-heartedly trying to persuade its customers that it is catching up with it peers by trying to dress mutton as lamb.

  • rams1981 says:

    thanks for the review. Here’s an alternate view. My parents have a flat in Kuala Lumpur and go there regularly using business class in eithad/emirates/malaysian. Etihad was their favourite and they didn’t like BA club seat. I mentioned the BA Amex card to them and given the money that could be saved with 2 for 1, they gave BA a go recently. Whilst it’s not as good as the other 3 airlines I mentioned, sounds like they will keep using the 2 for 1 given the money saved especially as they cant be bothered to fly ex-EU. They have the advantage of flexi dates generally so if they are told their seats are sold and need to be downgraded, my dad has said he’d refuse and ask to fly another day.

    • James67 says:

      Unless they are paying a very high price for their revenue tickets then they are getting very poor value for their avios, even with a 2for1. I’m not sure about KL but I have recently found that availability of BA reward seats oftentimes becomes like hens teeth soon after T-355 so in my experience the flexibility arguement is no longer persuasive for me. Your parents also have to factor in that avios are rarely ever free, and by using avios they are missing out on earning avios or other miles from revenue fares. Errich miles in particular can be awesome value during some promotions. It all comes down to what your parents have to pay for a revenue fare and I do appreciate this may have increased of late with a few airlines pulling out of KL. However, if tbey can get a revenue fare exUK for under £1700 I believe it is very likely better value than avios with 2for1. Not sure if your parents flying out of London or the regions but companion fares that appear on Qatar or Thai from time to time might work well for them. CV3V is in and out of KL often so should have good feedback on fare options although I know he uses 2for1 on the route too.

      • rams1981 says:

        taxes with BA are £1100. Miles required are 192500. If you don’t pay more than 1p per mile works out around £400 cheaper than best ex-London fares and is direct. They dont care about status with airlines. They have tons of emirates miles for example but dont find value in redeeming them compared to some of the cash fares available.

        • CV3V says:

          Emirates Skywards used to be a great loyalty scheme but has lost all its attraction (it’s probably worse than BA redemptions in terms of cost), if you can get in enough flights for Gold status it becomes useful as op upgrades are common. KL often seems to be missed off the bargain flights to Asia, same with SIN. I am currently using up Avios stash and 2-4-1 vouchers for KL flights but after its used up I will start to look at alternatives. The taxes are about £1100, there is a BA card fee to add into costs, other costs for earning ‘free’ avios that could be allocated elsewhere, but also bear in mind that a revenue ticket earns Avios or Enrich miles etc. Enrich miles are very useful (just hard to earn via third parties) and there are regular discounts on Enrich redemptions. I have discussed the BA KL flight with a few BA staff and they advise it has become a popular route for pax connecting onward to Bali etc., it has become much harder to find reward availability and on my flights the premium cabins have all been full. There are nicer cabins than BA’s to fly in, but a CW cabin still beats economy! The First cabin on the 787-9 is actually very nice, but the food and service on recent flights was sadly lacking to the point I was having to ‘remind’ staff of certain things.

          • Rob says:

            To Dubai Skywards in on a par with BA for miles with a better product and the car service. Shame the Heathrow lounge is only average.

          • Leo says:

            Malaysia had a cracking sale with Expedia this year – only sorry I dithered. Hoping it will be repeated again.

          • CV3V says:

            Do Emirates still provide the car service on points redemptions? thought that had stopped.

          • Concerto says:

            I get really confused with this: I keep thinking KL is KLM Airlines. If it’s Kuala Lumpur, I wish folk would call it KUL!

          • Genghis says:

            Airports don’t necessarily equal cities. Kuala Lumpur is known as KL , Johor Bahru JB etc. When people in UAE refer to RAK I don’t think they often really mean the airport in Marrakech. If using airport and airline codes, people at least need to get them right. Recently KA was used to refer to Korean, not Dragonair.

        • James67 says:

          Agree direct is a big plus, I like to keep my journey time as short and hassle free as possible. Departing from regions though I’m stuck with at least one stop when going longhaul but the plus is that revenue fares are usually cheaper than your parents can get direct from London.

  • Chris Palmer says:

    Self service check-in? Just like self service supermarket checkouts. It’s amazing how companies have managed to get consumers to do a job which they should be doing (and what we are paying them to do). They also deprive people of a job.

    • barey cutters says:

      So you are against mechanisation? Should we also be making things manually and not in a factory?
      We could provide jobs for a lot more people if we made everything by hand…..

    • Callum says:

      Why are you focusing on self service checkouts? If we’re refusing to modernise in the name of saving jobs, surely we shouldn’t have self service shops at all?

    • Brian Peers says:

      Do you drive to petrol stations which have pump attendants?
      Do you refuse to do online shopping as it closes stores on the high street?

      Your logic is flawed. Imagine a self enclosed town of 100 people. Each has a given job: a doctor, a nurse, 2 farmers etc.. In this town 3 people run the shop, 2 scan at the tills, 1 stocks the shop. The town would like a cafe but they only have 100 people and they need someone to run the cafe. The self scan allows someone to quit the shop and run the cafe, now residents have self scan and a cafe.

      Unemployment in the UK is now 5.4%, its a low figure and near full employment – you have to allow 5% for career gaps, people changing jobs etc..

      By using self-scan you are lowering costs, making the company more efficient and freeing someone to work on something potentially much more valuable.

      • Mr Dee says:

        I think it is more likely that there would be job cuts with the more efficient systems in place rather than the would be checkout assistant working on something more valuable.

    • Mr Dee says:

      I agree we are doing the job of the checkout assistant however it many cases its a lot less hassle to do a self checkout than have to deal with someone. Now if it was a real service with a happy to help checkout person who unloaded the trolley and scanned it then it would be different.

      • Monopolies commission says:

        Have you been to Haneda T1 recently? I had a flight connection and as my international flight arrived on time and my bus transfer from NRT got me to HND earlier than expected I tried to move myself to an earlier flight…however, ANA has made the customer experience a DIY setup, with almost all their check-in & baggage drop desks self-service. Did this mean they had more staff freed up to help? No – it meant no staff to help…or rather one floating member for the entire southern concourse.

        As thecomputer didn’t recognise my booking I needed a human to help…but searching for one proved tireless. I eventually found that one floating person after much searching, who told me to find the customer service desk at the far northern end.

        By the time I found that human being to help and reached the front of the queue, the earlier flight had left!

        Traditionally I could have had the problem solved right there at the check-in desk…

        But the morale of the story, is just because a system in made customer DIY, it doesn’t mean staff will be retained when computer says no.

  • Waribai says:

    On the way down to Malaga with BA yesterday, we used BoB. I had a bacon roll which I thought was very good.
    My 5 year old daughter was looking at me in a rather puzzled way though. Finally, I asked her what was wrong.
    She replied ” Did you just pay the man for your food?”
    “Yes” I said

    Even more incredulous she then replied ” Uou don’t pay for food on an aeroplane!”

    “Welcome to the world of budget airlines!” I thought

  • Isa says:

    How does “BA is a premium airline” fit in with “Cruz believes that he still has to educate passengers into not expecting to find their first choice of food available” and “it will almost seem that people are flying with us because of BoB. It was a perfect decision to make.”
    Seriously? What planet is he on?

    I’m one of those people he so obviously despises who flies only a handful of times a year and in Y to boot. I usually fly from LCY since I’m only a 15 minutes cab ride away.

    Looking at prices to Nice for later this year (because I may be a pleb who travels in Y but I do have a 2nd home on the French riviera with direct sea views..), cheapest Y fare is £150, cheapest CE fare is £385. Given we’re taking 2 hours on an Embraer 190, I really don’t feel compelled to fork out any extra for CE.
    In fact, for the same price as BA, I could fly to Nice via Zurich with LX; or via Frankfurt with LH (and get fed twice!)

    I’ll get this next trip with a RFS – £35 is about the right price for Budget Airways now.

    • Callum says:

      Virtually everyone on here seems to be unable to understand what “almost seem” means. Is it just projection from a preconceived bias or am I losing my mind and I’m actually the one who doesn’t understand it!?

    • mark2 says:

      I am amazed at the difference in fare between Y and CE on an E-190 when the seats are the same.
      At least in North America Business is usually 2+1 rather than 2+2 in this type of aircraft and in for example Q400 where all seats are the same they are all Economy.
      (I am sure someone will give examples where this is not true).

      • Isa says:

        It’s quite something isn’t it? Now if you *really* want a laugh, I’m going over to Nice after the Easter holiday (off-peak 8000 avios redemption date). I’ve obviously had my ticket for some time but for my travel dates, CE is now priced at £1067 and Y at £232…

        • Leo says:

          I don’t get the problem here though. If you don’t want to pay £800 for a mini bottle of champagne you don’t have to. Caveat emptor. Personally I favour the embraer because it has better legroom.

        • Catalan says:

          @Isa
          It’s called economics. Supply and demand.

          • Isa says:

            Oh I know thank you 🙂 and I do like the little Embraers but there’s absolutely nothing premium about the CE cabin on those apart from the price.

          • Mr Dee says:

            agree nothing premium now that the scones have gone!

          • Mr Dee says:

            Clearly Mr Cruz has no clue about how his customer thinks, they modify meals to likely save pennies when their premium product is priced high enough to afford a decent offering.

            More and more people will see their business product for what it really is and never return, the guy has no idea how to run the business and keep customers happy. He is after making a quick saving and suffer in the long run.

          • callum says:

            Mr Dee – People on here have been saying year after year after year that “BA doesn’t know what it’s doing” and “mark my words, soon they’ll start losing customers and will fall into decline!”. Guess what’s happened year after year after year? Their profits increase and their passenger numbers increase. That demonstrates perfectly that the people who don’t know how to run an airline are actually found on this board not BA’s.

        • the real harry1 says:

          my Ys are very often £500 each way by the time we get to fly…

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