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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.

  • Jack says:

    Hi all, I’ve got a bit of a random question but would like to get your opinions! I’m trying to book London-Tokyo (10 days in Japan) for end of March next year using my 241 voucher. There’s no availability for the exact date, a Saturday, but there is for the previous Wednesday. The return leg will need to be added next week as they become available.

    Would you book for the Wednesday (we are not very flexible as my g/f has Uni that week) and keep checking during the coming months to see if Sat/Sunday become available, or does this rarely happen? Or would you maybe book the outbound to Shanghai, spend a day there and then return from Tokyo. I know it is up to personal preference but maybe you’ve been through something similar? Any thoughts appreciated. Thanks!!!

    • Rob says:

      Seoul is nearer and usually excellent availability if just in transit. If you want to sightsee then take Shanghai, HK or Beijing.

      • Genghis says:

        I spent 4 days in Seoul in 2009 and thought it was a great city – lots of stuff to see and do – with great food.

        • Fenny says:

          I loved Seoul, but I was there in 1997 when their economy tanked and the currency halved in value pretty much overnight. I managed all my Christmas shopping at a fraction of the cost. Interesting sights and museums as well as the shopping.

          Plus it was a work trip, so I wasn’t paying for the flight or the Intercontinental.

      • Jack says:

        Thanks!

    • CV3V says:

      I’d book something and then keep checking for changes, recent experience for Tokyo was that availability did change and i got the flight i wanted, fortunately it was 24 hrs after making first booking so wasn’t charged a fee by BA for change. Seoul would be the easiest back up option, based on third party experiences i avoid Chinese airports, and can use JAL and avios for connecting flight.

      • Jack says:

        yeah the only issue is that March is a very busy season, I’d probably avoid it if I could but that’s the window we’ve got. I’ll look into Seoul and HK!

        • Scott says:

          +1 for Seoul. Always enjoyed my visits there. Much prefer it to Beijing and Shanghai.

          Some of the avios redemptions on JAL between ICN/GMP/PVG/PEK- TYO can be incredible value. I recently got an economy one way between HND and PVG for 10,000 and a few quid when cash price was £1200 for a three hour flight or whatever. Love avios redemptions within Asia.

    • CV3V says:

      also recall something about March being a busy tourist season in Japan due to Cherry Blossoms?

      • Angel says:

        Yes, March is BY FAR the busiest tourist season in Japan, and you really need to book flights & hotel a year ahead since they fill up VERY quickly (even at the inflated Sakura season prices). We tried to use our 2-4-1 for Sakura season last year and couldn’t get reward availability in First or Club World at all, and nothing ever opened up. We decided to go in October instead (just after rainy season and catches the beginning of the autumn leaves changing). This is just my personal experience, of course, and I’m sure some people have been able to redeem at that time of year, but it’s like trying to redeem for Orlando in July – flights are usually oversold, so extra reward seats don’t really open up, and the ones that are released are available for roughly 37 seconds before they’re snapped up. There’s also a chance that (as has been written about here on HFP) you could be bumped on a 2-4-1 voucher, and at a time like Sakura season, that’s a distinct possibility.

        • Jack says:

          Right, makes sense, thanks. I guess i’ll book via Shanghai or Seoul and take a day or two to visit. Cheers

          • Rob says:

            You don’t need a visa for Shanghai for a short stay (3-4 days, varies by city) as long as you are in transit. Separate onward ticket ok.

        • Louie says:

          Be careful if you do decide to book somewhere else in the hope of changing to Tokyo later that the alternative is in the same band as Tokyo (I haven’t checked) as you won’t be able to change without cancelling both inbound and outbound and with no guarantee that the flights will be returned to Avios inventory.

          • CV3V says:

            Recent experience (Feb 2017) in this situation was that after the warnings from customer service was that as soon as i cancelled redemption seats over thephone was that the seats, my avios and 2-4-1 voucher became immediately available and allowed me to then rebook as open jaw in different mileage bands.

  • RogerWIlco says:

    Do&Co catering? Can that be true? Check the logo on the tart! If it’ll be on par with their catering on OS and TK, it a quantum leap forward for BA.

    • World Traveller says:

      Do & Co have been doing British Airways’ Heathrow catering since late 2014.

  • Simon says:

    I’ll bet the investment into CW is revenue neutral, most likely the cuts to the short haul product paying for it.

    They probably know full well that their product lags way behind some other competitors and they have to be seen to be doing something about it. To be fair, the hard product looks massively improved. It surely would be an easy job to produce some well fitting, memory foam type mattress pads and combine that with some quality bedding (pillows and duvets are way too thin) people could probably forgive having such a dense cabin.

    That said I can’t say that Cruz fills me with any confidence at all. People flying with BA because of BOB? That just strikes me as wanting to see a pattern where there may be other causes behind it. No-one would choose Ryanair over Easyjet because of the opportunity to buy a particular food product on board, so it seems rather silly to think that BOB in itself is driving behaviour.

    • AndyR says:

      There wasn’t a new hard product shown. They were on 787-9 with the current seats.

  • Nicky says:

    Watched the new Highways Agency advert on TV last night which is set on a plane. Even though the advert was hilarious my automatic thought was…..This will be BA soon if AC carries on with the cuts.

    • Lloyd says:

      You must be mistaken about the advert as they were abolished a couple of years ago!

      • Nicky says:

        No, not mistaken: watched it on the tv last night and heard it on Smooth Radio twice in the last 3 days.

        • Lloyd says:

          Your mind must be playing tricks. They were abolished 1st April 2015.

          Highways England perhaps?

  • Myer says:

    Not sure I would want to fly Malaysian, I prefer to arrive.

  • Angel says:

    The new Club World seats are LONG LONG LONG overdue. My last CW flight back from Tokyo had me in the aisle seat trying desperately to sleep despite the kid in the window seat knocking into, kicking, and climbing over my legs every 30 minutes or so for nine hours – an irony, to be sure, as we booked CW specifically to be able to lie flat and sleep. It was like being in economy with a really tall person’s knees in your back, or a hyperactive child kicking the back of your seat. Whereas my flight to Tokyo in First was not only pleasant, but also relaxing and surprisingly refreshing, my flight back to London in CW had me tired, grumpy, and frazzled. And it was all down to the stupid seating layout… something I couldn’t do anything about, and couldn’t even try to mitigate by taking a window seat because sitting backwards makes me feel sick. How could anyone have thought that it was a good idea? I mean, besides the person who wanted to squeeze an extra row into the cabin, of course £££££

    • Genghis says:

      I actually like facing backwards as it means your head is above your feet when sleeping due to the angle of attack

      • Alan says:

        Ditto I have no issue with CW seats as I always pick a window one. I rarely need up during the flight so have have a good snooze with plenty of legroom! I hope they don’t go down the foot cubby/coffin approach with their new seat – absolutely horrible if you’re tall/relatively large feet. AA setup is comfortable, would have no issues with it.

      • Rob says:

        The seats are flat but, yes, planes fly with the nose a few degrees in the air so the plane itself is not horizontal. Sitting backwards does mean that your head will be higher than your feet.

    • Rob says:

      The A380 Club World seat which I had coming down to Hong Kong is fairly classy, as is the new 787 cabin, especially on the 787-9. Still the same seat underneath but in ‘lipstick on a pig’ terms they have done a good job.

      And, if I’m honest, the CW food down to Hong Kong this week wasn’t bad.

      • Martin C-C says:

        Disagree about the CW Cain on 787-9 too many seats crammed across the cabin. Window seats feels like one is sitting in a cupboard.

    • Simon says:

      I’ve only been in BA First once coming back from San Diego and I really enjoyed it, there were lovely staff on the flight which might have helped. CW though as you said the seating design is terrible, I guess if there are 2 of you it’s ok but putting that screen up and down plus climbing over people isn’t what I’d expect in business class, it’s a shame the Lloyd’s upgrade voucher can’t let you upgrade from CW to first.

      • Reddot says:

        +1. Despite the ominous warning from customer service my flight was returned to inventory immediately and I was able to make another booking for the same flight.

    • Simon says:

      Why didn’t u just ask the kid to swap seats

    • nick says:

      In fairness, kids can disturb you no matter what seat you are in. I was on a recent flight on Vietnam Airways’ new 787. The seat looks fantastic (1-2-1) but the seats in front were occupied by kids with an incompetent mother and I didn’t get a wink of sleep.

      CW is due an overhaul, but I think it’s still a decent seat if you get one of the good ones.

      • Leo says:

        In business on Cathay a350 last month. Only one little kid in the J cabin. Good as gold not peep. The many pensioners however were either hacking up a lung, snoring their heads off or up and down to the lav all night. I’m not saying ban pensioners but I am saying not all kids are a problem. Largely down to the parents. AND can I point out there was no choice of main course in Cathay regional business last month and as it was prawn if you were allergic you went without. Not every other airline out there is perfect- including Qatar who have also been known to run out of veggie options.

        • Ben says:

          How is a pensioner affording business class?

          • TripRep says:

            Because they’ve been very careful with the pennies over a long life, downsized from their properties that have soared in value and been blessed with living in an era of long term careers and final salary pensions ?

            IMHO the current crop of recent retirees will be the most comfortably well off there’s ever been (or will be)

          • Rob says:

            Exactly. Whilst there is obviously a massive gap between the top and bottom end of the scale, the number of wealthy pensioners is huge. Two years before I joined HSBC, for example, the management pension scheme only required 20 years of service to pay out 2/3rd of salary. It was up to 40 years when I went in and is now defined contribution. A relatively average couple I know in Putney recently downsized their very average (by non London standards) semi detached house which they’d had for 30 years and released £2m of cash tax free.

            If you travel in business class on the Middle Eastern carriers you see quite a few UK pensioners, mainly on the way to Australia or New Zealand for extended holidays. My only fellow passenger in Etihad First the other week was an American who was probably early 70s.

          • TripRep says:

            + cheap resources, increasing demographics, easy monetary policies & technological developments that fuelled the stock markets in the 80’s to present day.

  • Judy says:

    “it will almost seem that people are flying with us because of BoB. It was a perfect decision to make.” Please tell me he didn’t really say that. Totally delusional.

  • gypsyjaney says:

    As others have commented, its the bland, idiotic platitudinous utterings that the BA marketing machine churns out that annoy me so much. It is as though they assume that the public are all completely stupid. Cruz commenting that people are choosing BA especially to sample their B & B – and telling us that tickets to Rome cost £29 … try finding one of those. Its just insulting. I recently flew BA Y on a 3 hour short haul flight and was shocked by the lack of space and the discomfort. The new seats are bolt upright and barely recline at all (no room of course). I spent the 3 hours so so upright that I was almost leaning forwards and I could not wait to get off at Gatwick. I won’t be doing that again – Easyjet and Ryanair both offer a more comfortable journey.

    BA was always my first airline of choice but sadly, no longer. Its just a question of figuring out the alternatives, given their monopoly at LHR and Gatwick. Cruz is completely clueless.

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