The ultimate in ‘Bleisure’ – High-flying aspirations on BA

"Nothing ostentatious but sophisticated and very British."

By
March 5, 2011 22:53
Keith Williams, the new CEO of British Airways

Keith Williams 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

When I was asked last week what brought me to England, I could answer in every sense, British Airways.

And it was a first-class experience. I was part of a group of Israeli journalists who took part in a flying visit to the UK to meet the new CEO of British Airways, Keith Williams, and learn about the company’s operations, plans and facilities.

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Williams took over the position in January following the completion of a strategic merger between BA and Iberia. He replaced Willie Walsh who is now chief executive of the parent company, International Airlines Group (IAG) that also includes American Airlines, another member of the significant Oneworld alliance of major carriers.


Obviously, the upcoming royal wedding features more on most folks’ radar in the British Isles, but in the business world the pact between the two airlines is of strategic importance. For example, since BA has a strong service to North America and Iberia is particularly well placed in South America, the merger allows them to complement each other. I couldn’t help but wonder what Queen Elizabeth I, who proudly fought the Spanish Armada, might have thought.

The journey was real learning experience. Among the things I discovered is there is a term for what I was doing: Bleisure. Combining my work trip with a brief visit to family still in England put me firmly in the mixing business and leisure category, a grouping that BA has been focusing on.

The pleasure part of the trip started in Ben-Gurion Airport, where, as First Class passengers, we were treated to swift security and check-in procedures and could enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the Dan Lounge, reserved for those flying on first or business class (Club World) tickets.

I was, in short, already in a good mood by the time I reached the airplane.

Here, further delights awaited and I learned a home truth. Having always considered myself an anti-snob, I discovered that this was a style to which I could easily grow accustomed. I am, apparently, a closet “aspirant.”

When we met BA’s Brand Manager David Metcalf on February 28 at Waterside – BA’s giant, greenhouse-like head offices – he explained that First Class attracts various types of customers ranging from the well-off, who aspire to the best, to the super-super rich, who are used to living in opulence. All need to be respected and well tended but the fabulously wealthy and famous need to be properly feted.

The cabins and amenities have been designed with this need to serve and pamper in mind. But, as Metcalf emphasized, the BA brand is about the best of being British: “It epitomizes British contemporary elegance,” he stressed. “Nothing ostentatious but sophisticated and very British.”

THE AIRLINE has 90 years experience behind it in various incarnations.

It started flying to pre-State Israel in 1931 when it was still known as Imperial Airways.

Metcalf says the company aims “to restore the glamor to travel.” Travel has come a very long way since those days. It might have been glamorous, but comfortable it was not: The journey from London to Mandatory Palestine used to take three days, three hours and 45 minutes, according to BA lore. It included train travel as well as three flights and the planes (or flying boats) landed in the waters of the Kinneret.

First Class in today’s Boeing 777 is something akin to seventh heaven.

Each individual suite has its own personal wardrobe, a leather-bound writing desk that converts into a dining table, and a buddy seat to enable companions to dine together.

My attentive flight attendant, a sort of flying valet, upset that I was not availing myself of the complimentary champagne, kept my soda water glass topped up without my asking and was happy to provide me with understated pajamas and slippers along with the Anya Hindmarch designer wash bags.

Since each seat turn into a fully flat, six foot- six inch bed, it was tempting to go to sleep, but it was too early for me. Hence I cannot report on the “Turn-down service.” Apparently, the cabin crew would have been prepared to turn down my cover (and possibly tuck me in, had I asked) while I changed in the super clean washroom.

Instead, I grabbed the chance to finally watch The Social Network on the 15-inch personal entertainment screen; ate a good meal; and got an inkling of what it’s like to fly in a private jet.

I’m happy to say that I didn’t come to earth with a bump. Heathrow’s Terminal 5, after some hitches when it first opened in March 2008, is now geared to keeping the travel experience running smoothly.

Although it is so vast it is possible to fit 50 football pitches on its five floors, it has a light and airy feel.

We were booked to spend the night at the luxurious Sofitel, which we reached without leaving the Terminal 5 complex.

“PREMIUM” IS the buzzword that featured strongly during our meeting with Williams the next morning. It becomes clear that while the company is upgrading service in all departments it is continuing to pay particular attention to first class and business. The Club World business class, for example, although it carries only a relatively small percentage of the passengers is considered particularly profitable.

Williams, wearing a tie in BA colors, stressed that despite the new strategic alliance with Iberia, “BA will always retain its distinctive character.”

Nonetheless, he sees consolidation as an obvious trend in the industry: “It’s a process that should have happened a long time ago as it did in the banking industry.” The recession of 2008 “hit our premium traffic pretty massively,” said Williams, but nonetheless the company has returned to being profitable. An accountant by training and former company CFO, Williams said this is partly due to a tremendous cut in personnel – from 65, 000 employees to 35,000 – made possible by the opening of the more efficient Terminal 5 and the use of online check-in and services through BA.com.

In the last five years, the company has invested 5.56 billion pounds in aircraft and upgrading the various cabins. In the coming years the fleet is expected to include 24 Boeing 787s, which are particularly fuel efficient and 12 A380s which have an extra large capacity.

While BA is a sponsor of the London Olympics, by the way, Williams noted that the games are not expected bring about a huge change: Along with the increase in visitors and participants to the Olympics, many people forgo a foreign vacation in order to watch the games.

As for competition in the commercial aviation field, it’s clear that the no-frill lines such as Ryanair and Easyjet (which flies to Israel) have grown since the mid-1990s but Williams said they don’t compete in all the same segments of the market.

All those we talked to stressed that BA makes an effort to make the World Traveller economy class and World Traveller Plus premium economy class more pleasurable, too. A vacation, after all, need not start only once you’ve reached the hotel. Those on an all-play, no work trip can also have fun on the way.

It would be impossible to tour an airline headquarters at the moment without discussing Libya and the fuel crisis, which Williams described as “an abnormal situation.” However, it is unlike 2008 when the industry saw the “double whammy” of the recession and increased oil prices.

Williams said the company could reconfigure the use of its fleets to meet changing demands if necessary.

And he remains confident, pointing out that not only is the company seeing a growth in the top-end travelers, it is also recruiting more staff.

"The airline industry grows all the time,” said Williams. “There are occasionally setbacks, like the recession which knocks growth for a while, but it is always growing.”

THE SITUATION in Libya definitely comes into the “setback” category to use British understatement. It had just been discussed at a confidential meeting in the company’s OCIC (Operational Control Incident Centre), a futuristic UN-like room we visited when the session had ended.

Here, Business Resilience Manager Graham Court explained how the company, working together with the relevant authorities, handles emergencies and tries to plan for both the predictable and the unpredictable.

“If we’d sat in the room altogether for a week I doubt we would have come up with the volcanic ash scenario,” he admitted, as an example of a surprise event with a huge impact.

The scale of things is evident when Court noted that there are 33 million BA passengers a day, and that figure rises to 60 million with the Iberia customers. BA used to have takeoff/landing every 90 seconds; with new alliance and merger, it’s every 66 seconds.

During lunch with Gavin Halliday, BA General Manager for Europe and Africa, the Israeli journalists discuss possible future developments in the Mideast but probably the old saying “Plan for the worst, hope for the best” is the best policy.

MINE WAS a two-day flying visit. All good things come to an end. Having met up with family, it was time to return home (and to some sunshine).

Like most Terminal 5 customers, I took the train. In the interests of experiencing more than one cabin, I had been “downgraded” to business (Club World). Nonetheless, this still granted me access to the BA lounges, or galleries, at the terminal.

For those with time to kill, facilities include the Elemis Travel Spa which offers customized facials, shoulder, scalp, back and foot massages among other relaxing complimentary services. Of course, some people might prefer the “retail therapy,” shopping in the extensive range of Terminal 5 stores.

During the five-hour flight home, I did stretch out and sleep on the (smaller) seat-turned bed. It was comfortable and pleasant, but definitely a step down from the subtle elegance and pampering I enjoyed in First Class.

Not that I’m complaining. At least I now know what I’m missing.

The writer was the (spoiled) guest of British Airways.


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