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.
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
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
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
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.
in short, already in a good mood by the time I reached the
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
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
THE AIRLINE has 90 years experience behind it in various
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
First Class in today’s Boeing 777 is something akin to seventh
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
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
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
Williams, wearing a tie in BA colors, stressed that despite
the new strategic alliance with Iberia, “BA will always retain its distinctive
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.
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
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
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.
the company could reconfigure the use of its fleets to meet changing demands if
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
"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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I’m complaining. At least I now know what I’m missing.The writer was the
(spoiled) guest of British Airways.