British Airways is investing £6.5bn in passenger experience improvements over five years, the most eagerly awaited of which is a new business class seat being rolled out from this year.
With the first details about the product – called Club Suite – now unveiled, Business Traveller’s Editorial Director Tom Otley spoke to British Airways CEO Alex Cruz about how the seat was made, when passengers will see it, and how the carrier plans to court greater customer satisfaction. Part two of the interview is available here.
Why did you choose this seat and why put a door on it?
We had a choice between a 100 per cent bespoke seat, an evolution of the existing Club World seat, and what we have selected [a bespoke version of the Super Diamond seat by Collins Aerospace]. Each one of those choices offered different types of challenges, but probably the criterion that over-ruled everything was speed to market as well as it being a great product for our customers. As much as I’m not in love with the roll-out process we will continue to work with the manufacturers to see if we can speed up the process.
‘Bespoking’ a seat would have been very exciting, but if I’d ordered them in 2016 it would have taken six years, and I can’t wait until 2021 or 2022 before starting to install them. The evolution of a yin-yang seat [the existing Club World seat], we didn’t think it was the right thing to do. We would have kept the density, and we could have addressed the aisle access by extending the gaps between the seats, but the IFE screen would have been too far away, and there were other considerations. So we looked at it and said, “there’s no way we can consider this.”
Did you consider the Iberia business class seat as well?
We considered many seats, but we focused on speed, and once we were going down a particular path we wanted differentiation and it had to come through multiple things. Yes, we have a shell seat, but one of the things we did which I believe is understated is the table can be retracted one hundred percent, and the rest of the airlines’ [tables] do not. They stick out. It was important that we found a solution for that table to completely disappear for a sense of space, and at the same time you can take it out and unfold it and work.
Do you need a door for privacy? The design is pretty private anyway.
I’ve flown the seats without a door and it’s not that private, you still are open to the traffic of people going back and forth. With the door closed you will only see the head of the person going by. You also have the option of privacy. If you don’t like it, you can keep it open and then the experience will be like those others. But if you want privacy and sleep, it will shield a bit of noise and no one will walk into your space. It was not an easy feature to include, but it’s also about differentiation with other airline’s seats.
Does it mean that you are losing seats in the Club World cabin?
It is a less dense version, yes. We talked about this at the investors’ conference. What we said was that we recognised the value of the Club proposition across the majority of the markets, so we felt we couldn’t really decrease the number of seats significantly. It is a feature that BA has been able to maintain the largest number of Club seats on a plane, and we didn’t feel that we could take many compromises with that. So you will see on the configurations that we will reduce the size of the First cabin on the triple sevens that are being retrofitted, and also the economy cabin. So the Club Suites have come at the expense of First, and a little in economy, but even then it will be a less dense configuration.
NB: the 4-class B777 will actually see the number of Club seats rise by one from 48 to 49.
Will the A380s get the seat?
We are absolutely clear that we are committed to introducing the product on all long-haul aircraft, except those that we are retiring like some older B777s and the B747s.
And therefore that also means the A380s.
When will the roll-out finish?
It will take a while. I had a customer write to me about the new seat and he asked me when he would see it on London to New York. And I responded, “I’m sorry, it’s going to feel like it will take forever.”
It will take a while, and on a route like New York with so many flights I think it will take three years. We want to go as fast as we can. It is not BA slowing down the process. If we have more seats, we will actually stop an aircraft to install them. We will do whatever it takes, but it’s the manufacturing of the seats. We are going to keep working with the manufacturer to try and speed this up but it’s difficult because of the consideration that goes into the safety of the seat.
No airline of the size of BA has been able to do a programme roll-out like this in less than three or four years. And this has been, and continues to be, the biggest concern I have. We are working as hard as we can to roll it out as quickly as we can, but this is the airline industry. Everything gets quadruple-checked and no sizeable airline in the world has been able to do this quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised given the work our engineering department does that we won’t be the fastest, let’s wait and see.
Will you charge more for the flight with Club Suite?
I think the right answer to that question is that the pricing of the ticket does not exclusively depend on the type of seat that there is on the inside of the airplane. No airline does pricing like that. We do our pricing on the overall experience, on the markets that we fly to, on demand, on supply, so I don’t believe that the Club Suite is going to be isolated in the decision making of prices. I think it will be one consideration.
We didn’t believe that it was right for BA to continue offering an eight-abreast product. We have surgically studied and analysed and decided on the current configuration and the ones to come, and we will be working very hard to deliver the best product possible. In that process we aim to be as profitable as we have been throughout the whole airline, because we want to be able to afford continuous airplane orders and continuous product enhancements.
It’s unlikely that we’re going to support any data for mathematical calculations [for people to work out the pricing]. I can’t say no or yes. Undoubtedly, we will have people who will go in and begin to start comparing the prices before the Club Suite and after.
But this is just the latest investment. Remember the first one was the soft product in Club – the food, the White Company – then the economy soft product, then the World Traveller Plus soft product, then First soft products, then there will be an evolution of the First product, and then eventually World Traveller Plus hard product and so on. This is a long road we are on to make BA the best airline in the world. And with the new Club Suite, together with the best catering in the skies that we believe we have, the best amenities, super-fast wifi and the new entertainment, we will do well.
When will the Do & Co catering be more widely available?
It’s being rolled out, but it will take six or nine months [Do & Co catering is currently available on flights to JFK, HKG, TLV, DME, AMM, CAI and BEY from Heathrow. Do & Co also supply catering on inbound routes from ICN, JFK and ORD]. Some of the designs of Do & Co are being delivered with the existing provider but ultimately we want them to take over and they will.
We are going through a really strong committed investment plan, from small to large things, and we can tell the difference after we’ve invested and it’s a virtuous circle – it allows us to go back to the board to ask for another £2.3 billion, which is what happened last October.
Do you get frustrated by customers’ perceptions of BA?
I think any sense of that tends to last between one and two seconds because excitement and determination are my feelings. The number one thing for me is the people at BA and making sure I have great people with the right mindset. A tremendous amount of work has been going on since I’ve arrived about engagement, listening, hiring the right profile of people, hiring ‘people people’, if you like. It’s a team effort.
But decisions such as refurbishing the B747s can be taken the wrong way.
Yes, but that’s an example of when we have the right people and the right processes it’s liberating, because decisions that may have been harder in the past, such as that, are easier. Refurbishing old B747s is counter-intuitive. We are retiring them in 2024, yes, but at the same time right now we are refurbishing them.
But we are doing so because we don’t believe we can continue delivering an experience that’s consistent with everything else without doing so, and that’s mainly everything around the entertainment system and some aspects of the seat. We don’t believe having a very small screen of an old IFE system is compatible with the ambitions that we have in terms of customer service. It doesn’t gel well, it’s a contradiction. So that refurbishment means that all the IFE will be done, throughout the aircraft, for all classes. The planes will have wifi, most of the B747 fleet have this now, and there’s some slight touches to some of the seats, some have been changed entirely, some with parts – it’s a heavy refurbishment.
And you think it’s worth the cost of refurbishment?
We know it. We measure the customer satisfaction for customers, measuring those who have flown on refurbished B747s with the new larger IFE screens and non-refurbished ones, and the Net Promoter Score (NPS) is much higher – so we think it makes total sense to redo the screens. And we are putting wifi on them. But then we are also putting wifi on some A320s which will come out of service. Either you’re committed to revamping the passenger experience across the whole fleet or you’re not. We need to be consistent.
Another example: a customer sent me an email last night because he was disgusted that Lanzarote didn’t have a lounge that he could access. And it is an anomaly – it’s one of 22 airports that we don’t have a lounge agreement with. We’re looking to introduce it, because we have to be consistent that if you’re flying in Club you should have it – it’s a consistency of service.
In part two of the interview, Cruz discusses aircraft cleanliness, customer service teams and buy on board…