It’s been a big week for British Airways, with details about its new business class seat finally unveiled. Business Traveller sat down with the BA’s CEO Alex Cruz to discuss the state of the airline, common criticisms, and what passengers can expect to see next.
Read the first part of the interview, in which Cruz talks about the new Club Suite, catering, and why the airline is retrofitting its B747s, here.
British Airways has been criticised for the cleanliness of its aircraft. Did this happen because of cost-cutting?
In fact, there has been a significant improvement in customer satisfaction in cleaning over the last year and a half. Two things have happened.
One is that we redefined and re-energised a programme which we call ultra-cleaning. This is when you take the aircraft out to do a deep clean, and that involves everything up to unscrewing seats, and is managed by engineering which has formalised in an uncompromising way that kind of cleaning. It has cycles, depending on the aircraft, of between 40 and 45 days. It means that any particular aircraft will be – well, not unassembled, but a crew will go in with these metallic toothbrushes and clean things like inside the trolley spaces.
Now both the short haul and ultra-cleaning programme is done and people have noticed. The pictures before and after are excellent. Cost has been a consideration, but once again, if we want to be consistent about delivering the best service, clean aircraft is part of that.
The second part of cleaning is the turnaround cleaning. We have completed the work in short haul, which means that we have entirely redone the programme. We have retrained the cleaning crews, added supervisors, and we think that we’re there in short haul.
What we have not completed yet is the turn cleaning for long haul, which is probably a few weeks away from starting to work in a completely different way which will guarantee the results we are getting in short haul.
It’s taken me longer than I thought it would. It’s been a logistics challenge, but I feel really comfortable that we finally have everything in place. It has not been about cutting costs, it has been about spending money wisely. And I think the teams have recognised the opportunities there and I can’t wait. I don’t think we have a date, but it will be before the summer that the turn cleaning at Heathrow will be fully implemented, and then we have to progressively do all the out stations.
But it’s been hard. I declared it as an area of interest very early on in my time at BA. We have tried a number of formulas. We cracked it in Gatwick before we did in Heathrow, and in short haul before long haul, but it’s taken quite a long while.
What about British Airways’ punctuality?
Since I’ve arrived punctuality has gone up system-wide about a point a year. It’s a huge accomplishment. Last year was difficult, but we managed it anyway.
The point is that within the London airport system and within Heathrow and Gatwick as airports, are we performing the best, and second do we have room to become better. I’ve got some incredible analysis using third party data – OAG punctuality data, for instance – that on a single runway operation of Gatwick, BA is by far the best performing in punctuality, much better than the biggest, much better than the third, much better year-round.
On a dual runway, which is Heathrow, it turns out that BA is significantly better than our national airline competitors in their home hubs which have four runways. So BA, over the last few years, has been making small incremental improvements to the operation, some via technology, some through changes in procedures which is delivering some numbers.
However, we think we have an opportunity to go beyond. If you were to sit down the Heathrow guys, they would walk through a long list of things, with each thing having a decimal point of punctuality gain. We recognise that punctuality and flight completion are the single biggest drivers of Net Promoter Score (NPS). We can see what happens when there’s a good week from a weather perspective, and we compare it against a bad week. And it’s dramatic.
What I can tell you is that the negative NPS of bad days is today less negative than it was a year ago. And that is because we are investing a lot of money in technology and people training, so there are more people there to solve problems. It’s called First Contact Resolution, and we have nearly 2,000 people trained, and we will have finished by the end of September.
It makes a big difference when there is bad weather. They can help to rebook a flight, and they can do it airside or at the gate. So it’s exciting, not just to see that the teams are working on initiatives that drive punctuality and NPS, but when it’s a bad day.
And we have got better at communicating with people earlier on bad weather days. Last year was the first year when we had five days when we were proactive at least 24 hours before the bad weather, and one of those days we ended up having good weather.
But it’s a joint decision made between the Met, Heathrow Airport and ourselves. And everyday they make an assessment at noon of the following day, and that way of working is yielding good results. If it’s bad weather and you get the message via your phone or email the day before, and by the way we give you solutions, you have options. Getting that done right with people and technology is helping a tremendous amount.
Will improvements be made to the call centres?
There are two efforts going on in this respect. One is getting better at what we already do and the other is about doing something new.
The call centres in Manchester, in Newcastle, in India and South Africa are probably the last department of British Airways that is waiting to get new technology, new telephone systems and new software. The roll-out has begun, but it is going to make a minimum of two years including the training. When it’s done it means we are then going to be able to do what [other] companies do. So, from the moment you call we know it is you, instead of taking you through security when you’re on your mobile and we should know who you are.
In the meantime, we have been changing a little bit of the culture within those centres to focus on the customer, to think about the value of special situations, to give them more room for judgement. So small things with managing the customer experience.
What else can passengers expect in the future?
A new thing is going to be when all the planes are connected [to wifi] and we have either a large percentage or all cabin crew with devices. Then we are in a position to make changes to passenger itineraries while they are flying and let them know while they are flying. If they have the app and their phone is connected, they will get a message saying, “I know your flight is delayed and you’ll miss your connection, but don’t worry you’ve been rebooked, or here are the options.” Cabin crew will also have an opportunity to go to customers affected to tell them to refresh their app, or instead just tell them that they have a new boarding pass.
I think this will happen between 2019 and 2020. We are already doing trials. It’s the ability to service our customers in the air because of connectivity, but we are still trialling it and the software is not fully written because we have to work out what we can do and be realistic – if we have over 400 people on an airplane, we have to go through different cases and trial it properly. But the opportunity to make passengers feel they are being really looked after is crucial.
Something specific about Buy on Board on short-haul flights. If you are top tier in Oneworld, on airlines such as Finnair you get a free drink on short haul. Any plans to do that?
We continue looking at it and I don’t discard it. But there’s nothing to announce on it. Last Easter we ran some tests where we provided free catering to Gold members, including alcoholic drinks, and it was one plus one, so if you are travelling with someone it was one for them as well. We ran the test because it’s important to see if we can deliver it in terms of space in the galley. I think we will continue to trial different angles and as soon as we are comfortable it will work then we will announce what it is we have decided.
It’s complicated though. If you are Gold sitting in a B or E seat for instance (a middle seat on short haul), and you’re not with anybody, and then cabin crew offer you a free drink, that could create an uncomfortable situation for some people, so we have to manage the process. Maybe if you’re a Gold passenger, there’s a swipe of your card but there’s no charge. It’s not a control mechanism, more a recognition that not everyone wants to boast about being a Gold passenger and not care about the passenger on either side of them.
More generally, we haven’t abandoned the idea of evolving Buy on Board. There are multiple angles, including if we will recognise higher status passengers of our airline and other airlines. Pre-order is an area of interest, and are we going to accept other payment systems, for example being able to buy an allowance as part of the ticket because that way you can give it to children and people who don’t have credit cards.
I don’t want to sound committed on any of this, I only want to announce the things for which we have a date. But now that Buy on Board is there and customer satisfaction is back up to where it was before we introduced Buy on Board, then now is the time to evolve, not just in terms of the menus but in terms of the overall experience.
What about making people pay for seat selection (if they aren’t in the BA Club)?
We’re still seeing more airlines going in that direction.
But if you are spending £10,000 on a pair of tickets and then have to pay for seat selection?
We understand that travellers that have been travelling for many years where they may or may not have had the ability to select the seat, and now they can select it but are being charged, might find it surprising. At the moment I don’t think we are looking at a change to that policy.
In your First lounges at Heathrow, there have been a number of pop-up promotions in recent years. Is it really worth the money? Doesn’t it cheapen the experience?
I don’t really have a comment. I wouldn’t necessarily count on those being permanent features. Opportunities arise. Don’t discard comments from some travellers wanting to have some entertainment there, and take a look at the whisky bar that we have in Glasgow. That’s been there for a long time and it gives people the chance to taste whiskies for free.
What about refurbishing the lounges at T5?
We don’t have a date for doing them. It will be a while, but it’s on the radar. Between now and then there has been significant upgrades to food, charging points, a few tests on providing waiter service, so you sit down and use technology to order food and they bring it to you.
We also want to make the lounge more modern within the infrastructure we have at the moment. We notice that the same areas are used less, and the same places are over used. Go to the Champagne bar at the back and it’s a pleasant place to sit since it’s quiet. So it’s about moving people around. You’ll notice that there are fewer computer screens and more table-top access.
So we will continue to look at service and other things such as a larger number of lounge attendants looking after the cleaning of the lounge to improve the experience. We also changed the catering in the Terraces lounge and the many different types of food, hot items in the morning. It’s increased as well.
The fact of the matter is a lot of BA customers, Silver and above, have access to the lounge, plus if you are flying Club. So we have a lot of people coming in and have to make sure within the spaces we physically have we provide the best experience we possibly can.
Now that you have the Monarch slots at Gatwick, will there be a big expansion?
I think Gatwick is performing really well. The terminal move has been transformative, the lounges, the check-in, and the Gatwick team is an incredible team that is full of passion and looking at how they can deliver an even better experience.
The Monarch slots will take time to settle. Last year we used other people’s aircraft to deliver the flights because we got them very quickly. This year we are using our own metal. One way that Gatwick is going to get growth is getting bigger aircraft, so you will see more A320s in Gatwick than we have today, and also because the refurbishment of the B777s will continue and be completed by the end of the year, that will increase the number of seats this year from Gatwick.
I think we will continue to look carefully at adding one or two more wide bodies and look carefully at new destinations. Last year we were seeing what the Monarch network was like and this year it is more refined. We have added some new destinations so that refinement process will continue. We’re extremely proud of the Gatwick team and frankly the world is their oyster. They will design what they want to do and how they want to do it and I’m very proud of what they will achieve.
Any closing comments?
We look at the world around us, and as citizens, as individuals, we see uncertainty – politically, economically, socially, and particularly here in the UK, we are going through an unusual time. Increasingly within BA we’re delivering a sense of pride that in a year like this, because we’re going to be hiring several thousand people, we’re introducing a new aircraft type, we’re introducing new seats, new long-haul destinations, we’re going to reveal a new uniform, a new product in First, the list is really long. The sense of pride comes from the fact that all of these investments are bringing certainty to our travellers, to our home market and certainty to the people who work for BA.
The announcement of the Club Suite is just one more piece of that certainty. We’re becoming much better, we are going to continue relentlessly investing in the customer experience and making the BA team the best in the world. There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm in what is, let’s say, an unusual time.