British Airways’ new London Heathrow-Las Vegas service has been designed to attract European as well as UK travellers, Willie Walsh, the airline’s chief executive, has said.
On a trip to the US city to mark the inaugural flight on October 25, Walsh told Business Traveller: “We have designed the flight times to allow for connections and have looked in particular at European connectivity. We think this is a route that has a lot of potential and that the market travelling to Las Vegas from Europe offers a good opportunity. That’s why we wanted to do it from Heathrow, because we see the transfer feed from European cities as important to sustaining the route.”
The service will operate daily on a B777 aicraft, with the outbound flight BA275 departing Heathrow at 1535 and arriving in Las Vegas at 1925. The return flight BA274 leaves McCarran at 2120, touching down in London at 1405. It is operated in a three-class configuration of Club World (business class), World Traveller Plus (premium economy) and World Traveller (economy).
BA’s vast network of flights in and out of Terminal 5 will give BA an edge over its rival on the route, Virgin Atlantic, which operates a direct service from Gatwick. “[The people of] Las Vegas are thrilled – they’ve been waiting for this for years,” Walsh said. “International tourism is very important to them and this is the perfect link.”
While it might seem an inopportune time to launch such a service, with international travel down and the convention business in the city depleted, Walsh said “now was as good time as any” to do it. “The main reason we didn’t offer it earlier was that under the Bermuda II agreement, you couldn’t fly London Heathrow-Las Vegas. But it’s always been on our list of cities to serve – the US is a very big market for us and this is the 19th city in the States we offer a direct route to. As soon as Openskies came into effect in March last year, it came back on the agenda.”
He added that advance bookings had been excellent across the cabins, with “a total mix” of passengers. “It has surprised me how quickly it has picked up,” he said. “It is by far the best-performing new route we have seen.” Some corporate firms had committed to using the service, Walsh said, but he stressed that the main impetus for starting it was leisure rather than business: “We didn’t assume a big corporate content when we planned it.”
Bmi’s dropping of its direct Manchester route to the Nevada city earlier this year was not a factor, he said. “I never really looked at it – I never sensed Bmi was really committed to that route,” he said. “I remember looking at their fares and thinking they were quite high. I didn’t think it was a strong route for them so I wasn’t surprised [when it was pulled].”
In other news, Walsh revealed that there were “eight, maybe ten” business-friendly destinations that he would be looking to serve when the airline started to take delivery of the B787 Dreamliner in 2012 – two or three in North America and several “emerging markets” in Asia, although he wouldn’t reveal what these were.
There were no immediate plans to upgrade the airline’s premium economy product, which is now several years old and arguably lags behind that of Virgin Atlantic, although he said: “I think there are things we can do to enhance that product – it’s one of the issues under consideration.” The launch of the new first class product was imminent, however: “We’ve now had certification of the seat and will be modifying one of our aircraft this winter,” Walsh said. “We’ll then start fitting it to the new B777-300s next year.”
Walsh said he was “delighted” with how the new all-business London City-New York JFK service was doing. “Advance bookings are healthy and customer feedback has been great. It’s gone much better than I thought it would,” he said.
Meanwhile, he expressed an interest in acquiring Bmi if the opportunity arose. “It’s clear Lufthansa is considering all its options and certainly the statements they’ve made suggest that one option would be for them to dispose of Bmi, and if they’re going to do that we’d be crazy not to consider it,” he said. “I think it’s too good an opportunity to let it pass by, so we’d definitely be interested if Lufthansa decided to sell. And I suspect an opportunity will arise – Lufthansa has quite a lot of work to do with the airlines it has acquired and I don’t see that Bmi fits neatly with its strategy.”
Walsh also commented on the decision taken this week by union Unite to ballot its members on possible strike action over BA’s plans for redundancies and changes in working practices. “I’m disappointed but not surprised,” he said. “It just reinforces my view that Unite has failed to grasp the critical need for BA to make significant changes for the future of the business. We’ve been in negotiations and consultation with Unite and cabin crew for over nine months now and have made very little, if any, progress. The changes we’re making in November will go ahead regardless and I’ve made that clear.
“We’ve got a business to run, we’ve got significant improvements to make in our cost base and all parts of the business have to contribute to that. This is a business that is losing money – I take no comfort in the fact that we lost money last year and are losing money this year, and although we are making progress, it will still be two consecutive years that BA has made a loss – that’s not happened before and we’ve got to get the business back into profitability as soon as possible. The changes I believe are very fair and reasonable, they would not affect the pay of existing cabin crew and I think they way we’ve set about achieving cost savings as absolutely right for the business.” The earliest he saw any strike action happening was the end of November/first week of December.
Compulsory redundancies would probably not be necessary, he said. “It’s always my preference that we avoid them but if the business required me to take a decision like that that I wouldn’t hesitate. But I don’t expect there to be a need for that. We’ve had more than enough volunteers – more than 1,000 have looked for voluntary redundancies and thousands have looked for part-time [hours].”
For more information visit ba.com.
Report by Michelle Mannion
For a review of the inaugural service from London Heathrow to Las Vegas, click here.