Sexing up the Skies
Reprinted from ES Magazine. Original author John Arlidge, 27 Jan 2012
Corporate feuds. Every country has them. Coca-Cola versus Pepsi in the US. Mercedes vs BMW in Germany. Britain has more than its share: Rolls-Royce vs Bentley, BBC vs Sky, but no contest is more visceral than British Airways vs Virgin Atlantic. For more than a quarter of a century, the UK flag-carrier Goliath has slugged it out on the ground and in the air with Richard Branson’s David. There have been dirty tricks, corruption allegations, even ice-cream wars. Now, just when you thought it was safe to go back to the airport, it’s starting all over again.
Each airline is spending billions of pounds on new aircraft, new routes, new kit and new ads to try to convince us that it flies higher. Thanks to BA’s recent £173 million deal to take over BMI – which, if approved by competition commissioners later this year, will give it 56 new slots at Heathrow – the airline says its route network is ‘a million times better’ than Virgin’s. BA executives dismiss Virgin’s service as ‘slipshod and unpopular’ and describe its Clubhouse lounges as ‘tired’. BA’s profitability is ‘vastly superior’ to its rival, they say.
‘Rubbish,’ says Virgin Atlantic boss Steve Ridgway. He calls BA’s planes ‘some of the oldest in the world’, dismisses its service as ‘stuffy and old-fashioned’ and says its lounges are ‘sheds’. Ridgway is challenging BA’s takeover of BMI, saying it is anti-competitive. If the BA/BMI deal is approved, BA will have more than half of the take-off and landing slots at Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport. By contrast, Virgin has just 3.1 per cent. Ridgway insists Virgin is highly profitable and points out that BA lost £1 billion in 2008-10. ‘They fell off a cliff. We didn’t.’ Ah, just like the good old days!
BA has the first-mover advantage in the new battle of the skies, as it revs up its offering to compete not just with Virgin but also fast-growing Gulf-based carriers, such as Emirates, Qatar and Etihad. Late last year, it rolled out a new multimillion-pound, 90-second advertisement by Bartle Bogle Hegarty that trumpets its history and features space-age computer images of a fleet of BA jets, including Concorde, crossing the Atlantic in formation.
Remember, the sepia-tinged promo booms, we were the first global carrier. In the beginning, our propeller planes landed where there were no lights. In the jet age, chisel-jawed Concorde pilots ‘skimmed the edge of space, the edge of heaven, the edge of dreams’, while suave stewards and curvy stewardesses served supersonic G&Ts. ‘Twenty-five-year anniversaries are one thing,’ says one BA executive, referring to Virgin’s recent milestone, ‘but we were around at the dawn of aviation. We taught the world how to fly.’
Fresh from its success outbidding Virgin in the race to buy BMI, BA is introducing new aircraft with new cabins. It has ordered 12 new Airbus A380 superjumbos and 24 new Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which are set to arrive at its home hub, Heathrow’s Terminal 5, from 2013. This is on top of the airline’s six new Boeing 777-300s, and the ongoing refurbishment of its 14 Boeing 767s and 18 Boeing 777-200s.
BA has a plush new First class and a new premium economy – World Traveller Plus – cabin with bigger and narrower (but more comfortable) seats and better food. In World Traveller Plus you can now choose the same main dish as in the Club World (business class) cabin, such as ‘Concorde crab cakes’. And World Traveller passengers aren’t forgotten; they get a new menu, developed in conjunction with the superchef Heston Blumenthal.
BA has some whizzy routes, too. Its 32-seat, business-class-only service from London City to New York’s JFK via Shannon launched a couple of years ago. Passengers clear US Customs and Immigration in Ireland and arrive at a domestic terminal in JFK, avoiding the usual queues. You can even send and receive text messages and emails from 39,000ft thanks to BA’s new global OnAir communication service. It’s as close as you can get to flying on a private jet, without paying private jet prices. BA plans to add a similar service to Boston.
Much of the battle for air supremacy will be played out on the London to US routes, especially to New York, which is the busiest and most competitive. BA operates eight flights a day – and an hourly shuttle if you include the services of its code-share partner American Airlines. Virgin has five flights a day.
After its catastrophic opening three years ago, BA’s Terminal 5 now works well, although Virgin insists that its limo service and private check-in lounge for premium passengers at Terminal 3 is ‘more personal and refined’. BA has already refurbished its Concorde Room in New York with new furniture and food – although the Krug and bacon sarnies are, alas, no more. It will redo its Terraces lounge at JFK this year.
The airline is also using new technology to improve the way it treats its transatlantic passengers. You can now download your boarding pass to your mobile phone or iPad. Flight attendants are getting iPads, too, so they know every detail about their passengers, from how they prefer to be addressed to their favourite wines. They can even use the iPads to make sure passengers’ bags have made it on to the plane and, if they haven’t, make arrangements while in the air to get them to passengers at their destination. BA hopes that the new technology will encourage staff to, as one executive puts it, ‘start showing some initiative and not do things by rote’.
And to improve service yet further, BA has even hired a top hotelier, Frank van der Post, formerly of the Dubai-based Jumeirah group. The ‘Flying Dutchman’, as he has inevitably been nicknamed, wants to make premium service ‘a living reality at British Airways’ – he is pioneering the iPad and other new tech. Another team member is the handbag and accessories designer Anya Hindmarch, who is spiffing up BA’s first-class washbags.
After years beset by strikes, terrorist scares, pandemics such as SARS and ash clouds, the airline’s new chief executive, Keith Williams, formerly the firm’s finance director, says, ‘BA is opening a new chapter.’ He hopes all this new investment will make BA the Jaguar of aviation, combining cutting-edge design with modern British style and service.
BA is so confident it has turned a corner that executives are starting to slag off the competition, but only behind the cloak of anonymity, unlike Virgin whose executives are happy to talk on the record. One BA executive contrasts BA’s financial performance with Virgin’s: ‘Have you seen how much money Virgin is making? Not a lot – if any. How can they invest in new product?’ He insists that despite its recent woes, BA is more popular than Virgin. ‘Where we fly the same routes as Virgin, more people fly BA.’ He dismisses Virgin’s Clubhouse lounges as dated: ‘They’re really losing their shine.’
So far, so ‘To Fly, To Serve’. Is Virgin worried? ‘Not a bit of it,’ says the soft-spoken, urbane Ridgway, sitting in the cafeteria of his head office at Gatwick. He points out that Virgin, too, has snazzy new kit on the way. The airline is introducing ten new Airbus A330s, and 16 new 787 Dreamliners, which have larger windows, higher air pressure, so you don’t feel bloated on a long flight, and more moisture in the air. Virgin is also spending £60 million refitting its Boeing jumbo jets to make them ‘the best 747s flying’.
Even though Ridgway insists that Virgin’s seats in Economy, Premium Economy and its Upper Class suites – which are arranged in a herringbone pattern so that all passengers have direct access to the aisle and don’t have to step over other passengers – are already ‘vastly better’ than BA’s World Traveller, World Traveller Plus and Club World, Virgin is updating them ‘to put them even further ahead’. There will be new seats in Economy. Premium Economy will offer more space and bigger seats with more back support. A new Upper Class suite with a more comfortable bed and bigger TV is on the way.
Virgin’s new JAM entertainment system works like an iPad. You can choose more films on demand and also plug in your own devices, so that you can look at your photographs and watch movies on a bigger screen. Text messaging, mobile phone calls and email will soon be available on all flights. New, less harsh lighting will be introduced. Fresh menus, including – don’t all rush at once – hot chocolate in Economy, are on the way. All meals, even in Economy, will be served in courses, rather than all at once. The ice creams will now be handed out by flight attendants carrying cinema-style usherette trays.
Ridgway dismisses as ‘rubbish’ BA’s claims that on major routes BA is more popular than Virgin. ‘On passenger share versus capacity share, we index higher,’ he says. He quotes figures for direct travel between London and New York that, he says, show that Virgin flew 234,211 passengers in the first 11 months of last year, compared with 234,079 for BA, even though BA has more flights. BA says it does not recognise the figures. Virgin is expanding its route network, adding new flights to Vancouver and Cancun later this year and extra flights to San Francisco, to add to its recent new services from Manchester to Las Vegas and Heathrow to Ghana.
Ridgway scoffs at suggestions that Virgin’s Clubhouses are tired. ‘I’m not taking lessons from an airline whose idea of a lounge is a shed and whose home [Terminal 5] is an impersonal
shopping centre.’ New Clubhouses are being built at JFK and Newark – airside at JFK, rather than landside as it is now, and new ‘limo lines’ will speed premium passengers to check-in and through security at JFK, just as at Heathrow Terminal 3.
Suggestions that Virgin is unprofitable provoke guffaws. ‘We’ve been profitable in all but two of our 27 years!’ he laughs. Although Willie Walsh, boss of BA’s holding company IAG, is celebrating success in taking over BMI, Ridgway is confident that the competition authorities will overturn the deal. ‘BA wants to sew up Heathrow. That would be disastrous for consumer choice. The competition authorities need to block the deal.’ As for BA’s aim to become the Jaguar of the skies, Ridgway, a confessed ‘car nut’, says: ‘BA operates some of the oldest planes in the world, so maybe they want to be like those antique Jaguars that break down a lot.’
Virgin insists its ‘human chemistry’ is its ‘secret jewel and secret weapon’ in the new battle of the North Atlantic. Sir Richard Branson, who created the airline, says: ‘BA is not fighting to get a better customer experience, they’re just herding people on to planes and off again – as many people as possible. Apart from its network, and its frequent flier programme, I don’t think people would choose to fly BA. It hasn’t got the quality ring of Virgin, Singapore Airlines or a Far Eastern carrier. If you’ve got McDonald’s competing with Raymond Blanc, Raymond Blanc is going to win hands down.’
BA’s McDonald’s vs Virgin’s Michelin-starred restaurant? That’s a recipe for a messy fight. Fasten your seatbelts: there’s turbulence ahead. ES