There are two British Airways. One is a bastion of the Great Britain that still exists in the minds of Daily Mail readers and on re-runs of Heart Beat, where Britain is all about stiff upper-lips, complaining about the weather and wearing a bowler hat. The other is what most people experience: disinterested staff, slightly shabby aeroplanes and high-profile public disputes.
The former are what philosophers might call the “qualia”, the essence of a concept in this case a company (to coin a phrase the “brand-qualia”). The latter are the physical experiences of flying. The two need to match up if people are going to buy into the brand.
I’ve spent many a happy evening comparing anecdotes with people similarly disenchanted with our national carrier, nevertheless I love its brand-qualia, the idea of what it stands for. I’d stand for poor meals if they were delivered by a smiling cabin attendant. I’d be happy to cope with delayed flights if there was a chipper pilot wearing a peaked cap (or even better, Biggles-style goggles) telling everyone to keep their chins up. Even the endless circling over Heathrow would be more bearable if the pilot made the announcement in clipped Queen’s English.
The reality of flying with British Airways, in my experience, is dreadful. I’ll spare you my whinging stories, but the contrast with other airlines is stark. (Actually the single comparison I have is with Qantas: when I complained about a black blob in my drink, the chap serving me replied in a thick Australian accent “Don’t worry about it mate, it won’t kill you” – but this response was comical enough to add to the experience rather than detract from it, the BA versions lacks any irony or comedy value).
It’s an interesting phenomenon, but many English customer service staff seem to view the customer service element of their roles with disdain. For BA it’s somewhere between the stereotypical French waiter’s air of superiority and the Little Britain character’s “computer says no”. I can’t imagine English airline staff ever being like their Asian counterparts, beaming and deferential; nor like American staff, with their faux smiles and have-a-nice-days, and I’m not sure I’d want it that way, but to feel like equals would be something.
BA’s reputation has suffered badly in recent years following industrial action, expensive fares and poor customer service levels. The Financial Times published figures from the Association of European Airlines in 2008 showing that “British Airways passengers suffered the worst flight delays and misplaced baggage problems among travellers on leading European airlines.”
More recently (March 2010) PR Week carried out a survey, asking almost 3000 people what characteristics they associates with BA: “42 per cent cited industrial disputes and 55 per cent said the airline was ‘expensive’. Just nine per cent associated it with value for money – which is significant, as 56 per cent of respondents said price was the most important factor when choosing an airline.”
In short, the company’s reputation needs a shot in the arm.
To kick-start this turn around, a new campaign launched this month (Sept 2011) focuses on the company’s long gone-but-not-forgotten slogan: “To fly. To serve”.
But how does a company like British Airways convince us that this motto carries through to the actual experience of flying with them? The firm’s new ‘film’ (the website carefully avoids mention of the word ‘advert’) focuses on the company’s history, from ancients biplanes, to the older planes of BOAC, through to modern jets. Curiously, modern aircraft only appear in the last ten seconds of the minute and a half long film. Print adverts include the company’s colours, the slogan and what it means to passengers.
In my mind, this doesn’t really tackle the problem. It’s the equivalent of taking the chocolate that is always left in the bottom of the tin and giving it a new name and wrapper. A few people will try it, but most will see the ‘mocha swirl’ for what it really is: a ‘coffee crème’ covered in gold foil.
Instead of focusing solely on this re-brand or even retro-brand, BA needs to tackle customers’ perceptions. The company’s website goes some way to doing that – did you know all crews have staff capable of delivering a baby? I certainly didn’t. They don’t seem to be capable of delivering a sandwich, but may be there are more differences in those skill sets then I realise.
What would make me return to BA? Some simple practical things, how about:
- A simpler process at the airport – instead of seventeen different queues to show your boarding pass, passport, baggage, boarding pass again, shoes, toothpaste, boarding pass one more time – how about one queue for check in, one for security, and then onto the plane?
- Polite helpful staff, not “No, because…” as a default response, but rather “I’ll see if we can…”.
- One or two good food options – not six different choices of damp grey sponge, five of which are unavailable, the sixth lobbed onto your pull down tray.
Even if these things are happening at 30,000ft right now, I wouldn’t know from this campaign. “To fly. To serve” is a lovely philosophy, reminiscent of everything I want from BA, but it’s lacking substance, just like these new adverts. It feels contrary to what British Airways’ managing director, brands and customer experience Frank van der Post said: “This campaign has real substance. Not only are we investing in tangible improvements to the customer experience, earlier this year we launched an internal programme to engage with our staff.” Sorry Frank, but these are just soundbites, we need to know what the improvements are.
Testimonials are a great way to do this, and the website does contain a few examples of why BA staff are different, the baby delivering skills being one of them, orangutan handling being another – but these are hidden below the fold (ie below where the screen finishes, so that the user needs to scroll down to see them), and they’re not much use to the average holiday maker! Some examples of useful, innovative improvements would be a great tool to persuade people that BA is the way to fly.
A company as large and as prestigious as British Airways needs lofty principles, but what it really needs is some tangible evidence to convince people to come back to the “World’s favourite airline” .