Thursday, 30 July 2009

No Flying Sandwiches

It is a dark day when BA announces that it is banishing the free meal from its short haul flights.

I use the term 'meal' loosely as I am referring to the dreaded BA sandwich. I mean, it wasn't as if it was gourmet fare anyway but to take away perhaps the last bastion of differentiation between the national carrier and low-cost, no frills airlines is close to rock bottom. It seems also to be the limit of the creative thinking of an increasingly beleaguered CEO, Willie Walsh.

True, by banishing the rather poor sandwich and chocolate tit bit from flights after 10.00am (fear not, breakfast on flights before 10.00am remain reassuringly unaffected by this callous measure) that last less than two and a half hours saves the struggling airline £22m which cannot be overlooked. However, when passengers start making comparisons with other or low-cost airlines you have to start thinking, what is the difference?

I have to say I am no fan of Ryan Air. Until recently, you had to queue endlessly at Stansted in order to get checked in but they have now introduced online and electronic check in at the airport. Somewhat strangely, but typical of Ryan Air, you pay for the privilege of checking yourself in. In fact, you pay for everything. By the time you have added the whole thing up, if the bare fare was not as low as £3.99 then you may as well book a flat fare with BA.

You think I'm kidding? No way.

If you travel with a bag to check in and particularly if the bag carries more than a toiletry bag and a few items to wear, then you are looking at excess baggage charges which themselves are excessive. You can easily start paying Ryan Air some distance over a BA airfare. When you start adding in the fact in most cases you get rained on when walking to the aircraft because they are too stingy to afford renting jetways and that you cannot get the seat you want unless you pay more for the most idiotic and useless 'priority boarding' system which is policed by nobody, then you start to realise why O'Leary and his shareholders are making such excellent profits.

The trick for low-cost airlines is simple volume. There is no point in buying and flying expensive aircraft if you cannot utilise them to the full. So each plane is flown as many times a day as it can fit in, so the shorter the distance of the flight, the better. And it is turned around as fast as it can at each destination while the number of seats occupied each flight should be as high as possible, which is where the price gimmickry comes from. It is a recipe for over crowded planes and low service levels but 67m will fly Ryan Air alone this year which is 15% up from last year. And they are not alone with Easyjet in hot pursuit.

The key to success is the explosion of routes. Between Easyjet and Ryan Air, the number of interesting new places to visit has grown enormously over the last 10 years. We may laugh that we often get our imaginations stretched as to what constitutes a flight to Stockholm or Brussels but by and large the routes are superb. Take flying to Valencia as an example. It is one of the largest cities in Spain, just 100km from the northern edges of 'Britville' holidays, it hosts some of the biggest conferences in Europe, the Americas Cup in 2007 and in a few weeks time it will host the F1 Grand Prix of Europe on a superb street circuit - it is also home to one of the best football teams in Europe. Try flying there by either BA or its partner, Iberia, and you are looking at a two flight hop costing a minimum of £700. Or you can choose a direct flight with either Easyjet or Ryan Air. Even when you get to the low-cost airlines, choice is crucial. Easyjet was almost twice the cost of Ryan Air, and it only flies once a day to the destination. Ryan Air won hands down.

This year, as a supporter of London Wasps rugby club, I hope to take in at least one of their away European games. I have been to Paris, Biarritz and Treviso to support them in the past but they have also played at several southern French and northern Italian towns only accessible by low cost airlines. Then there are the people who either buy or rent holiday homes - imagine the ability to simply hop for a long weekend to a home near Perpignan?

And there is the business element. With premium cabins like Club Europe faltering, I cannot think why I would choose BA to fly short haul these days. Luton Airport is just 25 minutes up the road from me, the parking is cheaper and the terminal is fine. Easyjet and Ryan Air fly regularly to Paris, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Manchester and Amsterdam as well as a variety of other major cities combining convenience and low-cost for the business traveller, particularly if you are away only a short time. Stansted is not bad either - apart from places like Valencia, it was my only access point to fly to Montpelier when working for a company with an HQ down there previously. Heathrow, for anyone north of London is almost inaccessible with the M25 widening roadworks set to be with us for the next 3 years (yes, I am serious) and then short term parking is so costly and far away from the terminals to render the whole process a nightmare.

The formula for budget airlines may indeed be spartan but you have to admit they have seriously taken BA to task. The stuffy, backward airline pinned so much of its hopes on Terminal 5 only to see all the access it has built to the terminal bottlenecked by a seriously congested motorway network. And then, what the hell happened to the airconditioning at Terminal 5? It is is built with so much glass that it's like a greenhouse whenever there is more than a few rays of sun, making the whole travel experience a rather unpleasantly sticky affair. Also, knowing what we now know about airport security and the time, hassle and inconvenience it adds to a journey, why on earth did they plan the entrance into the airside area of the new terminal so badly? I am even leaving out the most disastrous piece of project management I have witnessed in a while when they actually commissioned the new terminal.

Yet on soldiers Willie Walsh. I don't know what photos he has of Board members and big shareholders, but they must be pretty compromising for him to still be in a job. He has happily presided over the most incredible swing of profitability to major loss in a single year that has been seen in the UK. In that time, all the major and minor flaws of the airline have been exposed and rather than making a huge shift in strategy and tactics at the airline, we are seeing it respond by imploring its staff to take salary holidays and axing the meagre meals on short haul flights. In small business terms, this is the equivalent of not buying fresh flowers once a week for reception or axing the monthly staff pizzas - both of which I have personally done in response to poor performance and in both cases I saw a disproportionate drop in staff morale and a decrease in my managerial credibility as a result.

Willie Walsh has a further problem. Getting rid of the monthly pizzas for me got me bad press within my company - for Walsh, this is national news. Many years ago as a trainee salesperson at Hewlett-Packard, the free biscuits for staff were rescinded as part of a global cost cutting measure. You may as well have asked staff to take a pay cut or axe the annual staff bonus - it was taken that seriously internally. But Walsh's actions are public and customer facing. Taking away the motley sandwich was part of the service and cost of a ticket. By saving £22m publicly he is not taking the same amount of the price of tickets. He is also announcing that the cost of the sandwich was trivial compared to the price of the ticket as £22m spread across each ticket sold is pennies.

We were paying a premium for this particular sandwich, and now Willie Walsh has told us just how much of premium.

And that had been BA's flawed business model for some time. Without the profit at the front of spaces on the aircrafts, as premium passengers watch the pennies in these troubled times, the whole business of flying anybody from A to B becomes loss making to an airline like BA with such a massive cost base.

Cutting a measly sandwich is one of the few responses to the crisis of an idealess CEO. It also sends the worst possible message to its customers - "We were ripping you off for the cost of a sandwich".
BA needs far more than this to be a credible force of the future. Once, it dominated the landing slots in the UK and so stifled competition by being big. Virgin chipped away at that and brought innovation and service as well as price competition to BA at its two main hubs. Then the budget airlines came from left field. Instead of competing for slots at the national hubs, they picked off the subsidiary airports who were hungry to compete with Heathrow and Gatwick and there was no shortage of investment to support this - and certainly no shortage of customers to justify it.

In fairness to Walsh, the rot set in on BA a long time ago - and was compounded when they capitulated their own low-cost airline, Go, to Easyjet. But his woeful performance under pressure has contributed badly to the past mistakes and could possibly see BA lose its national carrier status in the not too distant future.

It will take a great deal more than losing a sandwich to make a difference at BA and far more focus will go on how they properly spend the extra £600m of cash they have recently raised. I would wager it will be the making or breaking of Willie Walsh in short order and, frankly, on his performance so far, I don't give him a chance.

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