With $490 million in his pocket, British Airways’ CEO Alex Cruz has big plans to snag more business travelers with a massive product upgrade rolling out now.
To show off what he’s talking about, Cruz invited 40 travel writers, bloggers and media personalities from around the world to London for an action- and content-packed one-day event. TravelSkills was there! (Chris flew over on British Airways’ new Oakland-Gatwick nonstop–stay tuned for his Trip Report!)
In the morning, we met in BA’s newest lounge at Gatwick Airport. From there we boarded a brand new four-class Dreamliner for lunch and a press conference on a two-hour joyride over the bright green English countryside up to Scotland and back.
On board, BA offered a sneak-peek of its upgraded inflight food/beverage offerings, and Cruz revealed news about the airline’s new business class seat and its plans for a rapid roll-out of inflight wi-fi, among other juicy details. After that, we landed at Heathrow Airport for a chat in BA’s busy arrivals lounge (with a whopping 78 showers!) and then walked through its exclusive new “First Wing” located in the far right end of Terminal 5.
Here are highlights:
BA has taken its lumps recently for implementing something that Americans have long been used to: Buy-on-board food, or “Bob” as Cruz called it. (See new menu and prices here.) Now that it does, the British are going bonkers. This day was Cruz’s chance to show how the cutbacks that economy class passengers may feel will not be felt at the front of the plane. He said, “We need to focus on enhancing premium – offering contemporary service, improved catering and lounges, and a consistent service experience. In economy, where we know that price is the driver, we need to focus our efforts on delivering more seats at the lowest fares and giving customers choices.”
New Planes: We took a ride on a brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner with four classes of service: First, business, premium economy and economy. The plane was gorgeous and quiet. It now flies to San Jose and Newark from London. But the biggest change in fleet will come when BA gets its new Airbus A350s this summer. These big wide-bodies will soon be the workhorses of BA’s long haul fleet, replacing the carrier’s much-loved but long-in-the-tooth Boeing 747s. Cruz said that with oil at $50 per barrel, there is less incentive to get rid of these gas-guzzlers; but nonetheless, they’ll likely be phased out in the next five years. The last 747s will disappear from U.S. carriers at the end of this year. (See Delta’s 747 Experience here.) It also sounds like BA will be moving to a 10-across economy configuration on its 777s. “A 10-across 777 is an incredibly competitive machine, especially on leisure routes out of Gatwick,” he said. Currently, the 777-200 on OAK-LGW is nine-across.
New seats: The biggest news that Cruz broke is that BA will move away from its famous forward/rear-facing business class seats. To me, the seats are fine, but make for awkward moments during takeoff and landing when you feel weirdly in the personal space of your seatmate and his or her direct gaze. Cruz would not offer specifics (other that saying the new seats will offer 100% aisle access), but said, “The time has come for us to change. We are falling behind our competitors and intend to catch up with a new design.” BA was the first airline to introduce lie-flat business class seats in 1999, which revolutionized long-haul travel. In a veiled reference to United’s recent issues with the delayed roll-out of its new Polaris seats, Cruz told me, “We will not over-promise on our new seat like some of our competitors have done. Instead we intend to over-deliver.”
New flights: Last month IAG, which owns British Airways and Iberia, created a new low-fare carrier called Level, which will be based in Barcelona. This summer it will offer cheap non-stops to Oakland and Los Angeles. When Cruz and I discussed this, I told him I thought it was great to get non-stops from the Bay to Barcelona, but that Norwegian was already in that game. I said what we really need in the Bay Area is a non-stop to Italy. His reply? “I think Level will take care of that need very soon.” Stay tuned for more on that!
New First Wing: These days nearly everyone is a super elite, business or first class passenger — or so it seems when you enter the so-called “fast” lanes at airport security. The same thing has been happening at British Airways’ big Terminal 5 at Heathrow. In order to better serve its paid first class passengers, gold-level Executive Club members and Oneworld Emeralds, BA has carved out a new, exclusive lane called the First Wing. After checking in, First and Gold members proceed to an adjacent sleekly designed private security area for screening. (Sorry, no photos: Photography not allowed.) After that, they walk a few hundred feet through a wood-paneled corridor and directly into BA’s first class lounge, where they can relax, eat, work or proceed directly to their flights. Nice touch! An executive told me that about 2,000 passengers per day will use the First Wing.
New/Refurbished lounges: BA bragged about its new lounge at Boston, which I’ve not seen. But apparently it’s big, bright and has a horseshoe bar that passengers are raving about—not only for the drinks, but also for the fantastic sunset views through a wall of west-facing windows. Plus it has direct access to the plane. BA’s lounge at New York JFK is slated for a $65 million redo that should be completed in two years. BA’s lounge at SFO has been bursting at the seams since the carrier introduced its A380—there’s simply not enough room to accommodate all the business, first and elite flyers (from BA and partners) at peak times. BA execs told me that the plan is still to add a new mezzanine level, but they could not offer a firm date about when that might occur, or how they will accommodate passengers displaced when construction begins. “We are working with the airport to explore temporary accommodations,” said one. At Heathrow, BA’s massive lounge complex in Terminal 5 is now 10 years old—still nice, but due for a makeover, according to Cruz, although no timetable has been set for the upgrade.
New Gatwick Lounge: BA recently moved from the north to the south terminal at London Gatwick and has opened a mod new two-level rooftop lounge with fantastic runway views, modern furnishings (including new pink crushed velvet chairs) and a generous buffet with a very British “Toast” bar (yes, a buffet line consisting of toast only. So Brrritish!). The lounge is 40% larger than the old one in the south terminal, but on the day we were there, it was quite full at around noon.
More wi-fi: Believe it or not, BA has only one aircraft outfitted with inflight wi-fi at the moment, but that will soon change. Cruz said that 90% of its short- and long-haul aircraft will get wi-fi in the next two years. He said that long-haul flights will use a satellite-based system and short-haul European flights will use a ground-based one. Similar to what we see at hotels, BA will offer two tiers of wi-fi–basic starting at 5 pounds per hour, and full service for 8 pounds (including streaming).
Better food and drink: Cruz said that BA will invest heavily in business class food and drink, which passengers will begin to notice this summer. On our flight up to Scotland and back, we were served some of the new food—for example, instead of bread on a plate, you get a warm roll served in a small silver basket. Champagne is served from big bowls of ice. Instead of bulky carts, flight attendants roll starters and dessert options on tiered trolleys– a great show. (Reminds me of how Turkish Airlines does it.) Part of the upgrade includes all-new cups, glasses and cutlery, with larger wine glasses for fuller pours and hefty cut crystal-like tumblers for cocktails. (See photos above.) BA’s busy New York-London flights will be the first to see the upgrades as soon as this summer, and it will roll out to other routes later in 2018.
Better sleep: Also on the way: bigger pillows, new mattress toppers, duvets, ear plugs and eye masks as well as revised inflight service schedules designed to maximize good sleep (sounds like United Polaris to me!). Regrettably, none of these features were on our joyride, so no photos.
More self-boarding gates: Currently, BA has three automated boarding gates at Heathrow. These gates operate turnstile-like entry points activated by facial recognition and the bar code on your boarding pass. (At Heathrow, your photo is taken when you enter security, and is matched with another photo taken when you board. If they don’t match, you don’t board.) Cruz said that based on the success and positive feedback from business travelers, there will soon be more of these.
British Airways created a hashtag for the event and coverage of its new investment—check it out here” #BAinvesting4U
Are you a regular on British Airways? What do you think of the changes? Please leave your comments below.