By Brian Lait
I think an announcement by a steward on a domestic flight in the USA sums up the current attitude of BA to its European passengers:
“Thank you for flying X Airline today. We hope you enjoyed giving us the business as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride.”
In a telephone conversation with a polite young member of the BA Customer Relations (CR) department a few weeks ago regarding the absence of in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems on the new Airbus A320, he persisted in calling the London-Larnaca route “longer short haul”. In aeronautical terms any flight between three and six hours is classified as medium haul, but BA don’t classify such flights as medium since it would require them to provide a meal under their regime adopted in January 2017.
Apparently BA have Airbus A320s with IFE, but not enough to guarantee availability for all London-Larnaca flights. Imagine the savings made by BA ordering aircraft without IFE. Not only is there the basic cost for the system itself, but that is followed by expensive ongoing costs to maintain and constantly update the viewable and audio content. Each of those little screens costs some £7,700, so with one in each seat, and some 180 seats on an A320 that’s around £1.4 million per aircraft. That’s a great cost cutter for an aircraft costing around £55 million new.
I am amazed that BA did not announce that some remarkable survey had been carried out resulting in the majority saying that they carry their own IFE and don’t need one supplied by BA. On the other hand, it’s also typical of BA to just go ahead and do something critical without a) asking, and/or b) caring about what passengers think or want. Such indifference has become the habit with BA and, thus, their norm. (Maybe they treat you better if you are a first class passenger to, say, Los Angeles at £11 per minute).
However, in the USA at least, surveys have shown that for passengers the important IFE feature is connectivity, allowing passengers to use their own personal communications devices on board. It will be interesting to see what BA will offer in that direction which, you can be sure, won’t be free.
Such a service with a customer charge comes under the heading “ancillary revenue” (AR), which is defined as “revenue beyond the sale of tickets that is generated by direct sales to passengers, or indirectly as a part of the travel experience”. Further definition is in the following five categories:
- a) A la Carte features, which include on board food and beverage sales, checked and excess baggage, seat sales, fees for purchases with credit cards, IFE and priority seating;
- b) Commission based products, such as earnings from the sale of hotel accommodations, car rentals and travel insurance;
- c) Frequent Flyer Programmes. This largely involves the sale of miles or points to programme partners such as hotel chains and car rental companies, as well as to programme members;
- d) Advertising. This typically includes revenues from inflight magazine adverts and advertising messages sold on and in an aircraft, loading bridges, gate areas and lounges;
- e) Fare or Product Bundle. This could be a portion of a tourist class bundle such as checked baggage, early boarding and extra leg room seating.
Regardless, AR has become mighty big business. While amounts for any airline can only be found if revealed in its published financial statements, a conservative estimate is that for 2018 such revenue has topped £71 billion worldwide. Sadly, I cannot find any figures for BA, but as any economy class passenger will know, BA is getting right in there with charges for food and beverages, seating and extra checked baggage. Such charges soon become the norm for any second tier airline which BA now certainly is. In 2017 the king of AR was United Airline in the USA with AR topping £4.4 billion. Ryanair garnered a modest £1.7 billion (28 per cent of total revenues) while easyJet were minnows with only £988 million.
However. my experiences with BA over the Christmas and new year period causes me concern regarding their safety procedures, now the same as any budget airline I have experienced, which has not been eased by the rather casual attitude of both BA and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
BA must have spent a small fortune on shooting a safety video starring the likes of Michael Caine and Joanna Lumley, presumably hoping that such famous and expensive names will make us pay attention to the safety features being exhorted on us. Once it was finished and I had counted the names I knew, I vaguely remember that one encouraged me to read the safety leaflet in the seat pocket.
Despite being aware of where my safety jacket is stored and how to fasten my safety belt from many years of flying, I duly had a look at the leaflet, all of which is in cartoon format. In the case of a pending crash landing passengers will be told to adopt the “brace” position, which involves bending forward at the waist and covering the back of the head with your hands (which is to protect you from flying ‘debris’ on the crash).
The problem with the illustration is that, like the budget airlines, BA have inserted so many rows of seats in their tiresome quest for money, the brace position cannot be adopted because reasonably tall persons will bang their heads against the seat in front.
So, off goes a polite e-mail to Willie ‘Slasher’ Walsh (CEO of BA’s holding company – IAG) and Alex Cruz (CEO and chairman of BA – an unforgivable combination of authority to be held by a single person) asking how such a safety measure is presumably required, but impossible to comply with.
After my third e-mail I received a reply from a Julie Lee of the CR department who apologised for the delay in her reply, and she had been asked by both Willie Walsh and Alex Cruz to respond to me on their behalf.
She needlessly explained that the illustration “…is shown independently to any proximity to the seat in front”, but stunningly went on to say that “There are many passengers who may not be able to adopt the brace position”, citing the example of where a passenger is unable to bend from the waist, but without mentioning that inadequate spacing between seat rows means it cannot be adopted at all. I raised that point again in an e-mail the following day and less than a day later received almost the exact same reply again but this time from a Karen Farish, who even included the standard apology for “…the time it’s taken us to respond to you”.
So, on to the guardians of our skies, the CAA. They, however, dashed any hope of help by saying that the spacing between seat rows meets the European Aviation Safety Agency certification requirements and “With reference to the seat cards, there is no mandated brace position and no regulatory requirement to display this information on a passenger safety card. Airlines generally show a representative brace position that can be adapted for the majority of passengers”.
But if the position shown cannot be adopted by the majority because of the narrow spacing between seat rows, why is it shown at all?
It brings to mind the flight into China from Hong Kong where a friend challenged the air hostess for the Chinese airline taking off without any safety instructions being given at all. She looked him straight in the eyes and said: “No need. We crash, you die.”
Brian Lait is a retired chartered accountant living in Cyprus.