Commercial loyalty comes with a price

When I step on the plane on Tuesday it will be my first flight for exactly a month – suffice to say I’ve missed everything about flying from the smell of Avgas to the food (yes even the food). It’s therefore fair to say my receptiveness to all things aviation has been heightened as the month has dragged on. And so it was that I received an email on Wednesday from British Airways Executive Club.


“……We’re making these changes to provide more opportunities for you to spend Avios on reward flights as well as to ensure that the Executive Club continues to deliver a competitive and rewarding loyalty programme for the future.”

The ensuring outcry on frequent flyer forums, twitter and then traditional media made it clear that the flying minded consumer had seen through this little rouse and I will turn to that messaging a bit later.

In short British Airways are shifting the balance of their loyalty reward scheme to favor those who spend most. It is an entirely predictable and logical (up to a point) thing for British Airways to do as the global economy recovers and their passenger yields improve along with increased numbers of people flying on premium priced tickets. They are not doing this out of ignorance or guesswork – the airline business must be one of the most customer data rich businesses there is.

Today airlines make a choice – cheap and cheerful, flying lots of leisure passengers around for next to nothing, or premium focused courting long haul business travelers. The middle ground just does not work anymore.

But the strategy is not without risk for British Airways and I will give a personal example. In December my flight to Hong Kong with British Airways in Economy (which I then paid to upgrade to Premium Economy)was double the price of flying with Emirates via Dubai (about a 2 hour longer journey). I opted for the BA flight because I would receive Tier Points (which give me status) and Avios (which give me free flights). Now I was then subsequently upgraded to Club Class on one of the legs because of my status – so on this occasion loyalty paid off.

Fast forward to when the changes take effect and with my status already reached I would be facing a flight which earned me LESS tier points and LESS Avios. All of a sudden it’s tempting to “give Emirates a try”. If Emirates are sensible they will then upgrade me (they will know my status) and then potentially ‘status match’ me – before long I’m now using Emirates whenever I fly long haul east. See how easy that was ?

For someone outwith London it’s even more tempting. Out of loyalty (and the current scheme) they fly from Edinburgh or Manchester or other cities to London Heathrow and then connect. These ‘regional’ airports all now have Emirates service. Before long even some of the lucrative loyalists have switched.

Of course British Airways have access to all the numbers and know what they are doing – but it’s not an entirely risk free move.

Now to the messaging.


Sorry for shouting but it pains me as someone who earns his living in communications that big brands especially keep making this mistake.

British Airways substantially changed the proposition which they are entitled to do. “To Fly. To Serve.” is equally applicable to their shareholders as to their passengers. They are a business not a charity. However to attempt to mask a degradation of offer to a large number of customers on the basis that they were changing the scheme to make more ‘free’ reward flights available was as disingenuous as it was clumsy. They may as well have said “We are making more seats available but making it harder for you to get these seats.”

Much better to start off with “We are changing the scheme to better reward the customers that spend the most money…” Then go into the detail of all the changes including some elements which are marginally better for the infrequent loyalist (although these are tiny).

Air travel is now an incredibly competitive category. Numerous options and a lot of data to make an informed choice. Those of us who fly regularly grow attached to our preferred carrier, we are passionate about our support. But loyalty is a two way street and this week’s actions by British Airways will test the balance of that relationship for many people.


When it’s time for a CEO to go

Over the last few months I’ve paid closer attention than usual to the travails of Marc Bolland, the CEO of Marks & Spencer.

Every time I sat back on a long flight I was able to read another news story which added to my already formed opinion that the time HAS ran out for him. His biggest challenge now is that as these stories of failure continue to run they no longer appear in isolation. No they are juxtaposed with positive news about Dave Lewis, the new CEO of Tesco who is already comprehensively turning that ship around.

There is a very British phrase, “jam tomorrow” which springs to mind (and is appropriate bearing in mind the only M&S highlight is their food performance which has very little to do with Bolland), and this seems to be the CEO’s constant refrain – better news soon.

But it no longer washes. The catastrophic failures of the M&S eCommerce business are legion and resulted in that part of their business dropping as the competitive set increased. Their stores continue to look tired, they don’t have a finger on the pulse of fashion and blaming a late start to winter was just one of many excuses which didn’t seem to impact anyone else.

So what happens next ?

Well in my opinion action should have been taken 12 months ago. Bolland may well have been a superstar at Heineken and then Morrison’s but M&S has been beyond him.

Organizations have a habit of hanging on to CEOs for too long – when they have very little to show for their tenure other than excuses it is time to show them the door.

Marks & Spencer can, and will, survive but leadership change needs to happen – yesterday.

Unity not division is the key to our future

On Monday morning I carved out some time to make a quick trip to visit a section of the Great Wall of China. There are few things that live up to the hyperbole – this is one of them. Scottish Independence (the theme of this blog) is not.

The other famous wall is Hadrian’s. Built by the Romans to keep the Scots in Scotland. It’s ironic. Now the Scots, or a good proportion of them, seem hell bent on building their own wall. Cutting themselves off from the rest of the United Kingdom, their biggest trading partner, diminishing themselves in the eyes of the world.

If I sound bitter I am. Born and educated in Scotland I spent the first 28 years of my life there and then another 12 working in London and North America for Scottish companies – driving Scottish exports. Of course as I live in London I don’t get to vote on Thursday – along with 750,000 other Scots who live and work abroad.

Passing over the fact that this referendum should never have happened it is an ironic fact that a debate about Scotland’s future should deliberately exclude so many Scots and grant a vote to tens of thousands of people born in other countries who are students or temporary residents.

Do I think that Scotland can survive as an independent country ? Of course I do. But do I believe that Scotland has had it’s greatest days since the Act of Union with England in 1707 and is better served by continuing that alliance the answer is an unqualified yes.

Moreover the sum of the parts is so much greater. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland survives and thrives because of all of it’s people. Cleave one part off and the result is a diminished global power and a Scotland which is but a bit player on the world stage.

I’m a proud Scot but a great Briton. I recognize that being a part of a nation of 65 million people that is a member of the EU, NATO, the G7, the UN Security Council and the Commonwealth is considerable safer and more future focused than an isolated country of 5 million.

That the vote is so close beggars belief but then the separatists have enjoined the electorate on the basis of some misguided notion of nationhood and not logic. Straying dangerously close to intimidation and bullying they seek to paint themselves as patriots (in their words “team Scotland”) and the rest of us as strangers in our own land.

That’s probably the most galling thing of all. I’m privileged to be able to work and travel all over the world. I’ve yet to meet anyone who understands why this is happening. In Singapore, Beijing, New York I meet Scots who are passionate about their Scottish heritage and happy to carry a British Passport. The two are not mutually exclusive – and nor have they been over the last 300 years and throughout the world.

On Thursday the people of Scotland (correction illegible residents of Scotland at the time of the vote) potentially can make 60 million people distant neighbors not family.

An isolated Scotland and a diminished UK. What a tragedy.

If you have a vote on Thursday please vote NO.

Thoughts on travel

I’ve always travelled a lot for business and pleasure but the last few months have seen me break my in-air records. Because of the high frequency of travel I started to notice the little things I did to make life a little easier.

(1) Mobile boarding passes are good to have and on-phone check-in is invaluable however when you get to the airport pick up a paper boarding pass. Why ? Between security, lounge, onboard and writing out your immigration form you’ll easily use a couple of percent of battery power.

Besides it makes a good bookmark.

(2) Always carry an external battery pack. Fully charged. The only thing better than one is to carry two. I carry two.

(3) Carry £100 / $150 of your destination currency in cash with you before you get on the plane. You never know. Relying solely on credit or debit will catch you out and usually at the worst possible moment.

(4) Never make an airline reservation without consulting Seatguru . This takes all the guesswork out of avoiding the pitfalls of toilets and bassinets.

(5) Dress respectfully enough that you would be comfortable to go directly from the airport to a meeting with your number one client. Why ? You never know, you’re luggage might not make it. Oh and it’s a courtesy to your other passengers. Flip flops, shorts, exposed arms have no place on a jetliner.

(6) Remember the rule. The more media you take on the flight the less you’ll need it. It’s like carrying an umbrella – it won’t rain. No media and the inflight entertainment system will fail.

(7) Aim to help at least one fellow traveller on every journey. It’s the right thing to do, it makes the experience better for everyone and it will generate travel karma.

(8) Pack a snack for your arrival hotel. Anything to help avoid making poor room service choices.

(9) Even if you are only staying in the hotel for one night. Fully unpack. It’s better for your clothes and your mental health.

(10) Perfect a night flight sleeping routine and follow it. Use physical cues (such as removing your watch) to set in motion sleep.

(11) If you have a problem with a reservation or a quality issue start off your inquiry with “I wonder if you can help me ?” Empower the employee by making them want to help you. It’s rarely their fault. And when you get good service always make a point of reporting that.

(12) Focus your travel loyalty on one airline alliance, one hotel group, one car hire company. Even if you could save a few pounds or dollars switching consider what you lose. Loyalty goes two ways.

(13) Carry a small foldaway bag for use on the flight. Throw everything you need into it and that’s what sits at your feet on in your seat locker.

(14) Always carry a folder with your reservations printed out. It’s a fail safe to technology and another battery saver. And it means the desk clerk can walk away with the paper – that’s not possible with your iPad.

(15) Notepad. Always. In your pocket. Fill it.

Plane sailing

Airline partnerships and alliances often seem to operate more in the breach than the observance but my experience this past weekend with British Airways and Iberia set a new bar for joined-up and consistent customer experience. And it got me thinking.

Firstly, there is a caveat – British Airways and Iberia are not simply alliance partners but are owned by one company, International Airlines Group. Two separate airlines with a common ownership. There was, however, nothing separate about it.

A last minute need to fly to Tel Aviv on business with a quick turnaround resulted in me opting for the London Heathrow – Madrid (British Airways) and then Madrid – Tel Aviv (Iberia) routing suggested on the British Airways booking portal. The business class product was infinitely less expensive than the direct routing and the timings worked. Madrid is an airport I know well and I think rivals Heathrow Terminal 5 for customer experience.

I was most impressed with onboard handovers between the airlines. On the journey out the BA staff knew about my next leg and made the effort to make sure I had everything I needed. On the early morning flight back from Tel Aviv the Iberia staff both announced the gate connections at Madrid on the p.a. and came to tell me.

Recognition onboard is a key feature to convey a sense of reward to the customer for loyalty and the fact that BA and Iberia both use onboard iPads is a factor here. I felt as if I was still flying BA only with a Spanish flavour. I would single out the Business Cabin lead attendant for particular praise. I was able to experience and observe her attention to detail and focus on delivering on both outward and return. A credit to Iberia and I need to see if I can find a way to pass this on – as a species we are quick to damn and slow to praise.

So what was the big thought ? Just that British Airways already has additional runways at London Heathrow they are called Madrid. Good experiences like the one I have just had make the thought of a connection less off putting especially if the connection feels like it is on route anyway.

Presumably the integration will become stronger (the back end of checking in on line and via mobile is a bit creaky) whilst still maintaining two distinctive propositions.

As with all these things it’s down to quality of experience. On the basis of the last 46 hours it’s working.

it’s never been easier to succeed…or fail trying

Last Friday a small group of us got together to finally formalise our business venture.  Each of us have spent our careers helping other entities succeed and that’s a great thing.   You don’t work in the ‘service’ business without a love for seeing your clients or company do well.  However, we all feel that it would be nice to mix it up a bit – creating something from scratch and applying our variety of skills to making it work.

Since we are geographically distant from each other AND have may other work and personal commitments it’s important that we work smartly and that’s been an affirming experience.    I enjoy embracing new technology and digitally based features but there has been something about the last week which really brought home the contribution which “free” services can make to a new business.

– our email services, provided by a variety of entities at no cost

– a WhatsApp chat group to allow us to share our thoughts by the minute and keep energy and momentuam high

– a private Pinterest board to share and catalogue comptetitors and creative thoughts

– Skype where we held our first conference call

Each of these products delivering to an emerging enterprise.   And, come to think of it, I’m sitting in a cafe, using free wifi, on a Chromebook (Google services), blogging using WordPress (free).  

All of this is an extended way of saying that the barrier to doing something different is incredibly low.   The infrastructure set-up is effortless and virtually free – the only thing you need to do is come up with an idea to take advantage of it all.  That’s the hard part.

Good luck. 


I resolve to….

… more. Correction. I resolve to consider blogging more.

I’ve not posted on this blog for two months. Without trawling the archives I suspect that is the longest interval. It was not deliberate. It’s just fact.

The challenge is I think about blogging more than I blog. I enjoy considering content, gathering opinions and items I think will be interesting for others but sometimes, and obviously over November and December the mind is strong but the flesh is week.

Pen has not been put to paper.

I’m writing this on the sleeper train to Cornwall. An efficient mode of transport which will see me sleep and move at the same time. At the moment I’m blogging and moving so that’s a good thing.

So in this 2nd week of 2014 I promise to write more. You’re lucky – you don’t even have to promise to read. But thank you for getting this far.