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.

unnamed

“……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.

WHEN WILL BRANDS START TO APPRECIATE THAT CUSTOMERS ARE NOT STUPID.

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.

Advertisements

BA – better aircraft

BA TOUCHDOWN

It is safe to say that this blog would not be in existence if it was not for the Transatlantic “bus” service as provided by British Airways.    Continuing the bus metaphor, yesterday was like waiting for a bus for a long time when suddenly two come along once.   The buses were in the shape of their first A380 which touched down at London Heathrow yesterday to join the airline’s first B787 Dreamliner.  

I think (and happy to be proved wrong) British Airways is the first airline to introduce BOTH of these aircraft into their fleet at the same time and it’s a testament to their $5 billion investment in a new long-haul fleet. The last couple of years has not been easy for any of the “legacy” carriers and whilst the mechanical durability of the BA 747 fleet was above reproach (honoured to share my birth year 1969 with the first test flight of this incredible plane) the interiors and especially the inflight entertainment systems have been creaking along. With a stroke British Airways is re-establishing itself as the preeminent global airline – it just needs someone with guts to expand its home airport !

Leave your baggage behind

Somewhere at British Airways an employee, or perhaps a small team deserve, a lot of praise.   They’ve managed to square the circle in positioning a reduction in service as an increase in options and, at a stroke, started an education process for their consumer base.

What have they done ?   British Airways positions itself as a “full service” airline.  That means you pay one price and get seat assignments, checked luggage allowance, a boarding pass in whatever format you prefer, humans to ask questions of and refreshments.

That has not been an easy path (or flight path) to take.   Even the US legacy carriers have long since offloaded that sort of service proposition.   But British Airways have persevered and occasionally drawn comparisons with their competitors who charge for these services – in many cases pushing the “discount” fare above that of BA.

So what exactly have they done ?        

On certain routes out of London Gatwick they have introduced two fare options.    One with a checked baggage allowance and one without.   Just a few pounds of difference but enough to present a choice.     Below you can see the results of my actual flight search.

 

Image

It’s disruptive enough to make you think twice.  It worked for me until I discovered that you cannot ‘mix and match’.   I was happy to hand carry on the way north to Edinburgh but I know I will have liquids to check on the homeward journey.   That’s not permitted.

So why do I start this blog with such praise ?   Well quite simply this is sheer genius.   British  Airways have made INCLUSIVE BAGGAGE the standard and EXCLUSIVE of BAGGAGE the bonus option.  Rather than the customer thinking they are about to be ‘ripped’ off (hello easyJet, hello Ryanair) the reverse is true – ‘British Airways giving me some options to save money’.

As I said….genius.

Prompting praise

It is one of those maxims that it is easier to criticise than to praise.  Easier to complain about something going wrong rather than thank someone for something going right.    I’m sure this bedevils the travel industry more than most.   We forget about all the things that go right and focus on the failures.  Motivated to see redress for our inconvenience.   Sure, sometimes we think about emailing praise but all too often by the time we have retrieved our luggage this is a distant memory.

But perhaps that is all about to change.  On Tuesday I received a letter from British Airways containing a “Golden Ticket”.  A credit card-sized bit of card which I’m meant to pass to any BA employee who has been responsible for ensuring I  “enjoy a level of service that (I) would like to experience more often.”.     It’s about positive reinforcement and I think it may just work – they allude to a trial last year so the facts must speak for themselves.

Two things spring to mind;

(1) It places a bit of pressure on the customer.   Although the letter states I’ll get another card later in the year it does place a lot of value on this one card.    When do I know I’ve hit the heights of service compared to the experience I have not yet had ?

(2) It’s a physical reminder that one should praise and thank more often.    This is not just about the employee it’s about the traveller.   The card is the talisman you might not be prepared to use but perhaps might be the catalyst to thank a little bit more in person – which in some respects is much more rewarding than whatever benefit BA (they don’t say) give to the employee who receives these tickets.

photo

So I’ve just tried it out – on the BA Exec Club telephone line as I pulled my rebooked flight to JFK forward to tomorrow morning (today’s flight prematurely cancelled because of pending snow).     The agent was polite, interested, fully engaged and managed to deliver on my request.   I thought to myself “is this outstanding” ?    No.  It was good and all in the line of her job.   She got effusive thanks instead.

For now the card is tucked in my wallet.  Maybe I’ll use it tomorrow…and maybe not.

It’s a good idea.

PS  The devil in me would like to suggest a  universal “black spot” for use in the face of equally poor service and I don’t just mean with BA.  Anywhere.     I’m all in favour of ‘carrot’ but sometimes a bit of ‘stick’ does the trick !

Inspire a generation……more than one.

I’ve purposefully waited for a week to write this entry ian effort to look back on London 2012 free from the excitement of the moment. However, when I look back at my notes I find that not much has changed.

I’m not sure when I altered my view of London 2012, the cumulative effects of months of city-wide preparation may have taken it’s toll on my resistance but by the time I sat transfixed by the Opening Ceremony I thought – “what the hell have you not done” – the not being making any attempt to secure tickets for the Olympic Games. There then followed a mad dash sprint, worthy of an Olympic medal itself, to secure tickets – the final Friday evening athletics at the Olympic Stadium, water polo the week before and beach volleyball on the middle Sunday. The harder it was to secure the tickets, the more times I got to the end of the online ticket process to find the tickets were no longer available the more determined I became. Olympic Athletes may have to compete against a couple of hundred other countries – Olympic ticket seekers had to compete with a couple of million online opponents ! But that only made success all the sweeter and I was able to join what, for two weeks, was the only show in town the world.

So why did it take so long for me and most other Londoners to come around ? I suspect it’s all to do with the tough veneer that city-living coats you with. Getting from A – Z, daily objectives in hand, requires you to get your head down and power through. As the sea of purple (the Olympic Game signage) multiplied everyone just seemed to get more determined to ignore it.

But as with every other global city all it takes is an event of magnitude – good or bad, to chip away that external coating to unleash a bit of humanity. Far from making daily life more difficult London 2012 made it a pleasure. You could not avoid being overwhelmed by the positivity of the tens of thousands of volunteers that streamed from the city and into the city every morning.

Far from collapsing, the London Underground system ran later and on time. Every line, every day with the minimum of trouble. Regular road traffic fell off so buses speed along. I discovered that Stratford (the Olympic Park site) was not at the end of the earth as I had always assumed but a mere 25 minutes from my front door.

London never looked more beautiful. Every day a new panorama revealed that the city had more to offer than the well trodden daily routes we take.

As the two weeks progressed the performance of Team GB did, of course, help lift the national mood higher and higher. Hosting a great games being half the story but competing well rounding out the proposition. And that was, after all, the whole point of winning the bid. Without the, for the moment, intangible dividend of lifting the nation’s spirit and ‘inspiring a generation’ it’s an expensive business.

Far from inspiring A generation, London 2012 has inspired multiple generations.

Footnote

Two UK brands activated particularly well during London 2012;

– British Airways ran an inspired multi-dimensional campaign that lasted a year and touched every area from menus onboard to livery, through to advertising and Olympic Park experiences.

– Royal Mail who with next day stamps and gold painted post boxes in the winner’s home town (picture below of me in Chiswick with one of the rowing boxes) have turned a mediocre national institution into one which has a finger on the national pulse. Whoever suggested this in a distant conference room deserves a large promotion and bonus.

20120819-114103.jpg

Chicken or beef this was not.

I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of British Airway’s cuisine twice in the last 12 hours.    Most recently on my early morning flight from LHR to Zürich (as I write this entry) with a decent hot breakfast served in 1F but it’s last night’s dining experience which will prove the most memorable.

There was a time when someone mentioned “pop-up” you knew you were in for a fresh, imaginative and immersive experience.  I’m happy to say, in the case of BA, that is still very much the case.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to experience the airline’s pop-up environment in Shoreditch – BA2012.   Created to showcase the three winners of their Great Britons program which is at the heart of their 2012 Olympic and Paralympics Games sponsorship.

Centred around a short film titled ‘BOY’ written by Prasanna Puwanarajah, the Dove design work brought to life on the fuselage of some of the BA fleet created by Pascal Anson and the food of Simon Hulstone.    Each of them ‘Great Britons’, mentored by Richard E Grant, Tracey Emin and Heston Blumenthal respectively.

It was the perfect evening – stimulating and for BA very own brand in all of the right ways (other brands would do well to watch and learn).     A glass of Champagne and time to review the art, and it’s inspiration before dinner was served (promptly and efficiently – this was BA after all) in an aircraft like interior, although with a little more elbow room !

Seated in an intimate table for two, with a moving cloudscape outside our “window” we flew through a menu of Brixham mackerel, beef, fish pie and then chocolate fondant and lemon curd cheesecake.    My ‘travelling companion’ K and I enjoyed the dishes which have been inspired by the airline’s menus from 1948 (the last time London hosted the Olympics) and which we will get to enjoy on board BA flights throughout the summer.    At times, thanks to jolly conversation and a service style which was pacy, you really did forget that you were not cruising at 34,000 feet….or as K put it, ‘even the butter’ feels like it is from the plane” – still a little hard and our only slight on an execution which was memorable, in all the right ways.

After dinner we watched the short film.  Relevant, engaging and emotive.   The bonus was Timothy Spall starring in it.

We emerged back into the bar area to what can only be considered a hip and energetic crowd who had come in to enjoy a drink.   In some respects this was the best bit.   Loyal customers on that particular night had enjoyed the hospitality but the experience is also bringing in people off the street.  And surely that is one of the key points of a pop-up.

To reinforce brand values to your current customer and open the doors to new ones.

As far as airline ‘catering’ goes this was an experience very well done.

Less is much, much more……passengers that is !

Just after the British Airways Concorde fleet returned to service following retrofitting in the wake of the Air France crash I wrote to Rod Eddington, the then CEO of BA, to make the point that it was only a matter of time before Concorde would be retired and that this was the time to think of what replaced it in terms of customer experience. My suggestion was taking the non-supersonic parts of the experience (single class, small number of passengers, minimal check-times) and combine it with some enhancements such as on-board concierge, tailor and crucially TWO seat assignments for every passenger, selected from ‘work’, ‘rest’ or ‘play’. I received a polite response.

Single class, business carriers in the shape of Maxjet and Silverjet came…and went, unable to offer a wider network or service.

And then in 2010 BA launched a new service from London City Airport (LCY) to JFK based on an, optimised for steep take offs and landings, Airbus 318. Only 32 seats and a twist on their Club World service – the outward journey includes a refuelling stop in Shannon, Ireland (the runway at LCY is too short for the fully laden plane to take off) and a helpful completion of US immigration and customs formalities so you land at JFK as a ‘domestic’ passenger – so the time lost is a wash.

On the return journey no stop is required and it is that journey I embarked upon on Tuesday evening as I headed back from New Year in New York. There are two flights a day in each direction and all are romantically given the old Concorde flight designations – so I was on BA 004. The nod to Concorde continues with boarding from Gate 1 which runs straight off the JFK Concorde Lounge corridor. A boarding which, begins only 15 minutes before push-back. Yes, that’s right 15 minutes.

Despite being only a single aisle plane it does not feel cramped and this is the scene (BA picture library) that greets you.

32 seats over eight rows and that’s it. You can see why boarding is such a quick and efficient process. That, combined with the fact that it tends to be an exclusively business clientle with no children, surplus luggage etc.

We were pushing back before I had come anywhere close to draining my Champagne glass and the flight attendant did really have to pry it out of my hands as we got to the runway.

The on-board ambience is more akin to being upstairs in the 747 ‘bubble’ and in many respects there are stong comparisons with that experience. I’ve always thought that Club World in the bubble is a better environment than in First Class on the main deck but I digress.

The interior design of the plane is simple and elegant and, with all seats facing in the same direction, does not have the same visual disruption as Club World seating on the 767, 747 and 777. I was in seat 1K, the window seat, which is pictured below (BA picture library) and despite the flight being almost full I had no one next to me.

The seat is an improvement on the current flat-bed seat with two power sockets, a great reading light and a much more ‘cocooned’ experience. Inflight entertainment is centered on an iPad which comes in a leather case all fully loaded with similar content as on the standard system. Combined with a good pair of supplied noise cancelling headphones the set-up was a big improvement on the fixed system. Allowing you to adopt the position that suited you.

I dined (a little) in the lounge prior to boarding and then again on-board but the service is so much faster than the usual so, within an hour of take off I had wined, dined and settled down for a sleep which was broken only by a shake of the shoulder as I had asked to be wakened for a bacon roll – you can opt for a cold breakfast and stay asleep until 20 minutes before landing.

I should add there was a total lack of galley clanking and bright lights throughout the flight – regular fliers will know what I am talking about.

Landing at LCY is a treat in itself. As we were advised a few minutes before touchdown there would be some ‘sporting braking’ and you do feel the anchors being thrown out of the back ! Within minutes you are walking off the plane (always a great experience) down the steps and I could not resist taking this picture myself.

It took 30 seconds to clear UK Border and I had my bag and was walking onto the Dockland Light Railway train 10 minutes after.

It’s superfluous to say I enjoyed the experience, but I will. It was a refreshing return to a more intimate, less jarring way of travelling and I would be very happy to make this my regular way to cross The Atlantic.

British Airways deserve a lot of credit for launching this route in the depths of a global downturn and to keep at it. If my flight is an indication it seems to be succeeding. However I hope their imagination does not end there – running this configuration out of LHR (using one of the soon to be acquired BMI slots) perhaps as First Class only could be a very interesting proposition. Being one of the few in a plane with fewer seats is certainly a more reliable and enjoyable experience than being one of the few at the front of a very, very large and busy bus !