British Airways has made a series of announcements recently covering everything from planned changes to working terms for crews through to acknowledging India as its busiest long-haul destination after the US.
Nestled away between the announcement that long-suffering shareholders can forget about seeing a dividend this side of the 2012 Olympics (if not even longer) and an update on the price-fixing investigation BA is subject to was a very important bit of information – British Airways is actually going to buy some new planes!
This particular ‘company x to buy products from company y’ story might not seem to be Earth shattering, but if you are a frequent flyer, and in particular a frequent British Airways flyer – it is a big deal.
BA has not bought a new plane in over a decade. While its current fleet is among the safest and best maintained (from an engineering point of view) currently flying, it is also among the oldest. On the inside the signs of wear and tear are shocking, and on its elderly Boeing 747s and slightly younger 777s, no amount of black-and-white framed photography and flat bed seats can hide the fact that the planes are worn out.
If that wasn’t enough – on my last 10 BA long-haul flights, every single one had broken fixtures in the loos, which were themselves biohazards even before take-off.
BA’s ageing fleet is beyond the stage where simply tarting up the business class and first class interiors of its fleet, or buying new cardboard to stuff inside the economy class seat cushions will wow current and prospective customers. It needs new plans with 21st century features such as in-flight broadband, reasonable catering, clean toilets and legroom. It needs to be adding and improving features to differentiate it and justify its expensive tickets, not taking features away to compete with Easyjet and RyanAir, both of which would easily beat it in a cost battle.
The company needs on-going investment in new planes, whether that may be the new 747-8, the Dreamliner, or even the monster Airbus A380 human cargo mover on long-haul, not to mention some new short haul planes. BA continues to use elderly Boeing 737s and 757s on many popular short-haul routes, and the state of these planes on the inside makes them look as though they have been in service since the Nixon administration, even though they have not.
New planes bring with them other benefits over and above new interiors and toilets that don’t stink. A new fleet will be able to capitalise on improvements in engine technology, improving fuel efficiency, running costs, reliability and flight distance. With oil prices set to stay high for a long time to come, every penny that can be saved on running costs is worth saving.
Virgin Atlantic gets this, and has progressively bought new planes over the years, the most recent being a monster long-haul Airbus, a plane which they are very proud of. Virgin is also a customer for the delayed A380 super jumbo, which will, among other routes, probably go into service on its highly profitable Gatwick-Florida route.
In my personal opinion, as a frequent customer, BA is a below-average airline, with the good work of many excellent staff and its very good frequent flyer programme often overshadowed and stamped into the mud by a number of poor-quality, strike-happy staff the company can’t get rid of. If the company has any hope of surviving in an expanding and cut-throat aviation industry that has never been more competitive, it needs to radically overhaul its end-to-end service to customers. One big step in the right direction is the purchase of a significant number of new, faster, cleaner, quieter, more efficient aircraft. Until then, I can see me spending a lot more time flying with the likes of Virgin Atlantic.