I vividly remember the first time I flew on an aeroplane. I was 11 years old, and I was despatched to Rawalpindi, to visit my uncle, aunt and cousins. Exotic, huh? By far and away the most exciting event of my life, and travelling alone gave it a level of wide eyed wonder that I wish I could have bottled and kept forever. In contrast, my last flight, on an admittedly less glamorous trip, was rather less exciting. It was really just an exercise in getting from A to B, with all the attendant long queues, intrusive security checks, last minute rush to the gate, cramming into a seat and hoping that the whole exercise would just be over with before the noxious fumes of my fellow passengers took over completely.
Given that almost 40 years separate these two journeys then it’s hardly surprising that things have moved on a tad in the airline industry, not least to what the marketeers no doubt describe as the ‘customer experience’. Let’s face it, air travel has fundamentally changed, from the most thrilling and special experience you could possibly imagine, where everything about the journey felt geared towards you, to an exercise in unsuccessfully minimising the many hassles that you have to deal with. Added to which, in these enlightened eco-sensitive times, there is lots of guilt to mask any pleasures that you might have hopelessly been hanging on to.
Which brings me to the current challenges that BA and its much maligned cabin crew have been having in the last few months. With apparently very little reference to the ‘customer experience’, the series of strikes, combined with the already challenged air schedules, have made BA a bit of a joke for travellers, and I suspect that, following the debacle around Terminal 5 and various pricing shenanigans, that this latest story means that people flying BA will be those who have to fly BA, rather than those who have any choice in the matter.
So, given that it’s all gone in that direction, why? BA has lots of good routes, an excellent safety history, and pretty reasonable record in getting large groups of travellers to the right place on time. Most of the time these days the baggage goes to the right place as well.
My theory would be that the airline has just lost its way since the halcyon days of air travel. When you get on a BA flight, it feels like you’ve stepped back to the 1970’s, insofar that it ought to feel special, but it doesn’t. Most other airlines have recognised that it ain’t going to feel that special anymore, so they don’t really bother. And part of the problem, frankly, is the cabin crew, who have, ahem, grown up with BA. So the “special” bit is delivered by crew who, frankly look and behave as if they’ve seen it all before. Which they probably have**.
In contrast, the budget airlines put people in the air who know that their role is to give you the safety talk, not deal with any flak, and generally get the trip over as painlessly as possible, not least for themselves. These (young) staff know exactly what they’re getting into; there’s no glamour to this – at Ryanair they even pay for their own uniforms. And this is a million miles away from the image of air crew in the 60’s and 70’s, where, without blushing, a pouting stewardess would appear on an ad to say to the business traveller “I’m Mandy, Fly Me”. (Technically, I think this is somewhere between a double and a single entendre.)
Meanwhile, the BA management hold out against the unions in a manner reminiscent of the standoffs of the winter of discontent, and that seems a bit out of time. And, the cabin crew complain of being ill equipped, badly paid, put into difficult circumstances and unhappy with their uniforms. Which, given that these are much the same complaints being sent back from the military in Afghanistan, means that they’re also completely out of touch. Both sides are completely losing any public sympathy, which I would have thought, given the circumstances, that they should really be craving.
I’d really like BA to be a good airline. I just wish it would grow up a bit.
*Other names are available. Evening and weekend rates apply.
**I’m acutely aware that this is about the 4th sentence in this blog that is grammatically horrible. My favourite ever line from ‘Just A Minute’ was when Nicholas Parsons asked Clement Freud “Who would you most like to be shipwrecked on a desert island with?”. To which the great man replied: “Almost anyone who didn’t end a sentence with a preposition”. So, sorry.