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British Airways: Can strike-hit airline rebuild its reputation?

BA planes
Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

It’s not been a great centenary celebration for British Airways. The operator officially reached the 100-year landmark on 25 August, just as the prospect of this week’s two-day pilots’ strike was starting to panic tens of thousands of customers.

IAG net profit

Last year, BA’s operating profits rose 11.6% to £1.95bn. Profits were also up in the first six months of this year. In February, IAG raised its shareholder dividend and also declared a special payout.

In 2009, BA’s then chief executive Willie Walsh (who now runs IAG) said the airline was in a “fight for survival”. Intense competition on transatlantic routes and the popularity of budget carriers on European routes meant radical action was needed. The recovery cost almost 4,000 redundancies and everyone took a pay cut.

‘Deplorable’

But now that those dark days are over, pilots want to share in the success of BA’s turnaround, Mr Strutton says. “British Airways needs to wake up and realise its pilots are determined to be heard. They’ve previously taken big pay cuts to help the company through hard times. Now BA is making billions of pounds of profit, its pilots have made a fair, reasonable and affordable claim for pay and benefits.”

BA insists that offering a share in the turnaround is exactly what it is doing. Alex Cruz, BA’s chief executive, told the BBC that everyone at the airline, not just pilots, made sacrifices. “The company recognises that. This is why this 11.5% deal, way above inflation… is a very, very generous deal.”

The impact on staff is only half the story, of course. Analysts say the reputational damage could be huge. Some 200,000 customers have been affected by the strikes, and with further action planned there will inevitably be lost bookings as travellers go elsewhere. Mr Cruz accepted that the strike would “punish customers” but also “punish our brand”.

Duncan Lyon, whose flight was cancelled and who is now trying to get a refund of £400, echoed the feelings of many customers who have complained of having to make numerous telephone calls to BA and feel there has been a lack of communication. His message to British Airways? “You are a disgrace and your customer service is deplorable.”

An empty Terminal 5 at Heathrow AirportImage copyrightEPA
The strike has left Heathrow’s Terminal 5 empty

But, though serious, this strike is not the first time BA has weathered a customer storm. In addition to previous industrial action, the gradual dismantling of some of BA’s premium services has been a running sore for many long-time customers. Be it the removal of free meals on short-haul flights, introduction of checked baggage charges, or the ending of complimentary newspapers, BA’s loyal base has found many things to mourn about the airline.

Yet, passenger growth has continued year-on-year, and the airline and its subsidiaries carried about 45 million people in 2018. That may have a lot to do with BA’s dominance of Heathrow Airport and a feeling among some travellers that they lack convenient alternatives.

But BA says it underlines the expansion of its route network and investment in services. Indeed, the airline has a £6.5bn spending programme underway – a four-year investment on 73 new aircraft, training and services. The investment is, Mr Cruz told the BBC, the biggest in BA’s history.

For Alva’s Mr Pickering, the investment could be key to “revamping the passenger experience” and addressing the “growing customer cynicism”, adding: “The situation is by no means terminal.”

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