Betting Big

British Airways are betting big on South Africa, with a host of additional capacity in the pipeline set to make it an even more dominant player on the UK-SA route. The airline’s Commercial Manager for Southern Africa, Sue Petrie, joined editor Dylan Rogers for a coffee in Johannesburg to talk through some of the upcoming capacity changes and BA’s significant investment in onboard product.

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It’s pretty obvious that British Airways has significant faith in South Africa as both an end destination and African hub, with the next few months set to result in even more seats between the UK and South Africa. In fact, October will see as many as 680 additional seats a week to Johannesburg, with BA operating an all-A380 service, meaning customers will have a choice of two flights a day on one of the airline’s most modern aircraft.

“We’ve been working towards double-daily A380 services to Johannesburg since it became one of the first routes to get the new aircraft three years ago,” says Petrie. “The additional capacity, particularly in the premium cabins, will be welcome news for our customers.”

BA is also due to operate its expanded Cape Town schedule, including three weekly flights from Gatwick, over the 2017/18 southern hemisphere summer. At its peak, this schedule provides 19 weekly services between London and the Mother City.

Further strengthening the BA offering in South Africa is the fact that it has a strong local franchise partner in Comair, which operates the kulula (low-cost) and BA brands in the southern African market.

“One of the advantages we have over our competitors is that we can integrate seamlessly with the British Airways operated by Comair operation here in South Africa, meaning we can serve a host of domestic destinations as well as some regional destinations in Southern Africa – places like Windhoek, Harare, Vic Falls, Livingstone etc,” says Petrie.

BA is also investing heavily in lounge upgrades, with the Johannesburg lounge at O.R. Tambo International Airport just one of many due to be upgraded in the near future.

That being said, it’s BA’s £400 million ($540m) investment in Club World (long-haul business class), technology and onboard product that has caught the eye. If you’re a regular traveller in Club World, expect new linen (pillows, mattress toppers, duvets) and a new catering service, with display trolleys allowing customers to select dishes from a choice of starters and desserts, providing an experience similar to that of a restaurant.

Club World travellers can also look forward to new seats in 2019, with every seat due to have aisle access, and then there’s the imminent onboard wi-fi roll-out, which is taking place as we speak, starting with the long-haul routes.

“It’s going to be Europe’s fastest 4G network roll-out of wi-fi, with two different products,” says Petrie. “Simply Connect will allow you to browse the internet, download emails and send messages, whilst Connect Plus will allow you to live-stream videos.”

BA have done extensive research into this area of technology and have even trialled an onboard wi-fi product, well aware that the pros of this sort of offering outweigh the cons in this day and age of unlimited access and technological advancement.

That advancement has also resulted in BA customers now being able to self-service bag drop at Heathrow and Gatwick, enabling them to label their own bags and drop these off before proceeding through security. Additionally, the airline has opened the first three automated boarding gates for UK domestic flights at Terminal 5. The gates use facial recognition to allow customers to simply scan their boarding pass before walking onto the aircraft.

For BA, though, it’s about more than showing off their technological capability, with the airline clearly adapting to the ‘on-demand’ nature of life as it is at the moment, with consumers consuming products when they want them and how they want them.

“Underpinning all the investment is the notion that when you get on a flight, if you want to sleep, you can sleep, if you want to watch movies, there is plenty to choose from, and if you want to work, there is onboard wi-fi,” says Petrie. Once you’re in that space, you can do whatever it is you want, and you can do it well. It’s about having that choice about how you want it and when you want it.”

That sounds about right.