British Airways has reason to brag about its new first and business class cabins, having rolled out a completely new cabin on selected Boeing 747 and 777s recently. But, as always, the customer is king and the airline keeps its customer top of mind when upgrading any of its service offerings. Edward Frost, Commercial Manager for South and East Africa, gives more insight into the airline’s operations and recent upgrades.
Q: The recent investment in your first class would suggest you disagree with some airlines’ view on the future of first class. Why does first class remain important to BA?
A: First is our flagship cabin and an important differentiator for a full-service airline. Arguably we were the first to introduce a premium cabin when British Airways’ forerunner Imperial Airways’ launched the Silver Wings service in 1927. We were also the first to introduce flat beds to first. Over and above the 100 million we invested in the new first cabin in 2010, we have now further enhanced the first cabin in the Boeing787-9 Dreamliner. Reflecting changing consumer needs, the main innovations in the cabin are technological. A smartphone-like handset controls the seat and in-flight entertainment console and a new stowage area provides a charging point for personal electronic devices. Our Johannesburg services all currently offer the new first cabin and we’ll be introducing it to Cape Town this month.
Q: Has your first class investment been in response to the ultra-luxury products developed by the likes of Emirates and Etihad, and have they raised the first class bar?
A: Our premium products have always been about substantively responding to customer needs.
Q: Beyond the onboard product, how important are the ‘peripheral’ add-ons in first and business class?
A: The first service is integral to the experience. This extends to every part of the journey from check in to baggage collection. Service and service-style in the air and on the ground is as important as the on-board product. All first cabin crew receive specialised premium service training. This ensures they provide exceptional, consistent service that is flexible, yet attentive and intuitive. Key to the premium experience is the understanding that people have different needs and appropriately responding to these.
Q: The BA business class (Club World) cabin was re-launched in 2007. When can passengers expect the next revamp of this cabin?
A: The second-generation Club World was an evolutionary leap from its predecessor. We’re constantly looking for ways to improve the offering. For example we recently introduced new catering on the Cape Town-London services.
Q: Are you surprised that Africa’s airlines are not focusing as much on the development of their premium cabins as their international counterparts?
A: Other airlines have their own competitive circumstances to consider and respond accordingly. We aim to deliver what our customers expect.
Q: Are you surprised that none of Africa’s airlines have shown an interest in developing a premium economy product?
A: World Traveller Plus has worked well for us on a number of our African routes. It is a good proposition for smaller and medium-sized businesses, which may have travel policies that preclude flying in a premium cabin, but which still need people to work on board and arrive at a meeting ready to do business. In conjunction with a product such as On Business we think it’s quite a powerful proposition in this market sector.
Q: Do you agree with the assertion that today’s premium economy class is the business class of yesteryear?
A: Not at all. World Traveller Plus was developed as a purely as a premium economy product based on extensive customer feedback. It offers more space, in-seat power and other facilities that make it easier to work on board. Although customers are able to choose some meals from the Club menu, it is not intended to, nor does it pretend to, compete with any generation of business class offering.
Q: What are your thoughts on an African ‘open skies’ policy and whether it could ever be achieved?
A: We’ve consistently said that we’d like an industry that isn’t artificially constrained, so would welcome any change which would enable airlines to compete where and when they see opportunity. Unfortunately we aren’t able to say whether African countries would adopt a more liberal policy.
Q: What role is technology playing in the BA offering and what do you think the next great technological leap in the airline industry will be?
A: We’re already seeing it in aircraft such as the A380 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner. These aircraft represent a significant technological leap from their predecessors. In terms of customer developments it’s how mobile technology is giving customers more control over their journeys, from being able to check-in to now being able to change eligible flights. This will continue, for example our UK customers have access to Apple Pay. This and similar solutions will roll out to customers in other markets. Electronic bag tags, which customers are able to programme themselves, are another innovation which, when introduced, will speed up the airport experience.