It’s too late for BA ‘To fly. To serve’ when you’re in a tailspin

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BA’s new-old strapline is a clever idea, but passengers would prefer it if it stopped talking about great service and just started doing it.

I note that British Airways is reviving its traditional strapline ’To fly. To serve’. Presumably that means its staff are going to stop being grumpy and start being smiley. That will make a nice change. BA hasn’t been a barrel of laughs recently, and when I say ’recently’ I mean for the past few years. The Terminal 5 lounge at Heathrow is fine but after that it’s downhill all the way.

The advertising campaign is brilliant clever and original, and fine for internal morale but leave us passengers out of it. Don’t talk about service. Do it.

Take the dreaded phrases ’now sit back, relax and enjoy the flight’ or ’in the unlikely event of the aircraft landing on water, ladies, please remove high-heeled shoes’ usually gabbled in a dreary and incomprehensible monotone. This repetitious mantra has become mere synthetic and remote background noise.

The reality of the unlikely event of the aircraft landing on water is, of course, too awful to contemplate so we don’t. But you can bet if it does, the ladies are unlikely to slip off high-heeled shoes and leave bags behind as we fight our way to the nearest exit that is if we managed to tune into the steward’s dreary monotone and take note of where the nearest exit is.

Yes I know perfectly well that stewards have to say all that stuff and that it bores them silly too, but part of the personality of an airline, any airline, is how it says and does things. We are not customers, we are passengers. We don’t want to hear mindless gobbledygook. We’d like a bit of human interchange. The problem for BA and, for that matter, most European and all American airlines is that they have become cold, mechanistic and absolutely uninterested in their passengers.

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BA staff look like they find flying boring; they look like they find passengers boring and sometimes very irritating; and they look like they find the places they’re flying to boring. Never mind Boston, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Barcelona and Brussels they’d rather be at home in Barnes. The problem for BA and its new strapline is its staff don’t look like they fly to serve but fly to make a living and they don’t seem to think that their employer gives them a decent one at that.

But its not just poor old BA. The glamour went out of flying for European and American airlines generations ago. Of course, what BA is trying to do is in the repellent jargon of our day brand engagement: telling the staff how good they are in the hope they actually perform better. But do we ’customers’ really need to know how BA services its engines or how it behaves to animals? I certainly don’t.

I was interested to read in Marketing Week that easyJet is thinking of running a campaign based around the slogan ’To Fly. To Save’. In the current climate economic, social and cultural that sounds a bit more like it.

Of course BA once had a low-cost airline called Go and it was really good. BA’s fellow International Airlines Group operator Iberia bought the Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling, and is planning to launch Iberia Express next summer. Needless to say, this has provoked staff problems, so do passengers have industrial action to look forward to now?

The reality is that the whole airline business has changed completely and the big, traditional airlines must change their model to keep up. Low-cost rivals, Middle East and Asian competition with all their ’glamorous’ appurtenances, and the beginnings of consolidation of the old established players have created what airline captains like to call ’turbulence’ in the industry. Star Alliance, Sky Team and One World are tentative and, so far, rather primitive attempts to form larger international groups. But while these might work well for the airlines involved, their public presentation is a complete mess. Some group members will have Star Alliance writ large all over their aircraft, for others it will be tiny. The passengers haven’t the faintest idea what they are all about.

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The airlines in these consortia remain completely separate from each other, totally inconsistent in performance and behaviour. There’s no coherence anywhere. Even the signs on departure boards are separate, so that half the time we, the passengers poor saps don’t even know who we are flying with.
“And a special welcome to all our One World customers,” says BA. What’s all that about? Do the other passengers get no welcome or perhaps a special unwelcome?

But perhaps there is a chance for BA. Now that it’s part of IAG with Iberia there is a new impetus for improvement. If they really want to make us notice that things are changing for passengers they might consider developing one single brand with a single clear idea, a single level of service (a really good one), a single way of presenting themselves, be it in lounges, at check-in counters, on destination boards, in liveries and in everything else they do.

The BA/Iberia group forming IAG could be the core of One World and, as it grows, airlines could subsume their own identities into the new One World brand. They could all keep their own names as sub-brands or endorsing brands during the transitional period. But, in the end, who cares? Passengers just want them to get it right.

Footnote: I was finishing this piece as I was flying back from Vienna. On BA. It was actually rather good and I was thinking, what if BA could make it happen? What if its ’To fly. To serve’ motto really was brought to life through its staff? But as the voice over the tannoy instructs me to buckle up, make sure my seat is in the upright position and fold away the table, I wake up. Things won’t change. They can’t: the time for that on European airlines is past. Pity.

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