The 18-hour delay was bad enough, but the 104-day wait for compensation was just insulting.
When, in September, British Airways postponed my flight from Naples to London, I was lucky: I found a hotel room. Most of my fellow passengers, including a group of retirees, slept on the floor of the airport. The issue was said to be caused by the sudden bereavement of a crew member (awful news), but, inexplicably, British Airways did not have any backup staff.
When passengers incur egregious inconveniences such as this, the European Union mandates some form of financial compensation. (The law is known as EC No 261/2004, and many B.A. regulars have it memorized.) Still, it took months for the airline to respond to my dozens of requests over e-mail, phone, and eventually X (formerly known as Twitter). As one representative helpfully explained, everyone at the airline was “very busy.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that British Airways touted itself as “the world’s favorite airline.” Now it’s losing customers to Ryanair and EasyJet. In September, one of its pilots binged on cocaine before takeoff. (He was fired, but still.) My experience was hardly an exception but seemingly the rule: malfunction is more a feature than a bug these days.
In 2023, B.A.’s on-time-arrival rate for the month of March, a key airline metric, bottomed out at just 51.9 percent, a drop of 18 points from February. That same year, the airline’s delays in refunding inconvenienced customers cost the company more than a million dollars in fines. One of them was levied by the United States Department of Transportation because, during the pandemic, B.A. removed the assistance button from its Web site, directing customers to a toll-free number to request their refunds instead. Unfortunately, the phone lines were so understaffed that it was virtually impossible to connect. (“During this period, we acted lawfully at all times and offered customers the flexibility of rebooking travel on different dates or claiming a refund if their flights were cancelled,” says a B.A. spokesperson. “To date, we have issued more than five million refunds since the start of the pandemic.”)
Readers of Skytrax, a publication read religiously by frequent flyers, ranked British Airways 18th overall worldwide in 2023, behind Hainan Airlines, Fiji Airways, and EVA Air. Singapore Airlines took the top spot, but 17 years ago British Airways was in that position. Even the Prince and Princess of Wales once took EasyJet to the Alps. Where, when, and how did it all go so wrong?
“We know we don’t always get everything right, and we never want to let our customers down,” says the spokesperson for B.A. “We’re working hard to transform the airline and fix these issues. Our plan is backed by a $9 billion investment in new aircraft, refreshed lounges, improved cabins, a new website and app, and the very latest technology to help improve our operation, among other initiatives. We’re grateful to our customers for their continued support and are all focused on our goal of delivering a consistently great experience.”
What’s now British Airways was formed in 1974 by the merger of two U.K.-based carriers: British European Airways (B.E.A.) and the long-haul specialist British Overseas Airways Corporation (better known as B.O.A.C.). According to Dacre Watson, who was a B.E.A. pilot at the time, it was an uneasy alliance. “Both airlines were suffering from poor working relations, so the new airline was an untrusting mess amongst its staff,” he says.
Soon enough, Margaret Thatcher set out to privatize its operations. In 1981, when British Airways was losing over $200 million a year, the business leader Lord King of Wartnaby was named chairman. Two years later, Colin Marshall, who led Avis to profitability, joined as chief executive. Marshall inaugurated the P.P.F. program, or Putting People First, which required every employee, from cleaner to captain, to attend a two-day training session on customer service. “Colin Marshall traveled the routes tirelessly,” says Watson. “He did his homework before he came on a flight, unannounced, and when he came into the cockpit he knew my name, my wife’s name, and the ages of my children.”
The change was almost immediate, and B.A.—which waggish flyers had said stood for “Bloody Awful” in the 1970s—became a national treasure. It unveiled the slogan “the world’s favorite airline,” and by 1987 it was the most profitable carrier in the world. That same year, it was privatized, and demand for shares outstripped supply elevenfold. When it merged with British Caledonian Airways, it continued to innovate and was one of the first airlines to install flat beds in business class. Its elegant little touches, such as the bacon sandwiches served before landing, were legendary. “It was so much better than anything we were up against—Pan Am and TWA were absolute rubbish,” recalls one former executive. “We could charge a 20 percent premium on routes like New York and not bat an eyelid. We had business coming out of our ears.”
Then came two industry-wide shocks: the 2000 crash of a Concorde (a joint venture between Air France and B.A.) en route from Paris to New York, and the September 11 attacks, in 2001. “About 40 or 50 percent of the revenue for B.A. came from the transatlantic market,” recalls the former executive. “And that route in particular did very, very well.”
Just as that ultra-premium offering disappeared, budget carriers such as Ryanair and EasyJet were becoming increasingly aggressive. B.A. had attempted to compete by launching a low-cost subsidiary called Go but sold it in a management buyout in 2001. (Its new owners flipped it to EasyJet a year later for $472 million, almost four times what they’d paid.)
“British Airways is an example of death by several billion cuts,” says aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt, of Atmosphere Research Group. “You know the saying that you can make a piece of pizza so cheap nobody wants to buy it? Today, British Airways is the slice of pizza that nobody wants to buy unless they can get a deal.”
Harteveldt insists that B.A. began to wobble long before 2001: Look at the so-called Dirty Tricks campaign, an ignominious episode in which King tried to undermine upstart rival Virgin Atlantic in the early 1990s. Among other tactics, King’s staffers would impersonate those working at Virgin, calling baggage-handling teams to try to score insider info. Virgin Group co-founder Richard Branson sued, and B.A. settled for the cost of Virgin’s legal fees, along with $945,000 in damages.
Snooping on what was then a minor rival was a bad look that undermined the public’s confidence in its legacy carrier. “Richard Branson taught B.A. a thing or 10,” Harteveldt says. “It was savvy and hip, while B.A. was your grandfather’s airline. Remember Princess Diana wore a Virgin Atlantic sweatshirt after her divorce?” (Ever P.R.-savvy, Virgin launched an updated riff on the design last year.) Under pressure from Virgin, B.A. reluctantly retired the slogan “the world’s favorite airline” around 1999.
A leadership change didn’t help matters. In 2005, chief executive Willie Walsh arrived after running Aer Lingus. “Willie was willing to do whatever it took to make money,” says Joe Brancatelli, who runs the business-travel site JoeSentMe. “The aspiration to be great was no longer there. The aspiration was to make money for himself and for his investors. When he took the job, my first thought was, There’s the end of B.A.”
A Fighting Chance
Unfortunately, his arrival coincided with the rocky opening of Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport. In its first 10 days of operation, more than 40,000 bags went missing. “He was unlucky, but he was also combative,” recalls Watson. In 2010, Walsh merged B.A. with Iberia and partnered with American Airlines so that all could sell seats on the others’ routes and share revenue.
Walsh became the chief executive of International Airlines Group, the Anglo-Spanish multi-national holding company, headquartered in London, that still owns B.A. today. Walsh installed Alex Cruz, the former C.E.O. of budget carrier Vueling, as a continuity candidate in the C.E.O. role at B.A.. During his regime, the carrier axed complimentary catering for economy passengers on short-haul routes. Today, things have improved, but only somewhat: passengers in the cheap seats are given an 8.5 ounce bottle of water and a snack, and beverages and other snacks are available for purchase. “I always took my own tea bag,” recalls one disillusioned Gold Member. “And then they started charging me for hot water.” (The B.A. spokesperson says that the policy of charging for hot water stopped eight years ago, and attributes that incident to “confusion.” “We are happy to provide complimentary hot water for customers wanting to make their own drinks,” says the spokesperson, “but we are encouraging them to bring their own reusable cup.”)
In 2020, Cruz was replaced by Sean Doyle, a company man who joined B.A. as a financial analyst in 1998. His appointment was widely regarded as a step in the right direction. “Seventy-five percent of their challenges are of their own making, internally,” says one consultant who has worked with the company. “The number of long-haul flights they cancel is so bad for word of mouth. It’s a small community of regular travelers, and they talk.”
Harteveldt has one inspired solution. “What B.A. needs is a senior vice president of common sense,” he says, “because their people are not empowered to help a customer. Even after a very long wait when they call, it’s basically someone saying, ‘Sorry, the computer says no.’”
I.T. issues are another crippling problem. Widespread computer failures in 2017 and 2018 caused massive disruption, and B.A.’s rudimentary Web site and bug-ridden app are the butt of many jokes. (Harteveldt believes that the company is working furiously to improve them.)
Still, for all its issues, British Airways remains the Britney Spears of carriers: a mess, perhaps, but one that Brits and Angophiles are still rooting for. “Is B.A. the carrier that people want? No. But is it the carrier people will pay for? That answer is yes,” says Brancatelli. We Brits will go to great lengths to indulge our nostalgia, after all. And I did eventually receive my compensation for the delayed flight, although it arrived 104 days after the fact. Perhaps the first improvement B.A. could make is speeding up that process.
As he says, Mark Ellwood focuses on “froth in all its forms.” He is also a columnist for Bloomberg Pursuits, the creator and a co-host of Bloomberg’s Travel Genius podcast, and the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World