British Airways said it’s upgrading its inflight service following feedback from 400 passengers invited to workshops in London, New York, Mumbai and Shanghai to help anticipate trends like the rise of Apple Inc. (APP:US)’s iPad.
Enhancements at the airline, which was the first to offer flat-bed seats in 1996, will include steps to improve the flying experience for family groups, as well as measures aimed at premium travelers, Frank van der Post, managing director for brands and customer experience, said in an interview.
The first of five “innovation platforms” will be revealed in coming months and should enter service within a year, though others may take much longer to reach fruition given required safety clearances, said Van der Post, a hotel-industry veteran recruited in 2011 from Jumeirah Group. BA is only now completing a 100 million-pound ($161 million) revamp of its first-class cabins which saw the first planes fitted out from January 2010.
“We have to start coming up with the things the customer doesn’t know he wants yet,” the executive said by phone. “Coming from the hospitality trade you quickly learn that airline programs can take a much longer time to approve and implement. So we have to have more discipline in planning further ahead.”
London-based British Airways (IAG), a unit of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, has equipped 1,200 of its crew members with Apple iPad computers loaded with information on frequent flyers to help provide custom in-flight service. Data is added a 24 hours before departure and updated until takeoff, with the tablet small enough to be used discreetly in the cabin.
Yet as recently as five years ago, nobody had any inkling of how important the iPad and its precursor the iPhone would become and how they might aid customer service in the airline industry, said Van der Post, who before working at Dubai-based Jumeirah spent 20 years at InterContinental Hotels Group Plc (IHG), the world’s largest provider of lodging rooms.
The next phase of the iPads initiative will see the devices issued to ground staff at London’s Gatwick airport, while passengers can also now book flights using iPhones.
Carriers are intensifying competition for premium clients as the economic slump hits travel budgets, with Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. spending 100 million pounds on frills including a cheese trolley and afternoon tea and Deutsche Lufthansa AG (LHA) adding flat-bed seats with 8 percent more space.
Virgin also announced last week that it will become the first U.K. carrier to allow passengers to make and receive phone calls mid-flight. The technology will be available on new Airbus SAS A330 aircraft flying from London to New York and will be fitted on Boeing Co. (BA:US) 747s undergoing a 50 million-pound refit.
While British Airways is still growing premium traffic “quite strongly” even with the U.K. economy in recession, its cabins lag some way behind the likes of Qatar Airways Ltd., said John Strickland, an analyst at JLS Consulting Ltd. in London.
“BA is quite highly regarded in terms of its premium services, ahead of European peers such as Lufthansa and Air France-KLM (AF), but they’re not top of the tree,” Strickland said. “The Asian and Gulf carriers have really set the bar high.”
Some innovations at British Airways will emanate from the customer, while others will be technology-led, Van der Post said, adding: “You have to have a healthy dose of gut instinct.”
An initiative in which BA customers self-tag their own bags is to be trialed at London Heathrow airport’s Terminal 3 in the next six months after being tested at Gatwick since last year, the executive said. The plan aims to ease crowding on the concourse and could be extended to the BA-dedicated Terminal 5.
BA introduced a revamped economy and premium economy cabin in six new Boeing 777-300s delivered from 2010 and is part-way through a program to renew all four classes on its 18 existing 777-200 planes and the three classes in its 14-strong 767 fleet.
The next new cabin product is scheduled for 2013, with the arrival of its first Airbus A380s and Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
The carrier is also refining its catering and in October began offering business-class meals in its premium-economy cabin, Van der Post said, adding that passenger ratings for its food and beverages have improved by 18 percentage points.
External ratings such as those from Skytrax, which awards BA four stars out of a possible five, one fewer than for five Asian and Gulf carriers, are less important than in the hotel trade, since customers don’t base bookings on them, he said.
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