British Airways has become a national humiliation

Turning the airline from a laughing stock into a national champion feels like an impossible journey

At the beginning of the year, British Airways boss Sean Doyle made a bold, and many would say, long overdue pledge: 2022 would be the year that he restored the airline’s reputation for premium service.

In a video address to 30,000 employees, Doyle said he wanted customers to “come off a British Airways flight and talk about it as if it’s something different”.

Well, the former Aer Lingus chief has certainly got his wish, though sadly for all the wrong reasons. Thousands of customers haven’t been able to get on a BA flight at all recently, while many of those that have speak of a thoroughly miserable experience.

BA seems to have gone backwards this year, quite the achievement for an airline that tumbled down the rankings long ago. In the last few weeks alone, Britain’s flag carrier has lurched from crisis to crisis but it’s an all-too-familiar pattern.

The latest shocker came on Friday. Having already ruined Easter for many when it cancelled 300 flights over the bank holiday weekend, BA has axed a slew of summer flights including to Miami, one of the most popular destinations for British tourists.

Earlier in the week, it had shelved 112 flights to European and other Mediterranean destinations, wrecking the travel plans of 10,000 passengers, on top of 96 flights that were scrapped on Tuesday.

As of mid-April, BA had reportedly ditched more than 1,200 flights since the turn of the year, equivalent to roughly one in 20 scheduled. Its actions give the impression of a company beset by chaos, leaving Doyle’s plans looking like a pipedream. 

Admittedly, some of the problems the airline is battling are outside of its control. Staffing is a major issue across the entire industry. Tens of thousands were sacked when airlines were grounded during the pandemic. Executives also blame confusing Covid paperwork for delays.

The pandemic was cruel to the airline industry, particularly in the UK. European and US airlines were propped up by generous state aid but BA and its domestic rivals were left to fend for themselves, cutting operations to the bone.

Yet, so many of BA’s problems are self-inflicted. Staff shortages should have been anticipated. Paperwork could be made more easy to understand. Airline executives had months to prepare for the rebound.

The pandemic doesn’t explain the litany of IT blowouts that have plagued the business seemingly forever. Time and again, computer systems have failed, the website has crashed, or its mobile app has not been up to the job. The damage to its reputation immeasurable.

Outsourcing is partly to blame but so too is the sheer complexity of BA’s operations, compounded by a messy blockbuster merger with Spain’s Iberia in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

In 2017, following a succession of technology meltdowns including a data breach that affected more than 400,000 customers and staff, BA’s then boss Alex Cruz revealed that there were a mind-boggling “200 systems across the BA network”.

The BA culture is an unusual mix. Though privatisation was 35 years ago, it retains a public mindset that helps to explain a predilection for terrible IT procurement, along with a jobsworth, unionised workforce with an addiction to strike action.

Combine that with the worst aspects of the private sector whereby cost-cutting has repeatedly been prioritised over modernisation and investment and the result is a dire combination.

The obsessive scrimping merely undermines the very thing that BA was once renowned for. It remains vastly more expensive than budget rivals Ryanair and Easyjet without the corresponding exemplary service that passengers expect and deserve. Meanwhile, the likes of Singapore and Emirates score much higher than BA on long-haul routes in customer surveys.

Perhaps the sad reality is that the age of luxury flying has already been brought to an end by Covid. The future may be one where travellers simply want to get from A to B as cheaply as possible. In which case, the question may one day be whether there is much point to BA at all. For a company that not only helped to pioneer air travel but brought glamour to the skies, it is a desperately depressing prospect.

Doyle deserves credit for facing the company’s shortcomings head on, but turning it from laughing stock back to national champion feels like an impossible journey.