Comment: Behind British Airways’ £7bn transformation

British Airways chiefs unveiled a £7-billion transformation at a showcase event in the City of London on Monday, highlighting an overhaul of BA’s technology platforms and measures to improve its operations.

Chief executive Sean Doyle hailed “the most significant transformation in our history”, emphasing a “drive for operational resilience” alongside spending on IT, the customer experience, recruitment and sustainability.

Doyle acknowledged his “three years running BA” – he took over in October 2020 – “had not been without its challenges” but insisted: “This isn’t just chat. It’s backed by significant investment.”

The showcase previewed everything from refurbished lounges and new leather seats on the aircraft joining BA’s short-haul fleet from April to delay-monitoring systems and instant messaging between ground staff and crew to enable passenger problems to be dealt with inflight.

Doyle noted £750 million of the £7 billion in spending “over the next two years” will go on new back office and operational systems and the move from an ageing legacy platform to the cloud.

But in reality the IT transformation has been underway for several years and the £7 billion is not all ‘new’ money.

Doyle highlighted the £7 billion total last year and it includes spending on aircraft ordered years ago.

The upbeat messaging followed the announcement of BA parent IAG’s full-year results last week which revealed a group operating profit of €3.5 billion and post-tax profit of €2.65 billion across BA, Iberia, Vueling and Aer Lingus.

BA accounted for €1.4 billion in operating profit, almost half the IAG airlines’ total, with leisure travel “the strongest driver of demand across all cabins”. Yet just 59.7% of BA flights operated on time compared with almost 89% at Iberia – a performance close to 30 percentage points better.

This poor on-time performance and resulting passenger frustration is a core issue facing BA.

Doyle suggested the airline’s operational performance had seen “a significant turnaround” since the end of last year, noting 80% of departures from Heathrow were on time in January following an improvement to 67% in December.

He told Travel Weekly: “The environment in London is one of the most challenging. A lot of the improvement is due to improvements we’re making – to better management of things we can control.”

Doyle noted: “We’ve invested in IT and in resource and had an internal ‘Don’t waste a second’ campaign. We’re resolving problems more quickly, and we’re trying to resolve issues affecting passengers in the air before they land.”

He added: “We want to ensure the BA digital experience is not just as good as everyone else’s but better.”

BA chief customer officer Calum Laming sought to reassure those present that “we’re committed to being a premium airline” following the cuts in services on BA short-haul flights under the regime of Doyle’s predecessor as chief executive.

And chief commercial officer Colm Lacey highlighted the investment in ba.com, noting parts of the carrier’s website are 24 years old. He said the new site now being trialled for roll-out later this year “is all about personalisation and serviceability” and “will be a gamechanger”.

The technology enhancements extend to dealing with the impact of delays and cancellations. When a flight is cancelled, Lacey explained: “We want the ability for customers not just to re-book with us but to book with other airlines. We also want to be able to text hotel vouchers to passengers.”

These features would be available “in the second half of this year”, he said.

The BA chief executive does appear to have drawn a line under the carrier’s difficult relations with many of its staff and unions after firing and rehiring swathes of the workforce in the early months of the pandemic and drawing widespread criticism, including from MPs.

Lisa Tremble, chief people, corporate affairs and sustainability officer at BA, noted the carrier had recruited 7,000 new staff in the last 12 months and stressed improved relations with the trade unions, saying: “We know the unions are a big part of the BA framework. We work closely with them.”

However, the first real test of BA’s operational improvements will come at the Easter getaway at the of this month.

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