Things can only get better: that is the message from BA’s boss, Alex Cruz. Two years to the day after he was named British Airways’ chief executive and chairman, Mr Cruz has revealed a £4.5bn improvement programme which includes restoring catering on longer flights and “the best wifi in the sky in all cabins”.
Passengers at BA’s main base, Heathrow Terminal 5, will also benefit from speedier boarding with new biometric departure gates. In the air, every passenger will have at-seat power.
Mr Cruz told an audience at World Travel Market in London: “British Airways is facing a combination of competitive forces more challenging than at any point in our history.
“We face waves of new competition on all fronts. And we also face changing customer behaviour as online price transparency has opened a world of almost unlimited choice.
“As a national flag carrier, we are not granted some special immunity from the way the industry has changed. Incumbency does not grant any privilege. We have no divine right to flourish, and we don’t ask for one. The current plight of Alitalia is testament to that.”
The fate of the bankrupt Italian national airline was supposed to have been decided last month, but Alitalia is continuing to fly while bids for parts of the business are evaluated.
One of Mr Cruz’s first acts was to move to “buy-on-board” catering for short-haul economy passengers. The change has been widely criticised, with some passengers complaining that they did not get the chance to buy food, either because supplies had run out or because cabin crew could not serve everyone on board.
Mr Cruz conceded: “I know we did not deliver it initially as well as we could have. We have listened to our customers and our cabin crew and we have made changes. We have simplified the menu and we have allocated more crew at busier times to ensure we can provide a faster service.”
But he said: “Take-up is running much, much higher than we initially expected, and we are committed to making this element of the customer experience the best in the airline industry.”
There has also been criticism of a cost-saving move to reducing catering in economy on longer flights. The traditional second meal on routes such as from London to the US west coast has been replaced by a snack, to the consternation of many passengers.
“We will upgrade catering so that everyone has better snacks and, on longer flights, everyone has a full second meal,’ said Mr Cruz.
BA will take delivery of 72 new aircraft over the next five years, including the Airbus A350 and updated versions of the A320 and 321. The airline will also refurbish the cabins of 128 of our existing aircraft. “They will look and feel new,” said Mr Cruz.
The airline is also “densifying” its fleet of Boeing 777s based at Gatwick, adding an extra economy seat to each existing row of nine.
The BA boss was appointed from the Spanish low-cost airline, Vueling. While Mr Cruz has faced criticism for his changes, he has commanded respect from rivals. Skúli Mogensen, chief executive of the Icelandic airline, Wow Air, told The Independent: “Anyone who has gone through the Vueling school and is now heading BA must be doing something right.”
Among the beneficiaries of improved services will be the passengers on the two long-haul routes that BA will launch next year: Heathrow to Nashville and the Seychelles.
Mr Cruz also announced a leisure route from Heathrow to Figari in Corsica, which he called “another example of how we are using our slot portfolio more flexibly”.
Next summer his airline will fly 38 more routes than it did in the summer of 2016, an increase of one-sixth in two years.
“We must shape BA for the future, as a premium airline committed to customer choice and one that is a byword around the world for British know-how and excellence,” Mr Cruz said.