In Focus: Robert Williams, British Airways

With the recent British Airways (BA) and Qantas split making headlines, what’s in store for the UK carrier? We turn to Robert Williams, Regional Commercial Manager for British Airways, to find out.

BY Vipanchi Dinavahi

The BA–Qantas split. What’s on the cards for BA, going forward? 
The end of the relationship we had with Qantas, which we referred to as the Joint Services Agreement, is something we had mutually decided upon as they were wishing to pursue other opportunities. Their international business needed looking at. We wish them well with that. We’ve also spent a lot of time looking at what we might like to do in this part of the world. Talking to other partners: absolutely. We are part of a big oneworld alliance, so we’re looking at possibilities there.
The future’s very exciting for us here. Going forward, nothing changes for the time being, so we’re still going to be flying twice daily from here to London, and then also once daily down to Sydney, because one of our services goes from London to Singapore to Australia. Singapore stays for us as the key hub between Europe and Australasia, which is exciting for the Singapore and the Southeast Asian market.
I’m very excited that from 1 April 2013 we’ll be putting our Singapore flights into Terminal 5, so that will be our new home in Heathrow. Previously, because of the relationship we had with Qantas, we’ve had to keep those flights in Terminal 3, which is one of the older terminals. Bringing these flights into our new flagship home offers us such a good customer proposition: It offers transfers within an hour to all of our European, North American, South American and African routes—a much more robust proposition for our customers, not to mention the great shopping and dining experience in Terminal 5. I know Singaporean customers are going to love it. Skytrax has voted us the number-one terminal, which is fantastic.
International Airlines Group’s focus on Asia has been in the news lately. But what about the pre-existing ones? Will you try to implement initiatives globally? 
I think it is certainly not to say that we are focusing on Asia and therefore we are losing focus elsewhere—that would be the wrong way of putting it. It is about BA maintaining and increasing its status as a global network carrier. We’ve always had a very big presence in the North Atlantic. If you look at the traditional links between Europe and North America, that’s a given. We’ve certainly not stopped our focus there; if anything, over the recent years we’ve only increased the number of flights we’re doing between those routes. Together with our partners at Iberia and American Airlines, we again increased the amount of flights between Europe and North America. Within Europe, we’ve increased the number of flights, and we focus there.
Last year, we bought BMI [British Midland International], which is another British carrier. That’s enabled us to increase the number of slots we have at Heathrow, which is the world’s busiest international airport. It’s allowed us to fly to places we weren’t able to previously, simply because we wouldn’t have had the slots to do so. Therefore, we’ve opened up some of the UK domestic market. We’re flying to Leeds Bradford in the north of the country, we’re flying back to Belfast in Northern Ireland, and we’ve resumed our own flights to Dublin in Ireland, where previously we did that on a co-shared basis. We’ve grown our domestic network; we’ve gone to some new exciting places in Europe—Zagreb in Croatia, for one—and several other places in the Eurozone as well. And all that is complementing this idea that we’re going to have a strategic focus in Asia.
The Asia partners really allowed us to fly to brand-new places like Seoul and Chengdu. Tie that into the fact that we’ve got new aircraft coming and it’s a really exciting year for us. We’re going to be receiving the Airbus A380, as well as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and we’ve also got some of our latest aircraft, the Boeing 777-300, being delivered as well. All in all, we’ve got quite a lot of aircraft coming this year and the couple of years that follow.
Increasing competition between regular and budget airlines has had a significant impact. How is BA coping?
The fundamental fact is that people need to fly. The competitive landscape has changed over the last few years. One of the things we have concentrated on is playing our part in consolidation in the industry. You can see that in our merger with Iberia. Forming strong, strategic business partnerships with other airlines (Iberia and American Airlines) allows us to coordinate schedules and offer a more robust proposition between Europe and North America. We are still a member of the oneworld alliance, and all of the benefits we can offer customers come from being part of this larger network of airlines.
Last year, I was working on starting a joint business between Europe and Japan, with Japan Airlines. It is really about recognising that the landscape has changed. Using such partnerships, alliances and joint businesses to consolidate and strengthen one’s position in the market is working for us. Groups of airlines are merging, and I think the future is perhaps having a few, larger groups of airlines.
Customer service plays a major role in this industry. What initiatives are you rolling out?
Customer service has always been a key focus of ours, but in recent years we have really taken a look at it and thought, “What can we do to really be the experts in terms of customer service, to make sure customers choose us and get value for money? How can we get them to keep coming back to us?” We looked at customer service as being from A to Z, from the time the customer books with us, right until we deliver their bags at the end of their flights. 
We have five key brand behaviours: It’s about treating everyone as an individual, keeping promises, doing things properly, finding solutions and looking the part. These are some ways we’ve responded to that:
  • We’ve equipped a lot of our customer service staff with iPads that deliver more accurate data about our customers. For example, our special services teams at the airports, customer service directors and senior cabin crew on board are able to know whether a customer is travelling in a particular cabin for the first time or whether it is a customer’s birthday.
  • We’ve just announced that we’re going to be doing trials of auto check-in and presenting customers with their seats to avoid long waiting periods at the check-in counter.
  • Throughout 2012, we invested heavily in a lot of food trials. We worked very closely with the Michelin-starred British chef Heston Blumenthal. He discovered that people’s senses in terms of taste are very different when you are 35,000 feet in the air; certain foods actually work better. One of the findings is that using seaweed as an ingredient helps dishes retain their natural flavour. We’ve moved away from the traditional “salty, sweet and sour” concept. That’s had some hugely fantastic results, and it’s encouraged us to completely change our menus in all our premium cabins, with a view on what we can do throughout the aircraft in the future.
  • Recently, we’ve also announced that we’re going to give some customers who are travelling from our Gatwick Airport on European flights the opportunity to buy a ticket that doesn’t include a check in bag. We’re saying if you don’t wish to check in a bag, you can buy a ticket that allows you not to, which saves you money.
  • This spring, we will complete the rollout  of our new first-class cabins. That’s been a $100 million investment going on for the last 12 to 18 months to equip all of our aircraft with the latest, contemporary, high-end British Airways first-class experience.
You’ve talked about the crisis in these times. We’ve really looked at our business and thought, “Let’s get back to basics and get things right.” It’s being customer-focused all the way through. And, of course, investing in our people: providing the right training and the right development for all of our staff to make sure they are fully equipped with the tools to deliver excellent customer service.
Excitement has been brewing about the BA–Twinnings collaboration. Tell us more about that.
Well, it’s in the name and the company, isn’t it? British Airways: you think Britain, and then you often think of tea. It’s a very, very good link for us to have. Together with Twinnings, we’ve developed a blend that is far more suitable for flying—and we look forward to our customers enjoying that.
How often do you measure customer satisfaction to maintain your service?
Customer satisfaction is measured daily, through a variety of different channels, the chief one being the scores customers give when they are travelling. We can talk about awards, but it is really about what the customers are saying. We capture that feedback and we report those figures every week. What we’re looking for is a constant increase in the scores people give us. One of the key issues for us is the likelihood that a customer would recommend BA to somebody else. That’s really what you want: people out there talking positively about you. And we find the scores in that area are going up, so that’s very encouraging. Linked with customer service scores, we naturally tie in our operational performance, and that then leads to improvements in customer service. Since we’ve had Terminal 5, we’ve completely broken the records in terms of baggage performance— not losing people’s bags—and flights departing on time, and all of that contributes towards offering a great overall customer service proposition.
Today, there are many online channels that allow customers to review airlines. How do you intend to address this market? What is your social media strategy?
The question is kind of twofold. There’s us engaging in social media, which we do through developing apps and our Facebook page. Last year, we had a campaign that was generated through Facebook for people to interact with us.
But customer feedback is direct now—it hits straight away. If someone is not having a great experience, the world can know about it within a tweet. And the key there is all of the things we talked about: constantly getting your customer service right so people won’t have bad things to write about. The two are very, very closely linked. You don’t have to do something special to make sure people aren’t writing unfavourable reports about you; you just need to consistently make sure your customer service is outstanding. 
I think this platform affects many businesses in both good and bad ways. Do you agree?
Yes, and it works for us as well. It is a great tool to know what customers want. It’s the best way we can listen and get a sense of what various demographics are looking for when they are travelling, allowing us to address the issues quickly before we plan what we want to do in the months and years to come.
Feedback used to come via paper and not all information reached the right managers; now everyone has access to everything. Do you agree?
Absolutely, and it’s about speed. It was always about paperwork going to the right people, and now we know it is going to the right people—that’s linked to things like the iPads we give our crew. Previously, when our crew had an issue on board, they would need to log that and it would go on paper somewhere. It was the way things worked. But now that feedback goes into the iPad and is electronically sent, they can respond to it by the time they get to their destination. And they can then respond to the customer and offer solutions that go back to one of the brand behaviours. It is all about embracing the fact that everything is so much more immediate now and you need to have the right people and tools.