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As British Airways prepares to receive its first Dreamliners and A380s, the man charged with keeping customers happy outlines his plans.
What three words scare the hell out of a British Airways cabin crew? Brace, brace, brace? Engine latch open? Try saying: “Van der Post.”
I first heard the words before I had even heard of Frank van der Post, BA’s new consumer boss. I was flying from Boston to London and the cabin crew were agitated. “Van der Post is on board,” they whispered. “VAN DER POST!”
It was not the man himself. It was more serious – his wife. The crew knew they were being watched and had to be on their A game. Service that day was the best I’ve ever had.
“Oh, please don’t mention that. I hate that kind of thing,” van der Post says when I first meet him. He doesn’t hate it, of course. He loves it. Because it is his job to raise BA’s game and make it the world’s favourite airline again.
After a decade in which BA has been buffeted by strikes, ash clouds, price-fixing allegations and Heathrow hell, the airline is hoping that a new era will begin next week.
On Wednesday, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner will land in London, fresh off the Boeing production line in Seattle (where engineers will have fitted new batteries to make sure it does not catch fire as earlier models have). BA’s finest will be there to greet it. They will be back on the tarmac a week later to welcome their second new baby – a very big baby. The national flag carrier’s first Airbus A380 “superjumbo” will fly in from Airbus headquarters in Toulouse.
The jets are the first all-new long-haul aircraft BA has introduced since the first Boeing 747 jumbo landed at Heathrow more than a generation ago. Overall, BA is spending £5 billion on 12 Airbus A380s and 24 787s between now and 2017. A further 18 787s and 18 new Airbus A350 long-haul jets will arrive by 2023.
To cap it all, BA’s 100-strong short-haul fleet of Airbus A321s, A320s and A319s will be refitted, from the pointy end to the loos in the back, over the next two years. “We’ve got lots of new toys!” van der Post says, grinning.
All he has to do is make BA’s software – its service – as good as its hangar-fresh hardware. Then sit back and watch as the red, white and blue tail fin soars higher, faster better, just like Concorde. But how?
“It helps that I’m a hospitality guy,” he says, sitting in a corner office at BA’s headquarters near Heathrow. Now 51, he has spent most of his life working in the hotel business, first with InterContinental and latterly with Jumeirah. He wants to make BA’s new planes more like boutique hotels than aircraft. Take the A380, which will begin service to Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Most airlines have taken advantage of the full-length twin decks to create an “upstairs/downstairs” service: the pampered on the upper deck in first and business class, and the “self-loading freight” downstairs in economy.
Van der Post thinks vast cabins stretching the length of the huge aircraft are impersonal, so he is creating lots of smaller cabins “so that no matter where you are on the plane, you are in a small area, not a huge space with 300 seats where you think: ‘Oh, my God, look at all those people!’ ”.
First class is downstairs “because it is the biggest area with the most space. That means we can increase the space each passenger has by one third and their personal storage space by 60 per cent.” Club World, BA’s business class, is split into two cabins, one on the lower deck and one upstairs. The same goes for World Traveller, BA’s economy. World Traveller Plus, BA’s premium economy, is on the upper deck, a nifty perk for those who can’t bear to sit in the cheap seats.
“Each cabin is like a small, private plane. I could be an economy-class passenger and I will be sitting with 40-odd other people. People are really going to like it,” says van der Post.
The 787s, which will start flying to the east coast of the United States, will not have first class – “We don’t need it on all routes” – and follow the traditional business, premium economy and economy configuration seen on most BA wide-bodied single-decker aircraft. But there will be some new features.
Club World will have three seats in the middle row, with a single seat separated from the two aisle seats. “If you want to sleep, that’s one of my favourite spots,” says van der Post. Instead of the traditional pull-down window shades, you will be able to brighten or darken the tint of the window pane using a button under the window.
Because the 787 is made of plastic composites that are lighter but stronger than metal, the air pressure in the cabin will be greater than in a “normal” jet and the air will contain more moisture. This, promises van der Post, will stop our skin turning to parchment, our eyes drying, and our organs and limbs swelling up so badly that we arrive looking and feeling like a puffed wheat. Some of the air we will breathe will even be – gasp! – fresh, sucked in directly through scoops in the fuselage.
After 2008 when the financial crisis hit, BA cut spending on food. It is investing again. “There is new food and wine and the menus will change more often,” says van der Post. There will be new choices, too. Premium-economy passengers will be able to order a main course from the Club World menu. Pampered plutocrats will be able to snack in an expanded Club Kitchen. “We have great new cookies, crisps and premium ice creams from new British suppliers. We have worked with Waitrose to create new fruit salads with Duchy of Cornwall yogurt.”
A new Thales entertainment system will increase the number of films on demand from 57 to 129. Films will be available from take-off until landing, and viewers will be able to stop and start them whenever they want. The new high-resolution screens will be bigger – 15.4in wide in premium cabins, 8.9in wide at the back. That’s smaller than rival carriers’, but van der Post insists that “it’s fine for the viewing distance”.
All seats will come with power sockets, USB ports and iPod docks. Instead of looking like the black hole of Calcutta, as they often do today, the bathrooms are “fitted out with new materials and have new lighting. They are very contemporary.”
Van der Post knows all the new fixtures and fittings in the world are worth little without top-notch service, so he has spent the past two years retraining staff to think more like hoteliers than trolley dollies. “We’ve reviewed and rewritten all our customer standards. We want to make sure our service is as personal as possible and delivered in the thoughtful, high-class but understated British way that we know people love.”
At van der Post’s insistence, BA now puts anonymous “mystery shoppers” on board its flights to measure the airline against its own standards and against the competition. He insists that the low morale and damaging divisions between staff that emerged during the cabin crew strikes are over.
Almost 10,000 staff will have tablet computers to keep them up to date with passengers’ needs, so that they can offer upgrades or seat changes, if, say, a customer has had a bad experience on a recent flight or even during the current flight.
On the ground. BA has dumped its lounge operator, Restaurant Associates, and hired a new company to run its “Terraces”: BaxterStorey, which handles catering for the foie gras-nibbling employees of banks and legal firms in the City of London. Stand by for better food and wine “more relevant to the time of day”.
Later this year, BA will welcome Qatar Airways into its Oneworld alliance, “giving us greater presence in the Middle East”. The move has prompted speculation that BA will stop flying to Sydney, leaving Qatar to service Australia via Doha, the Qatari capital. Not so, says van der Post. “People want BA in Australia and Australia wants BA.” OK, but can he guarantee that the English football team will fly BA, not Qatar Airways, to the Qatar World Cup in 2022? “I’m more concerned with whether the Dutch team qualifies,” the Utrecht-born executive jokes.
BA’s merger with Iberia is “working out”, and as American Airlines emerges from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, its alliance with BA will become “a raving success,” he says. “The new AA product is spectacular – as good as BA.”
Following its acquisition of bmi, BA is adding new routes, expanding its network to more than 200 destinations. It will soon start flying to Chengdu, to add to new destinations such as Lanzarote, Cyprus, Gran Canaria, Granada, Beirut, Sri Lanka and Amman. All the new planes, new routes and new on-board services will be marketed in a new series of advertisements, using BA’s “To fly. To serve” motto. The first will run this autumn.
Van der Post knows that one thing that would really make a difference to BA would be more runways at Heathrow, which operates at capacity and collapses into chaos at the first sign of trouble. “We need more capacity, and now the politicians are starting to wake up to that,” he says.
Thanks to “the flying Dutchman”, much is new at BA. But not everything. The “back to front” seats in Club World will remain on the new aircraft. Critics point out that the seats are smaller than on rival carriers and there are more of them, making the cabin feel cramped. Many premium travellers – poor souls – hate having to sit face-to-face with a stranger and having to step over the footstool to get into the aisle. Club World passengers will not be able to eat at a time of their choosing, a service almost every other premium carrier offers.
There will be no bars, which are popular on Virgin Atlantic and Emirates. There will be no showers at 39,000ft, which first-class passengers on Emirates enjoy. Perhaps most controversially the planes will not offer Wi-Fi, which is widely available on Virgin, Emirates and Qatar Airways. “We might get it later when the technology improves,” van der Post says.
It will be a few weeks before safety tests are completed and the first 787 and A380 flights take off. What will passengers think when the sun rises on Terminal 5 and they board the first flights to the future? “That BA is big, bold and beautiful,” van der Post says. “We will win people’s hearts. We will be admired and loved.” If he can convince BA’s toughest customer, the redoubtable Mrs van der Post, he might be on to something.