British Airways’ Challenges Can Tell Us Plenty About the State of Air Travel

What happens when a beloved airline alienates some of its customers?

British Airways
The shifting fortunes of one airline have a lot to say about the broader industry.
Robert Smith/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For almost 20 years, British Airways utilized an especially memorable slogan: “The World’s Favourite Airline.” In the years since then, things have changed — and not necessarily for the better. In 2019, The Guardian reported that customers in the U.K. ranked the airline close to the bottom of numerous categories. Three years later, the same survey — conducted by Which? — again gave the airline low marks. Given the airline’s history and onetime popularity, it’s led some observers to wonder where things went wrong.

In a new article for Air Mail, Mark Ellwood chronicled the last 40 or so years of British Airways’ history to see how an airline beloved by business travelers and the royal family (among many others) lost its cachet. Ellwood’s reporting covers a lot of ground, but it’s most memorable in how it illustrates a wider point about how airlines (or most businesses) can alienate customers and sacrifice accumulated goodwill.

Ellwood’s article follows British Airways’ transformation from a company that emphasized customer service under CEO Colin Marshall to what analyst Henry Harteveldt termed “death by several billion cuts.” That included ending free meals in economy class; it also prompted one passenger’s remembrance of being charged for hot water. A spokesperson for the airline clarified that they haven’t charged for hot water in years — but it isn’t hard to see why customers frustrated by the practice would remember that when booking their next flight.

Admittedly, some of the issues British Airways has had to deal with were largely out of its control: the effects of the September 11 attacks on air travel, for instance.

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Other issues cited by Ellwood feel eminently avoidable, from an attempt to undermine rival Virgin Air that resulted in a fine to a penalty assessed by the U.S. Department of Transportation over customer service issues. There’s a point when the search for “efficiency” can transform into something much bleaker — and Ellwood’s portrait of one airline perfectly illustrated this very condition.


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