British Airways: How to improve onboard service quality in first

n.b. – This story first appeared in the APEX Editor’s Blog on 13 November 2013

How do you keep first class passengers comfortable and happy on board? More space combined with better food and beverage offerings is the typical formula airlines choose and it mostly seems to work. But providing those benefits typically costs more and means reductions in other cabins.

British Airways began service with their Airbus A380 aircraft recently and their approach has been a bit different. Welcome on board the inaugural flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles where passengers shared their views on the new British Airways First product exclusively with the  APEX Editor’s Blog.

I sat with two passengers, Lewis and Matthew (both fly in BA’s first class cabin somewhat regularly for work and leisure), for a bit during the inaugural and we discussed the A380 product compared to their experiences on other airlines and other first class offerings from British Airways. Both were very impressed with the increased space available in the A380 first class seat.

At 30% larger than the comparable cabin in the 747-400 the new seat truly is rather more spacious. As Matthew noted in the conversation, “It is an evolution of the First seat, not a revolution…. It’s becoming more ‘suite-y’ and less ‘seat-y.’” And while the two bickered over whether doors make a “true suite” is a good thing or a bad thing, they were in agreement that the new seat offered space and comfort unparalleled in the BA fleet.

Obviously there are trade-offs when offering a larger seat. In BA’s case a big part of that came from putting the seats on the main deck rather than upstairs. They can offer extra space with the wider footprint and not eat away too much into the other cabins.

There are negatives to such an approach, including less space for the lavatories on the main deck (BA’s are rather pedestrian in First). Industry-wide the A380 operators are split on whether to offer first class passengers the larger personal space of the main deck or the other amenities of the upper deck. BA’s bet is squarely on the better seat experience whilst not consuming too much space elsewhere on board.

When it comes to meals and the wine list British Airways has introduced new options with the A380 launch which will eventually be extended to the other aircraft. The traditional a la carte dining option is supplemented with a tasting menu on the A380. The improvements were immediately visible to the passengers. Not only the different menu, but the higher quality options available on board.

To Matthew the catering improvements were more notable than the seat upgrades, “What has impressed me today is that there has been a step up in the catering and the wine on board has gone up a whole division.… There’s a whole step change in the onboard service.”

Reviews like this should be quite welcome to Chris Cole, BA’s manager of catering and business support. Cole was also on board the flight and we caught up in one of the business class galleys somewhere over Canada. We spoke about the new products and how they are being adapted to the rest of the fleet.

Speaking about the wines, Cole noted that the improvements in the quality have been building over the past few years, but that the A380 has given the carrier the opportunity to expand the offerings even more, “We took a long look at all of our wines and champagnes a couple years ago and we believe lifted the quality.… What we’ve taken the opportunity in the A380 is to have more, so there is a choice of champagne now.”

That expansion of the offering extends to the tasting menu as well; the carrier is offering wines which pair with the dining, “We specially selected the wines to match the menu. Whilst we were trying to make sure that there is a good wine selection both in the red and the white which broadly fit … we gave menus to our wine buyer and said ‘OK now find us wines which really match these dishes for the tasting menu.’”

Of course, every airline claims to pair the premium wines to the meals so that alone is not particularly special. For BA it is not just that there are more wines, it is also that they are being better received by the passengers. And surely that comes at a price, right? Apparently not for British Airways, according to Cole, “It isn’t that we’ve spent any more money on the wines; we’ve just spent a bit more time in finding the right wines.”

Each carrier makes certain decisions when fitting out an aircraft. For British Airways the premium passenger experience focus comes with what appears to be a different set of parameters than other carriers use. It is about more than just spending money on the product; investing time to make the best choices with that money pays out real dividends as well.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.