British Airways – A Sad Shadow Of Its Former Self (Part 1)

a jet plane taking off

I used to love British Airways. To me they epitomised ‘old school’ travel from the days when air flight was more about experience than endurance. Their motto of “To fly. To serve” conjures up images of the years when flight attendants weren’t just “there for [our] safety” but actually there to serve the paying customer with a smile on their face. Everything about their service suggested that the airline was all about going a bit further than their competitors and the staff, from the customer service centers to the airport staff to the crew on board, all seemed genuinely proud of the product they were offering. And the offering was understated and classy. Oh, how I miss those days.

Over the past few years I’ve spent the majority of my flights on American Airlines (AA), so I’m not one who’s used to expecting that much form an airline (US legacy airlines aren’t exactly the poster boys for top levels of comfort and service) – but I still know what service should be like. Occasionally, over the past few years, I’ve found myself booking on to British Airways (BA) when the need arose and all I’ve been seeing is a continual erosion of the product and of service. I’ve now reached a point where I will now actively book away from BA if at all possible.

There was a time when BA was a true innovator in the aviation world – when it first released its Club World seats in 1999 it was one of the first airlines to offer fully-flat business class seats. And it did so to great public acclaim. But where’s that innovation now?

The Club World seat. It looks nice in this picture but it’s not nearly as comfortable as it looks and it is long overdue for an overhaul.

BA has been flying its planes with the business class seats that they introduced back in 1999 for the last 15 years and have steadfastly ignored the progress made by nearly all of their competitors. They’ve gone from having aircraft seats with leading-edge designs to aircraft seats that look old, tired and dirty. I understand that designing and implementing new seats takes time and money, so BA want to get value out of their 1999 Club World offering, but at what expense? Mediocre airlines like AA have recently introduced a truly class-leading business class seat into their new Boeing 777-300 aircraft while more premium airlines like Cathay Pacific have had a superior offering for years. Unless there is no other choice, why would anyone pay to fly in Club World when there are far better offerings out there?

BA had an opportunity to introduce new seats when, with great fanfare, they took possession of their first Airbus A380 back in July 2013, but they chose to stick with 1990’s design and technology. That’s like ordering a brand new Rolls Royce and asking the manufacturer to deliver it with seats from their cars of fifteen years ago – who would do that?

They were given a second chance to right that wrong when they took delivery of the long awaited (although plagued with issues) Boing 787 Dreamliner in April of this year but, again, they let the opportunity pass.

BA Boeing 787 Dreamliner – Image courtesy of the Daily Mail

Brand new planes and 1990’s seats – who thought that was a good idea?

To be fair to British Airways there have been rumors of a new business class seat that’s being considered – and it does look promising. But even if these rumours are true, it will be a few years before these seats see the light of day, and BA will be even further behind its competitors by then.

Having said all that, don’t let all this lead you to believe that BA has been completely stagnant regarding its seating plans – far from it. In June of this year BA announced a “dramatic” redesign of its short-haul aircraft which, we are told, “will maximise personal space and comfort“.

Note: when an airline announcement includes the words “maximize” and “space” in the same sentence, regardless of any other words that it may throw in, it’s not a good sign.

After trying to hide their main message with information on an “eye-level tablet holder”, “LED lighting system with mood lighting” and a possible roll out of wifi, they hit us with the real reason for the redesign. Club Europe seats will go from having 34 inches of legroom down to 30 inches – or the same amount of legroom as you get with RyanAir.

The redesign has nothing to do with service quality or passenger comfort and everything to do with squeezing in ever more seats into the limited space available. When the leg-room in your Premium cabin short-haul aircraft matches the leg-room in Coach on one of the more reviled low-cost carriers you know that the race to the bottom is truly on.

The truth is that squeezing passengers into every last inch of space in the premium cabins isn’t something new to BA. The Club World cabins in their Boeing 777 aircraft have long been nicknamed the “flying dormitories” thanks to their 2-4-2 formation which squeezes eight seats across the width of an aircraft:

BA’s Boeing 777 Aircraft Seating 8 Across the Club World Cabin

Compare that to the new offering from AA which seats just 4 across the same cabin:

AA’s New Business Class Cabin on their Boeing 777-300 Aircraft. Seating 4 Across the Cabin

Let me reiterate, this is American Airlines I’m talking about. Not Emirates, Etihad or Cathay Pacific – American. A US legacy carrier that appears nowhere near the top of any airline ranking survey and is considered a mediocre world airline at best.

Before anyone starts jumping to BA’s defence by pointing out that this is AA’s new offering allow me to go on.

Yes, AA does currently have Boeing 777-200s with an even older style seating than BA’s, but these are already being retrofitted to match (or possibly better) the newer offering above. Also, as mentioned above, BA has been taking possession of a few new planes of their own, so let’s take a look at what they did with those:

The Airbus A380

Still 8 across seating on the lower deck just like in their Boeing 777s (although the A380’s cabin is around 75cm wider and slightly more staggered)

 And an improvement to 7 across seating on the upper deck:

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner

They’ve managed to get the cabin down to 7 across as they did with the upper deck of the A380 which – on the face of it seems like an improvement – until you find out that the 787 is almost 40cm narrower than the 777 and over 100cm narrower than the A380. So there’s not much improvement at all.


You can chalk that up to yet another opportunity lost by BA to drag its offering into the 21st century.

As an added thorn in the side of paying passengers it’s not like BA is comparatively cheaper than its more comfortable competitors. On the contrary, it’s often considerably more expensive. Combine this with the fact that this is one of the airlines that charges extortionate “fuel surcharges” on award tickets and you’re left with hardly any value to be had when flying with BA (at least not on any long-haul routes).

I know that all this may seem like a “First World problem”, especially when you consider the discomfort that passengers sitting in coach/economy have to endure – but that’s not the point. British Airways was traditionally one of the “higher class” carriers out there and it marketed itself as such – it still does to a certain extent. The problem is that all that’s now left is rhetoric – there’s very little “high class” left about BA.

I’ll go on to further justify that assertion in tomorrow’s post when I turn my attention to the gate agents, boarding policies and the onboard crew (although I’ll admit that some in that latter category still have some of the ‘old BA’ about them).



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  2. […] These fares could be tempting for any users thinking of doing a long weekend to the East Coast (especially if tier points are your thing). The weather will be warming up nicely and the humidity that New York is known for will still be a few months away – this could be a good opportunity for some of you to try the new Business Class seats on American’s 777-300 aircraft (mentioned in this post). […]

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