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British Airways: No longer Flying High?

Marketing and brand consultant Jonathan Gaby analyses the impact the British Airways strike, which began over the weekend, could have on the brand and the opportunity the strike has created for its competitors.

Speaking to The Drum, Gaby said that following the 'talks’ over the weekend, the only arbitrators that count are the customers who got on a plane and the ones who did not.

“This is what it’s boiling down to,” Gaby said. “It’s boiling down to the fact that passengers are either buying seats on flights or they’re not buying seats on flights.”

Gaby can see parallels with the recent Toyota crisis which saw the Japanese car brand, eventually, recall cars with faults after an extended period of negative publicity following serious and fatal accidents.

Toyota yesterday began a press advertising campaign claiming that its cars were now safer than ever before.

“We are living in and era, when it comes to brands, where people are cynical. People won’t just accept what a brand says. What they want to see is what the brand does next,” Gaby said.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA, has been communicating with consumers through the release of YouTube videos, which Gaby believes has been “an error” and describes them as “overly polished.”

“When crisis messages on social network sites are managed correctly with straightforward directness rather than coming across as insincere, thanks to the democratic nature of social networking a company’s stance can be appreciated.

“Everyone has said that the great saviour of brands in a bit of a pickle is social networking, in order to get across your message. It is true that you can use it to communicate with people but it’s about how you communicate and the structure of communications. It’s not the medium; it’s the message which has the meaning. Therefore, we have to see if they come up with a meaningful message that people can understand and believe in. It’s as simple as that.”

Gaby said BA's competitors will be "watching from the sides and wringing their hands in glee," while also continuing to take the opportunity to remind passengers that they are still operating a ‘business as usual' policy.

"That may resonate for a long time with passengers planning trips - irrespective of the outcome of the immediate dispute. Flybe increased seats available on UK and European routes from London Gatwick to and from Aberdeen, Jersey and Dusseldorf. It also improved the number of seats from Southampton to help BA customers who otherwise would fly from Heathrow or Gatwick. Easy Jet offered British Airways Executive Gold cardholders free speedy boarding plus (priority check-in and boarding) on its flights during the BA crew strike. Others are taking advantage of the classic supply and demand model by hiking up last minute fares during the strike period."

He added that BA should also look at the Eurostar situation, which has apparently taken too long to issue refunds to passengers affected by its shut down over Christmas, and act with speed to avoid similar delays which will further damage customer satisfaction.

“It’s all about what they do. If they don’t give that refund quickly and efficiently, then the story will just continue to drag on… Speed, efficiency, quality and service is what is needed here – exactly the same as what an airline should offer,” he concludes.

Updated:

Yesterday, BA released a statement which said that contingency plans for the three days of industrial disruption had been "very successful".

The statement continued: "Over the first two days, the airline operated 273 or 78 per cent of its longhaul flights and 442 or 50 per cent of its shorthaul flights. Seat factors were good at 68 per cent in longhaul and 69 per cent in shorthaul. Club World seat factor was just under 60 per cent. In addition the airline operated 70 positioning flights, which in most cases carried cargo, to return passengers home with minimum disruption.

"We started the weekend with 82,573 bookings for the two days after our reservation teams had worked with our customers to reduce bookings (including accommodating some passengers for travel in the days leading up to the weekend) to reflect the smaller flying programme. In fact, over the two days we carried 86,262 passengers, due to late additional bookings.

"This strong operational performance made possible by dedicated BA staff has significantly reduced the financial impact of the disruption. Current best estimate is that the 3-day industrial action will cost £7 million a day. Assessment of the cost of potential future industrial action can only be made after the event. As a result full year earnings expectations to March 31, 2010 remains broadly unchanged."

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