BA's IT cock-up couldn't have come at a worse time

The flag carrier's reputation for good service is one of its most important assets - especially now it's cut back on frills.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 30 May 2017

If you want to fly with British Airways from London to Warsaw next Wednesday it will set you back at least £110. With Ryanair it could be as little as £17.

That won’t come as a surprise. There have always been good reasons to pay extra and fly BA. Britain’s flag carrier provided food, seat reservations and free checked baggage. Its cabins were roomier and more pleasant than its low-cost competitors. And it still has its pick of the airports – the £110 flight is from handy Heathrow, the £17 from out-of-the-way
Stansted.

But the differences are getting smaller. In 2013 BA started charging for hold baggage on short-haul routes. Last year it ditched free short-haul meals, replaced by the option to buy M&S sarnies and snacks. And some BA flights now even have less legroom than Ryanair’s. In the pursuit of lower prices, BA has rightly or wrongly ditched many of the points of difference that set it apart from its budget competitors.

One thing it has continued to rely on, though, is a reputation for good service. You’ll always be well looked after by a ‘proper airline’, many reason, whereas Ryanair’s boss Michael O’Leary would charge you for the air you breathe if he could.

But that reputation for service was dealt a massive blow this weekend by a massive cock-up that disrupted 75,000 of its passengers’ flights and left many unable to reclaim their baggage, causing chaos at Gatwick and Heathrow.

‘It was clear that there was no contingency for something like this, and staff had not been drilled on emergency procedures,’ a particularly irate passenger told the Guardian. ‘It was honestly the angriest place I’ve ever been… No one knew what was going on, which is why everyone was so miserable. Utter shitshow.’ (If you enjoy reading about the misfortune of others then this piece detailing an Economist writer's tedious wait to board a flight is worth a read.)  

The recriminations are yet to come. BA boss Alex Cruz has insisted he won’t resign, but has faced criticism from the unions for outsourcing some of the airline’s IT support to India’s Tata Consultancy Services (Tata and BA deny this played any role in the screw-up).


Read more: For all its foibles, I'd still pick BA over Ryanair or United


The immediate cost to the airline could reportedly run into the tens of millions as passengers claim compensation for missed flights, as well as hotel stays and food to tide them over while they wait. But the long-term cost could be much larger.

Operations are returning to normal today but this morning shares in BA’s owner IAG slumped, wiping £500m of the company’s value. The reputational cost of the cock-up could be substantial – if you can’t even trust BA to get you where you’re going, why should you pay above the odds for a ticket? ‘The whole sorry episode has undeniably put a dent in BA’s reputation for delivering a premium service, and the worry for shareholders is that this unquantifiable impact could have longer-term consequences,’ said George Salmon, an analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

To add to Cruz’s woes, Ryanair’s annual results are out today, reporting record profits of 1.32bn euros (£1.14bn). MT imagines O’Leary will be cracking open a bottle of bargain basement sparkling wine tonight.

Image: Stuart Bailey/BA

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