Interview: Paolo De Renzis, British Airways
Following industrial action from it cabin crew, British Airways is sending out a message that its ‘business as usual’, explains Middle East commercial manager Paolo De Renzis.
British Airways has faced a challenging time with recent cabin crew strikes. Do you think this has impacted the airline’s reputation in the Middle East?
Although we have experienced a challenging time, British Airways was still able to fly around 80% of our long-haul customers during the strike period. The entire Boeing 777 fleet has been flying and in the Middle East, apart from Bahrain, Doha and Jeddah, most of the stations have not been too affected. So generally speaking, we had a strong and robust contingency plan to fly more than 70% of our customers long-haul and more than 50% short-haul. Of course, the challenges were greater in some stations. As I mentioned before, flights to Bahrain, Doha and Jeddah have been cancelled quite a few times, but all the others have not been affected.
What feedback has British Airways received from customers to the situation?
We have been really impressed with the loyalty of our customers. British Airways is back to business as usual and the summer bookings are pretty strong. We haven’t received any official notification of further strikes and last month, the airline launched some of its most competitive summer fares on all services from the Middle East to the UK, Europe and the Americas, both in premium and non-premium travel.
Many travel agents say they won’t sell BA tickets to clients until the strike situation is resolved. How are you working with the trade to boost confidence?
We have also been very impressed with the support we have received and the loyalty to British Airways. The website is constantly updated and there is regular communication with all the agents, both corporate and trade partners. As I mentioned, the summer bookings are quite strong in the Middle East, so I am confident we are back to normal and back to business.
Do you think Willie Walsh is doing the right thing by refusing to give in to the trade unions?
The industry has gone through some very challenging times and everybody within British Airways contributes to the future of the company. No one is immune. So we believe that the reaction from the unions in disproportionate. There are no salary cuts, there are no job cuts, so we believe it is the right thing to do. Many of our cabin crew have been supportive anyway so we could still operate most of our long-haul and short-haul flight and we hope not to see more disruptions in the future. But if there is another disruption our plan is to operate 100% of our long-haul flights.
How important is the Middle East market to British Airways?
It’s one of the most important markets in the world for British Airways. We are very committed to the region and even though we have been through difficult times last year, there was still 35% capacity growth in the Middle East. It was one of the few markets in the entire global network where we did increase capacity. We re-started flights to Saudi Arabia last year, which confirms and highlights our commitment to the Middle East. In the future we plan to grow even further in this region, although I cannot be more specific with plans at this stage.
How do you compete with the young fleets of Middle Eastern airlines, such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways?
British Airways has a pretty young fleet and we have new aircraft coming in. Earlier this year, we had 777-300s coming in, which we have equipped with our new first class product. We have invested a total of US$155 million in the new first class. I have flown it and think it’s fantastic.
Many airlines have scrapped their first class cabins. Do you think there is still enough demand for premium travel?
We strongly believe there is still demand on specific routes for first class travel and that’s why British Airways has invested $155 million. Otherwise we would not have been so convinced that it was the right thing to do.