Saturday, 29 July 2017

British Airways. Saint or sinner?

So what is it with British Airways? Why does it seem so many people are falling out of love with them? If they exist who are these people?  How many?  And do they have a point.
First one needs to clarify who they are as so many things have changed in the airline marketplace. British Airways (BA) used to be the UK’s national ‘flag carrying’ airline and was sometimes seen as a ‘full service’ airline.  In recent years a full service airline was one that charged an all-in price for the full service provided which used to be extensive. People got used to it and some still continue to expect nothing less. Then the airline market changed.

It started with the arrival of what many call ‘cost plus’ airlines. These people (like EasyJet and Ryanair) use a different cost model which is focussed on lowest seat price plus charges for almost everything else relating to the flight i.e. baggage, seat allocation, meals, credit charge use etc etc. Travellers could then choose what they needed, or wanted. This coupled with flexible seat pricing and initially different origin/destination usage appealed greatly to flyers, primarily in the leisure market.

BA and these ‘no frills’ airlines managed to live with each other (just) until the market changed. The catalyst for change came when the Low Cost Airlines (LCA) saturated their initial operating destinations with flights, ran short of new ones, saw opportunities in mainstream markets and, essentially, started wining customers away from BA and others. Their marketing was very popular with the public who failed to understand why the big airlines seemed to charge so much more.

Almost all airlines have one thing in common. They have shareholders who invest in them and expect a good return. Many are listed on their stock exchanges and therefor need to satisfy analysts and major investment institutions and share dealers. This drive for improved return on investment (ROI) is another key driver for airlines to seek lower operating costs and increased sales. Their very existance depends on it.

To my mind BA has had no choice but to respond positively to these drivers by being competitive with all opponents’ whist protecting and reshaping their brand. After all I have seen little evidence of the bulk of their customers demanding that BA charge premium fares for premium service. The contrary is more evident. With this in mind I see BA has little choice not only to vigorously defend their position but exploit opportunities for new business too.

So how can BA do this and are they competing on a level playing field?  Well the field is certainly not ‘level’ at present although it is starting to get there.  For example BA serves all sorts of routes that no LCA would dream of. They also operate up to four different classes of service on the same plane which is hardly ‘stack them high and sell them cheap’! They also operate on a completely different cost structure. They are trying to improve this by negotiating new staff contracts and outsourcing costs with sometimes disastrous but possibly predictable outcomes. Understandably staff do not want to change their desirable and traditional union negotiated remuneration packages and an outsourced function is less service secure than a costly internal one.

Meanwhile the LCAs continue with their cherry picked lucrative cost and price models without the need to worry about huge antiquated legacy issues. Not for them the concern of taking products away from customers which they never gave to them in the first place. Everyone seems to accept that they are the ‘people’s champion’ in the fight for low pricing.

The only trouble is people have begun to notice BA’s cost reduction and do not like it. People will always expect a service they have always enjoyed but woe betide anyone who takes it away! Hell hath no fury than someone with a meal/drink/seat taken away. This combined with the service imbalance of operating different classes on board is a huge challenge, especially as the less populated premium cabins do not contribute the majority of a flight’s revenue income.

So what is going to happen? Well it is anyone’s guess but I think BA will be taking a long hard look at how it will move forward and I have every confidence they will find a solution. I am also convinced it will not continue to operate exactly as it does now. Perhaps they might operate a two service/one flight system i.e. make the rear cabin low cost and the front full cost. With a flexible cabin configuration this may just work. Another possible option would be to split the airline into low cost short haul and full service long haul service as no LCA airline seems to have found a way into the intercontinental market yet and may never do so.

Going back to the beginning of this blog. Who is getting discontented with British Airways? clearly it is their premium business clients who perceive that service declines as BA drive for increased profitability How many? Well quite a lot really but the situation is still recoverable. And do they have a point? Well clearly they do.Whatever happens I do not envy British Airways but I wish them well. The road will be challenging but I am confident they will get there. They are, after all, a damn fine airline and the envy of many a nation.

Saint or sinner? Well saint is perhaps too kind but sinner? That would be unfair…wouldn’t it?!

Friday, 17 February 2017

Hoping for an airline upgrade. You’ll be lucky!

No seriously, I mean it because luck is probably the best way to describe so called airline selection policy as it applies to that all important upgrade. A huge shame really as, with the arrival of single class competitors, the incentive of potential upgrades is a definite plus when deciding who to fly with. Sad that airlines do not recognise the power and competitive edge upgrades give them.

I read a long running blog the other day on the subject of ‘How to get an upgrade’. It started with someone’s opinion and grew enormously as others (including me at the time) regaled other readers with their tips, experiences and failures. The only thing that seemed clear is that almost everybody wanted upgrades and very few actually got them. The only successes seemed to be with people that made no particular effort but got them as a pleasant surprise.

On looking closer at these and other people one thing began to become evident. It did not seem to matter much on what you looked like, how many in your group or how important you are to that airline. It seemed purely down to numbers and seemed triggered by how full the cabin was you were booked in. Obviously the vast majority of seats are in economy class and also economy passengers are more likely not to show up. As a result airlines overbook this cabin in the hope it ends up going out full. If there are seats available in higher classes then these are used for any surplus economy numbers via upgrades. The same approach applies right up to First Class. Very often when someone gets upgraded from economy they will create a chain reaction of upgrade through Premium economy and Club class right up to the front cabin. Either that or, to save hassle the economy passenger finds themselves placed directly into seat 1A.

Meals also impact the need to upgrade. If the particular cabin is short of meals they will often upgrade or sometimes if a forward cabin is almost empty but fully catered for they will again upgrade. There is also the airline staff upgrade where travelling airline folk hold upgrade tickets or possibly are friends of the crew. And if there are plenty of meals and not many staff? Then you might just get lucky. Also if you are on a flight that stops somewher you may get an upgrade if they are congested on certain legs of your journey.

Now I always used to think that if I looked smart my chances of upgrade were better. I had hoped that someone in the ground staff were wandering around thinking “now let me find a smart, deserving individual I can bestow this super upgrade on” I am afraid I do not believe this happens any more (it used to). Now some machine randomly selects you or a tired, bored departure desk operative gets told to offer upgrades to whoever is in front of them. I am afraid the truly discretionary upgrade has all but gone out of the window. I suppose the computer could be programmed to select that airline’s frequent flyer members but I have not seen this happening much either.

Looking deeper there is only one true way of getting an upgrade and even that is risky and impossible for most people and that is before check-in. If you can persuade the right airline person at the right level to mark your booking ‘upgrade space available’ it might just happen. A lot depends on the relationship between reservations and airport staff and if the latter remembers to do something about it. For example I tried to help a friend who had just lost his wife and needed to get to Sydney. I phoned the airline reservations number and explained the situation and got nowhere until I got my call escalated to a supervisor. After a lot of persuasion on my part she agreed to try and help and ultimately he got upgraded. Not easy but possible if you persevere

So that is that really. Computerisation, apathy and, in my opinion, short-sightedness by airlines means upgrades are hard to get and mainly coincidental. Just think what a valuable selling tool they could be. They would buy loyalty, give recognition and fill seats productively instead of dishing them out indiscriminately to those not expecting them.

So. You want an upgrade? You WILL BE LUCKY!

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Cheap Flights are what we want. But are they?

I have been waiting for it to happen and now it has. The major national airlines that have been fighting low cost carriers are finally joining them with a vengeance that is creating its own backlash.
Naturally it is about money or should I say profit and ‘shareholder value’. Let me explain. Those same airlines that denigrated those ‘cheap’ airlines in the past have seen their profits suffer and have found it necessary to respond in order to maintain their position as market brand leaders.
Now, they are not going to give away their profit margins and pricing models are they? No. What they are doing is changing them into possibly more profitable returns. You see low cost airlines relied mainly on new routes, new markets, low charges for high volume and almost a carte blanche to do what they want as they were new kids on the block. In fact the crazier their actions seemed the more they were admired.

The big airlines could do very little to start with. These new guys were a pain but did not really hurt them too much on key routes. Meanwhile they still earned enough loyalty from business and other higher end markets to cope plus they had solid schedules to key cities to reduce the damage. In fact I think they did not want to play with low cost in those early evolution times. Then things moved on. Or at least they have on the smaller routes.

The new ‘cheap’ market reached almost saturation point. These airlines introduced as many new routes as they could and filled them with as many passengers that were ready and willing to use them. But what happens when there are so few new routes available anymore? How do these darlings of the City maintain the expected rapid, continuing growth expected from them? The answer is they have to compete for those passengers they once scorned and mainly ignored the mainstream airline traveller.

How did they do this? By in part becoming a bit like their adversaries by flying in and out of major airports and fighting on a far more level playing field. By this I mean they kept their opening fare at the same low levels but charged add-ons for everything else from meals, drinks, bags, credit cards to reserved seats, extra legroom and most of the other things you get (or used to) as standard from mainstream airlines. This has created a massive change which will grow before it diminishes.

To some extent this is what the big world airlines were waiting for. People started finding that low cost airlines are not as low cost as they used to be. The ‘cheap flight love affair’ was beginning to be questioned. Those airlines that could get away with murder in recent years started being called to account when directly and openly being compared with their bigger and more established rivals.

Finally it seems the national airlines have started to act and I am not sure how popular it is going to become with Joe Public who enjoyed slating them but needed them to be around too. As ‘low cost fares’ went up so did ‘full fare’ prices go down. Except they were no longer the ‘full service’ fare.

The opportunity for these global carriers was there for the taking and being openly displayed to them by those competitors they feared were their nemesis. If you change elements of pricing you can milk extra profit. So now the low cost charges are being introduced by the big boys, particularly on short journeys. Food and drink quality have gone down but now you have to pay for them on top of your fare. The airline takes out a cost and replaces it with a new income stream! This is not the only example of this rapidly growing income stream. On flights cabin crew numbers are getting smaller and compelling reasons present themselves for reducing pay and benefits too. After all it is what ‘the people’ (you and me) want. Now we are finding that major airlines are more often the same or cheaper than low cost airlines on main routes. Sadly it must be at our cost not theirs.

It is a bit sad really but I think the major carriers are going to get a bit of a public bashing over this but hey, they are more profitable and the city institutions will love them! The will also be able to defend themselves by saying they are reacting to what the public want. Meanwhile, as I said before, ultimately Joe Public will end up paying more for less.

Finally a look to the future. I think the short flight market will level out and airlines of all persuasions will compete on more equal basis albeit we, the public, will probably get a more reduced service and at higher prices. As far as the longer distance destinations are concerned, I personally think that it will be a while before this, what I call ‘cost plus’ model takes hold. Companies bankrolled by city institutions have tried before to start up new low cost long haul airlines and have failed miserably. This may change and I see airlines like Norwegian trying their new model in this market but I hold out little hope for such in the near future.

But who knows!

Monday, 16 January 2017

Bequia Beach Hotel Review

OK, so this is our third 2 week stay at this hotel and you might think, with two previous reviews there was nothing more to write about. Well there is! If ever there was a resort constantly improving on itself it is this one.

We arrived after a short connection in Barbados seamlessly AND with our hold baggage. If you are making such connections I really recommend tying a few yellow ribbons around your checked bag handles and then photograph them on say your smartphone. That way the folks in Barbados can quickly identify them and grab them off the incoming luggage belt. People we were with who did not do this only got their bags 24 hours later.
On our arrival in Bequia the hotel transfer vehicle was waiting for us. We got water and cool towels for the 10 minute transfer plus gave our welcome drink order which was ready for us when we arrived. Not bad.

On getting there they remembered both us and the room we stayed in and enjoyed 4 years and gave it to us again. Surprising in this day and age and very welcome.
Small improvements had been made all over the property like extra beach sunshades, improved bar area, leisure equipment etc.
The room was once again excellent and they really do seem to think of everything and, if they missed something (like overseas plug adapters) we simply asked and it arrived without fuss or repeat phone calls .WIFI worked well in the room and poolside.

We know the owner, resort M/D and the GM because all three were out and about talking to guests and checking on their stay. The rest of the staff were their brilliant and kind selves with the restaurant running efficiently and the bar team, particularly Kong already pre-guessing what you want. You almost start feeling like a welcome returning family member!

Food was good and a nice blend of Swedish and Caribbean as there are chefs from both regions working there. We were holidaying during the main lobster season and the special nights they did were a treat to the taste buds. Nothing like soft tasty lobster that you saw being bought from the fishermen up the beach served with well cooked vegetables and/ or fresh salad. Breakfasts were great with fruit, cereals, cheeses, bread and toast available in the buffet while juices, coffee and main courses served on order.I This was not a holiday to diet on unless you really want to. I never made the spa but from what people say it really is top notch too.

All in all a great holiday in a welcoming well run hotel but it did not stop there. The owner tries to think of everything and has branched wider. He has bought Jacks Bar and restaurant on the best beach on the island so there is a broader choice of cuisine. He has also bought at least one mega yacht which had just been delivered and operated its first sunset cruise. Not cheap but one hell of an experience I believe. Finally he seems to have thought deep enough about getting clients to Bequia by buying/leasing at least two King Air aircraft to operate key routes to connecting points. Not your average hotelier!
I know I have sung the praises of this resort but it, and the island of Bequia deserves it.I have no professional interests in this hotel but simply believe it is something very special. Why else would we return to the same place three times?!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Places to go back to again and again

I started writing about places I would (and would not want) to visit again. Having been blessed in the past with a large opportunity to travel in my work and holiday I visited many countries and islands more than once and here is my verdict on them. You might disagree with me about some but I hope this input may help you in your future decision making.

I feel like dedicating this blog to my very favourite places which can mainly been summed up in two words which are THE GRENADINES. Have you been there? No? Then you are missing somewhere very special and I would urge you to bear them in mind for future holidays. The islands are simply beautiful, the atmosphere is laid back but civilised and the people are mainly absolutely wonderful.

The two islands I spent most time in were Mustique and Bequia. The island of Mustique has a charm of its own and many people do not realise that you do not have to be a millionaire to enjoy it, although it helps! Take a look at my other blogs on this island and you will see why. You get there by taking a 40 minute connecting flight from Barbados on local airline SVG (very efficiently done) or an even shorter one from St Lucia. When you arrive it is like another world of fabulous beaches, lovely people and wide ranging accommodations including two hotels and  many private villas.

The island of Bequia ( can also be reached via Barbados or St Lucia or even St Vincent if travelling from the USA. In truth it is heaven to my wife and me and I cannot see it changing even with more tourism which is what will happen as its fame spreads. There are hotels, guest houses, villas, B&Bs,  in fact you name it and they have it across the full spectrum of accommodations.

When we go we always stay at the Bequia Beach Hotel. You would not need to ask me why if you had been there, it is that good. So good in fact that I am writing my second blog on the place which will be published very soon. People from The Grenadines are kind and honest by nature and the islands really are beautiful and well worth that extra flight which, as I said before, is very easy.

Bequia as an island is perfect with all kinds of different landscapes, terrain and beaches. Princess Margaret and Lower Bay beaches are calm, pristine and have places you can eat, drink or even hire/borrow beach chairs. The main 'town' is Port Elizabeth which is both colourful and easy to get around. It also has an ATM machine and a well equipped supermarket called Knights.

You owe it to yourself to go there at least once although I suspect you will want to go back again!

While on the subject of small pretty islands you also should try Anguilla. There are numerous beaches and a large range of hotels and restaurants. All this yet it remains unspoiled. A great thing about Anguilla is that the weather is probably the best in the Caribbean and the likelihood of it being hit by a hurricane is very small Even though it just happened) as its location seems to miss them as they pass either side. If you go in the quiet season the costs are much lower yet the weather is still fine most of the time. The island still has its links with the UK so Brits are particularly welcome.

Where to stay in Anguilla? Well, check my blogs but we tend to stay either in a beach villa at Meads Bay or the Cuisinart, a beautiful hotel on another perfect calm sandy beach.

So lets get back 'civilization' and a better know and well frequented island, Antigua.

Antigua is often compared with Barbados as they are both main destinations for global holidaymakers but I do not think them similar at all except for the international resorts located there.
This island is a bit smaller but does have a wide range of hotels and activities. It also caters for the adult only and all inclusive markets very well. I find it a place to be either very relaxed or very active, it is up to you if you choose your resort carefully. Recently we stayed at Galley Bay which is an adults only and all-inclusive resort on its own beach. We loved it and recommend you go there if you want peace, a 'few' drinks and one of the best sunset views in the region.

It must be pretty obvious to you that I would, and will, go back to these islands again, God willing. Where next? We plan to go to Nevis next as I have heard great thing about this island and the Nisbet Plantation resort there.

My final report in this trilogy will be in Europe covering Majorca, Kefalonia and Athens so I hope you read them and maybe get some new ideas for your own trips.