British Airways’ chief executive, Keith Williams. Photo: Nick Morrish

Faster Thinking

BA steps into the spotlight

As British Airways prepares to be the star of a BBC2 documentary, chief executive Keith Williams reflects on how external influences can help shape the airline.

We regularly receive approaches from TV companies wanting to make documentaries about us. Our default response has been a polite negative, but last year we changed our minds. We felt BA was more or less in the right shape to allow the cameras in and tell the story of parts of the airline our customers never see. Ultimate editorial control rests with the broadcasters, so it cannot be risk-free, but I am optimistic that the programmes, due to be screened in a few weeks on BBC2, will convey the high standards and attention to detail that are the hallmarks of our flying, engineering, ground handling and customer services. I hope you have an opportunity to watch it.

External perspectives can be useful. That’s why I’ve always felt it important to have some involvement with organisations in sectors related to our own. I’ve been on the Transport for London board since 2007, and seen how extensive technological innovation can smooth the customer experience. I have just joined the board of John Lewis, and am keen to learn more about how it achieves its consistent reputation for high-quality customer service. Retailing is different from aviation, but there are overlaps. BA has just been voted No. 1 Superbrand for 2014. John Lewis is also a huge UK brand. If we want to stay at the top, we must be ready to see what others do.

One cheer for George Osborne for unveiling plans to trim Air Passenger Duty on some long-haul flights. If you fly to the Caribbean or southern Asia in Club or First from April 2015, you will pay £32 less in tax than you do now, and £16 less in economy. However, the reductions barely constitute a drop in the Treasury’s APD revenue bucket. The levy is easily the highest flight tax in the world, and continues to undermine the UK’s attempts to boost tourism, trade and growth. Ireland has just become the fourth EU country to abolish its tax on air travel. How long before the penny drops on this side of the water?

And, as the government gives, it also takes away. The APD changes at least bring a marginal benefit to the cause of attracting more Chinese visitors to the UK. Sadly, the Home Office appears to be moving in the opposite direction. It has just proposed doubling the cost of short-notice UK visas for people from China to £100. Our visas were already more expensive and difficult to obtain than the Schengen visa that allows entry to more than 20 EU countries. No wonder so many of the high-spending Chinese shun Britain when they venture to Western Europe.