BA’s executive chairman Keith Williams. Photo: Nick Morrish

Faster Thinking

Keith Williams: The joy of flying

Airlines are about flying. In a large global carrier such as ours, there can be moments when this fundamental fact risks being overshadowed by the many people-related, commercial, financial, regulatory and diplomatic issues that can crowd on to the agenda. So it’s been a particular delight to read a new book on flying by one of our 747 senior first officers, Mark Vanhoenacker. Chosen as a Book of the Week by BBC Radio Four, Skyfaring is no dry technical manual. On the contrary, it’s a rather beautiful, almost poetic reflection on the wonders of air travel, which are so easily taken for granted today. If your enthusiasm ever flags at the prospect of another long-haul flight, I recommend Mark’s work as an ideal tonic.

While we’re talking books, let me suggest another related to aviation. Better By Design – Shaping the British Airways Brand is a fascinating history of how the operational, customer service and design expertise of generations of BA folk have fused over several decades into what we know today as the brand.

One of the advertising initiatives mentioned in the book was the 1973 Poundstretcher campaign, described as the airline’s ‘first real low-fare offering’. You could book a return to Barbados for £385. In 2015 money, that’s about £3,200 – more than five times today’s cheapest fare.  

And though the author, Paul Jarvis, and his publisher were unaware of the fact until the manuscript was in the final stage of editing, the book’s appearance coincided almost exactly with the announcement that British Airways had won the prestigious consumer Superbrands award for the second consecutive year.

Our 2014 triumph was unique for the travel industry, and this year’s success was enhanced, as we topped the business Superbrands category too. As I remind my colleagues, winning such recognition is nice – but it’s far more important that we stay focused on what is required to ensure our customers would endorse it.

Aviation has not loomed large in the election campaign. Politicians don’t want to talk about runways, because that always triggers noisy unpopularity somewhere – and politicians don’t see elections as opportunities to explain complex issues. That’s the reality of the contemporary political world. So I was surprised when David Cameron dipped his toe in UK aviation’s other big policy issue: the future of Air Passenger Duty.

Talking to Newcastle’s Northern Echo, he suggested that if Scotland reduced or abolished APD, a Conservative government would act to prevent “unfair tax competition” between airports on different sides of the border. “We will do what’s necessary to make sure that England’s regional airports can succeed,” he said.

Of course, if Newcastle airport receives special treatment, then Leeds and Manchester will want it too. Then Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton and everywhere else, including London. There can’t be a half-way house for APD. If it’s removed in Scotland, it must disappear across the UK. Then aviation can belatedly achieve more of its potential in creating growth and jobs for every region.