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

Faster Thinking

Keith Williams: Lessons from 1985

The British Airways executive chairman on the Las Vegas fire, the new 787-9 and the Chancellor’s China mission

In 1985, an aircraft at Manchester airport suffered an engine fire during its take-off roll. The fire proved difficult to contain, and 53 customers and two crew died.

The aircraft belonged to British Airtours, then a subsidiary of the pre-privatised British Airways. I recently attended the 30th anniversary memorial service, and met a number of the families who were bereaved on that terrible day. If I had not known before that some scars don’t heal, I know it now.

The investigation into the Manchester disaster led to permanent safety improvements: more fire-resistant materials in aircraft cabins and clearer evacuation procedures among them.

In September at Las Vegas, another BA aircraft suffered an engine fire on the take-off roll. Pictures of the incident reminded me vividly of Manchester. But this time, all 170 customers and crew evacuated safely.

Our pilots and cabin crew train regularly for these types of incident, and that training proved its critical worth. As did the lessons learned from 30 years ago.

Aviation is a high-investment business. Aircraft are expensive and, once acquired, you have them for a long time. So it’s an important moment when a new type comes into your fleet.

We have just welcomed our first Boeing 787-9, and it’s a real delight. I have seen many aircraft interiors in my time, and genuinely can’t recall one that has impressed me more. The First cabin is a beautifully-finished evolution of our elite product and the layout of the Club cabin is very distinctive. With wider seats in World Traveller, the whole aircraft looks and feels like a winner.

We have just started operating it to Delhi, and it will be a fixture on the Abu Dhabi/Muscat and Kuala Lumpur routes by Christmas, with Austin to follow from February. I hope you have a chance to try it.

The Foreign Office will have ensured that Chinese President Xi Jinping had no difficulty obtaining a visa for his recent state visit. If only it was so simple for all of his fellow citizens to gain entry to the UK.

Slowly, the Government has been addressing this issue, but there is much more that could be done. We could cut the standard processing time from three weeks to five days, and halve the price to bring it into line with Europe’s 26-country Schengen visa.

We should also allow short-term visas to be renewed online. At the moment, someone whose original visa has expired has to go through the entire process again for a subsequent visit, including a second trip to an application centre that might be a long way from home.

We should also take a leaf out of the USA’s book and extend standard visa validity to 10 years. This change triggered a 68 per cent jump in visas issued. The UK-China Visa Alliance calculates that a 10-year visa would just about double Chinese visitor numbers to our shores. If George Osborne is serious about the Government’s ambition to make the UK ‘China’s best partner in the West’, let’s see action to match.