How BA failed at maths, humanity, and service design

Time to read: 5 minutes

I’ve been on FOUR BA flights since 27th December 2016. This only matters because the last one was a VERY different experience from the first three.
The first two were First Class (we used avios, sit back down), and awesome.

On my last and fourth one, however, I discovered BA’s new policy of not serving ANYTHING complimentary – not even WATER – on European flights. 

This was a FOUR hour flight…

The premise of the new service is “choose what you eat”. But it looks like BA did not put any work into designing this offering. Here are the four things that BA does not seem to have put any work into, and which aggravate me.

Let’s set the scene. It’s 18:30, I’m hungry and tired, and carrying a backpack and a heavy laptop-laden leather holdall, and I turn right as I step onto the plane. 

Plane looks old, dusty TVs hanging from the ceiling every 4 rows (how very 80s), and a narrow aisle where my holdall bumped into every single armrest! Some men were already taking their seats, being Executive Club members of high status. (Yep, all men. I have the lowly Bronze status so was first in queue of common mortals)

When I got to my seat in row 35, my tray table had a sticky purple-red red dribble across the back of it. Yuck!!

Anyone walking in there wouldn’t be impressed. 

Now to look at what they did and how they could have done it better.

BA could be more humane

The new catering offering of BA in economy flights within Europe (even FOUR HOUR ones), is to not serve anything to anyone at all. 

You can request the usual thimble-fulls of water. And they will attempt to sell you cold sandwiches. (yum) But that’s it. No more water, no more tea, no more coffee. It’s all pre-packaged, refrigerated, FOR SALE ONLY “hospitality”.

Although… at some point during the flight I smelled food, and happened to go see several cabin crew having dinner in the economy galley. They were not feasting on the cold sandwiches they were selling us, but on hot Business Class food trays with real plates and real cutlery… I’ve never resented cabin crew before. I did this time, because the smell was making me hungry again!!

BA could listen to customers; for real this time

Apparently the catering team did a survey, and people WANT to buy their own food on board.

If I were to ask “would you like to choose your meal, perhaps at a small cost, instead of being served a standard thing?” I’d have said yes too!!

Try asking “Would you like to buy a cold sandwich and a drink on board, if we haven’t run out, and you need to pay at that time in british pounds cash or by credit card; and we won’t serve water or tea or coffee unless you buy some; or would you rather be served a courtesy drink and meal?”.

The cabin crew know that customers hate this new proposition, but the catering team are not listening to them.

BA is being handed customer comments directly by their most valuable customer-facing staff!! 

And they are ignoring this!

BA could do some basic maths

When the stewardess from Business who was “helping out because it’s too slow otherwise” came to ask me if I wanted something, I borrowed her catalogue (there wasn’t one in my seat) while she ran off to do something.
After I chose, she left again and then came back to tell me they were out of crisps. She then went off a third time, got my salad, returned with a big tablet, and I then had to pay.
So I got up, took down my backpack, extracted my wallet and credit card, and stood in the aisle with the stewardess to put my pin into the big enhanced-tablet device she was carrying to take payments on. Then I put my card back into the wallet, back into the bag, back into the overhead compartment.


This took more than 3 minutes, possibly 5 with all the back-and-forth, but let’s pretend it was 3.
Not ultra-productive, right?

Can you picture a cabin of TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FOUR PEOPLE, each taking THREE MINUTES to choose and pay for food?

The economy cabin on this flight had 32 rows of 7 people each. That’s 224 people. Assuming that the first and last 20min of the flight are “buckle your seatbelt” times for takeoff and landing, from the four hours, this leaves 3 hours and 20min, which is 200 minutes, to serve everyone and take their money!

With 200 min to serve 224 people, to serve everyone, using one crew member, they would need to process one person every 53 seconds. Far from the 3 minutes (and some) that it is taking them now.

If it does take 3 min per person, and the flight has 200 minutes of free time, using one crew member, only 66 people (200/3 = 66) of the 224 on that flight’s economy cabin can be served something to eat or drink. A success rate of 29.7%.

Using two crew members, that could be 132 people. 

Using four, assuming there are four tablets, and they work flat out through the FOUR HOURS without sitting down, you could manage 264. 

But somehow – I wonder why… – this approach isn’t working.

Did anyone do the maths on this??!! To check how many people can be served? How long it takes in a real environment? To learn buying patterns and stock popular items (hello, predictive modelling, my darling!) so you don’t run out of crisps ten rows in? 

Or print enough M&S food catalogues and put them in seat pockets? 

Or have enough crew members to serve the cabin? 

And enough tablets to take payments? 

Or use some other technology for payments?

BA could hire a service designer or a UXer

Ok, so this is a plane car crash of design and foresight. (Ha. Ha.)

Anyone vaguely familiar with human psychology will tell you that losing £20 is much more painful than winning £20 is pleasant. Somehow, humans are hardwired to feel loss much more strongly. It’s called “loss aversion” and has been the cause of many bad decisions, because losing HURTS. And this is what BA has done. It has hurt us.

They could have improved business class, handing out bottles of water, hot towels, better quality drinks. But no.

They could have warned return trip passengers like me that unlike their flight out, their flight home would be VERY different. But no.

They could have done the maths on whether this is possible. But no.

They could have pre-sold food & drink online before check-in, to make the food service more achievable and easier to plan for, stock-wise. But no.

They could have maintained the complimentary water / tea / coffee service, and taken the opportunity to let passengers know that there would be a different kind of food service and would they like to look at the new catalogues? But no.

They could scan someone’s boarding pass on the plane to identify them, and use it to bill them for their food choices later, to make food service faster. But no.

BA no longer makes sense

The past few years saw the advent of service design and customer-lead enterprises. Of good design. Of thoughtfulness and proactivity.

And here comes BA, lowering their economy cabin standards to below those of Ryanair, while still charging five times the price.

It’s no longer a good travel experience.
I’m not sure it’s even an acceptable travel experience. (wtf was that stain on my tray table? Wine? jello? Raspberry coulis?)

Ironically I’m flying with BA again this week. But I’m using an upgrade voucher and avios to fly Business Class (it’s a 4h30m flight). I will, of course, be popping into the economy cabin to check if anyone is dehydrated.

Because I just don’t get it.

BA, I’ve seen how nice your First Class service is. Frankly I’ve experienced it all, from First Class to standby in a jumpseat!! 

How can you even consider a no-water-served economy cabin worthy of your brand? This was not an experience I will be paying for again. And I hope others reconsider their choice too. 

In any case, for my usual route (LHR-ATH), Aegean has awesome service, competitive prices, and is part of Star Alliance. Guess where my loyalty will be in the future?

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