In the 1990s, Sir Colin – later Lord – Marshall, Chief Executive of British Airways was being interviewed by a journalist. The latter asked him, as leader of a famous brand, what he feared most. Sir Colin said something along these lines: “the pilots can be ill, the food can taste bad, the plane may be late and we lose the passengers’ baggage. I know I can fix these things and I will. But the thing I fear most is our Information Systems going down. We are critically dependent on our IT people for delivering our customer experience and for our survival. Our IT is of strategic importance and I keep my Chief Information Officer really close to me. Our IT is so important we would never outsource it.”
Sir Colin was a deeply experienced leader who had invested very heavily in creating the unique British Airways’ customer experience for the “world's favourite airline”. He made mandatory attendance at a training program called Putting People First and attended in person at the end of every program to take employees’ questions. All those in leadership positions went through its sister program Managing People First and he attended that one too. A charismatic forthright, rigorous and determined leader, he made British Airways a customer driven company.
Sadly, none of his successors have had the IQ or the EQ (nor the training he had as a Purser in P&O) to understand the world's favourite airline customer experience or to keep it going. Since the Marshall days the British Airways’ customer experience has been progressively eroded by a succession of cost cutters. We have had Ayling, Eddington, Walsh and now Alex Cruz who has just had what is probably the most catastrophic meltdown of any information systems in modern times. As a public relations disaster, it is up there with United’s Dr David Dao event.
Here is a vignette of what it meant to one high-margin customer:
The customer was flying from JFK to LHR in business class. Half an hour before the flight was due to leave, the information board said: “flight delayed”, and then soon after “cancelled”, without reason. The customer was told to go back through security to the BA desk, where BA’s staff had no idea that the flight has been cancelled or why.