India a long-term commitment for British Airways; we understand regional nuances, says Moran Birger

British Airways has recently inducted 787-9 Dreamliner on its Delhi-London route, the first such induction by the carrier globally, indicating that India continues to be a priority market for the British flag carrier. In a free-wheeling interview, Moran Birger, Regional General Manager, British Airways outlined carrier’s India strategy and how the Brexit, coupled with PM Teresa May’s recent announcements on visa relaxations, during her maiden India visit, were boosting BA’s push for maintaining its coveted position on the London route and beyond. A detailed interaction follows:

LONDON, UK:  Moran Birger (Regional Commercial Manager, Commercial ME & Asia Pacific) at British Airways, Waterside, London Heathrow on 06 March 2015 (Picture by: Nick Morrish/British Airways)

Tell us all you can about the Delhi- London route. BA has recently inducted Dreamliner 787-9 on this route. What has been the response to it?

The Delhi-London route is obviously a part of the core India strategy, and India is an incredibly important market for us. It is our second largest market out of the UK and US. So, it is something that we are putting a lot of focus on. Like you said, Delhi has already got 787-9 Dreamliner; this was the first aircraft we had operating to Delhi. It was our first route (on which Dreamliner was deployed) worldwide. It is also a demonstration of how important Indian market is to us.

We have also put up a brand-new first class on that aircraft. It is smaller, more intimate; the seats have been redesigned; there is a lot more personal space; the entertainment screens are a lot bigger.

I will like to ask you a question on the first-class separately.

Fair enough, we will come back to that. In Delhi, another thing that we are able to offer out of Delhi is that there are two flights a day. Which from a convenience perspective… you know, you want to have a night flight from Delhi to London and then take a night flight from London to Delhi, that is an option. Likewise, if you want to have two flights flying, through the day, that is an option – that is available. So, Delhi is incredibly important to us. The 787-9 Dreamliner has worked very well. I think the response from customers has been very positive. It is a brand-new aircraft and has brand new entertainment features on-board, latest seats, the latest first-class, which we will take about later, I guess – and we are looking at making the second flight 787-9, as well. We will have two Dreamliners operating in Delhi by the summer next year. That is the plan for Delhi.

We know that BA is operating 49 flights from India in a week. What about load factors? How is that coming up, especially in the first class and business class?

We cannot discuss numbers specifically. We cannot discuss percentages.

Fair enough. It is true that BA has one of the most coveted first class to offer. And it has been like that for decades now. For an airline to make profits on a particular route, its first class and business class needs to do well. You will not give us numbers. But can you share some details with us?

I think where we are quite unique is that the majority of our local aircrafts have first class; all of them have business class cabin and we also got the premium economy world traveller plus in the middle. So, a lot of our long-haul aircrafts have four cabins. Speaking about the front of aircraft, the first class and business class, they have been doing extremely well. Like I said, all our 787-9 aircrafts are coming with first class. So, it is clearly an indication that it is a cabin that we are maintaining whilst a lot of carriers are cutting down on it, we are building it up. More than that, just recently, we have announced a 400-million-pound investment in our business class segment.

And this investment will be done globally?

Yes. Proposition really. We are going to get A-350s come in 2018; there will be new seats installed on them. We are going to get brand-new business class seats, and on top of that we are looking at softer touches. Catering is going to improve, both the quality of the food and how it is presented to our customers. The whole is going to be re-designed. It is to, really, hone in on what is important to our customers. We are really focusing on the softer touches like sleep. A lot of our customers in the business class, especially those travelling to the East coast in the USA – India to London and then to the US. Coming back, it is usually a night flight and quite a short night flight, so we are seeing how we can maximize sleep. We are looking at introducing new bedding, new blankets, everything is going to be re-designed and redefined and it is just going to benefit our customers a lot more.

It will be interesting to see how you refine perfection, is not it?

Thank you very much. We are building a new check-in area for the first class at terminal-5 in Heathrow. We are calling it the ‘First Wing’. So, it is going to be, sort off, cordoned off from the rest of the check-in area; it is going to be directly from the check-in desk, it is going to be a fast-track facility straight into the lounges. So, one does not need to go through the duty-free shopping or anything. It is a much simpler and easier proposition for our customers.

We look forward to that. When are you going to roll-out the facility?

That should be completed by April 2017.  So, it is a few months away.

London has, traditionally, been a hub for Indians flying into Europe and North America, so to speak. Now, with so many carriers in the fray, flying direct and through their connections, how is London panning out? What is the challenge there?

First of all, there is a very natural link between India and the UK, and I think a lot of people have connections over there both, business and leisure – and where we are unique is that we are the only carrier that can claim double daily direct flights from, both, Mumbai and Delhi into London. Also, we are the only ones that fly from Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, every single day, to London; we are the only ones that can do that. I think London is a habit. It is really interesting; there are a lot of things happening that are making London just that much more attractive to our customers. First of all, let us look at what has happened with the devaluation of Pound. Everything in the UK is relatively so much cheaper than it used to be. If you couple that with all the Christmas sales that are happening in the UK, I think there has never been a better time as a consumer and as a leisure traveller.

London has never been of better value and I think we are playing a part in that.  We have got fantastic fares out to London, at the moment. We have also teamed up with a number of retail brands to offer our customers even more discounts, like Bicester Village, Westville Shopping centre, all of those. Customers simply have to take their boarding pass and they get percentage discount wherever they go. Indian rupee is a lot stronger, there is Christmas sales and we are offering additional discounts on to that, so I think from that side, London has been a better value.

If we look at the business side of it, as well, British PM Teresa May was here a few days ago, and she announced a few reforms to the whole visa process. Again, all the details are yet to come out, but in terms of business travellers it is going to be a lot easier to obtain a visa to the UK. In addition to that, India is going to be the first country in the world that requires a visa into the UK; it is a part of the Registered Travellers Scheme. What that means is that we have got these e-gates on terminal-5 in Heathrow when you arrive, we need to scan your passport and facial recognition lets you through, and the queues are much shorter. It is a very seamless and fantastic experience. India is going to be the first country in the world that requires a visa that is going to benefit from those gates. So, as long as you have got a long-term visa, being an Indian passport holder, you will be able to benefit through that.

I think the climate in the UK…there is a lot of appetite for outward investment. So, looking beyond Europe, looking at other countries, encouraging more business coming from countries from the likes of India, making the visa process much easier, and the fact that the pound is devalued, the rupee is so much stronger, I think just makes it a appealing destination with great value for money, and a fantastic time to visit London.

You are taking all the advantages you can out of Brexit. You have actually turned it upside down.

Look, the fact is that our customers here in India…there is benefit to the fact that the pound is weaker and London is better value for money. We cannot sugar-coat it in any way. It is a fact and it is a great thing as well for inward tourism for sure.

 How is the Indian outbound taking to BA for their journey beyond London, into other European destinations and into the USA?

We look at the USA, for example. We have a quite unique advantage in that; we are able to offer connections. We have a lot of destinations that we fly to ourselves into the USA. In addition to that we have got the American Airlines, more than just the One World relationship, we have joint business across the Atlantic, coupled with Iberia, as well and Finnair. So, there are a lot of different players in there, from across Europe into the US. But in the USA, we can offer over 200 destinations. So pretty much wherever you want to go to in the USA, we are able to fly you there. That has improved even further now…American Airlines and US Airways, that merger has gone through last year – and we continue to announce new routes. We have just announced that we will start flying to Fort Lauderdale; we have announced New Orleans as a new destination. We have just started flying to San Jose a few months back. In addition to that, we have just announced that we are going to start Oakland the next year. So within that San Francisco area, which is so important to all the tech industry market like Hyderabad…VFRs and tech companies…Silicon Valley, it is all there. And we are the only carrier that is going to able to serve San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose – all in that Bay area – so a lot of investment is going through there. We have also announced a lot of short-haul destinations across Europe.

Could you please name some.

On top of my head, Montpellier in France is a new one we just announced. There is a quite a few islands in Greece that we have only recently started flying to, like Santorini. So, there is a lot of expansion happening within Europe, as well.

You know, I think, to a great extent, British Airways is almost an Indian carrier. We have been here for ninety years and completely understand the Indian market. We have done a lot of things to respond to the market, tailor our offerings and make sure that it is a much more personal service that we are able to provide. Just a couple of examples: We have got the latest Bollywood content and other local language films on our in-flight entertainment; we serve local cuisines on every single one of our flights from India; we have got Indian cabin crew on single one of our flights that operates from India to London – and we tailor it according to the city, because what a customer wants in Delhi is not necessarily what a customer wants in Hyderabad. You have got completely different cuisines and what we offer varies based on that. Obliviously, the crew is able to speak the local language, but more than talking to customers are able to identify the cultural nuances that exists in every single part of India. I think people do identify with BA. It is more than just London. We definitely offer fantastic network both to USA and to Europe. In addition to that, all our flights from India arrive at terminal-5, the connection facilities there are incredible.

Terminal-5 at Heathrow has been voted as one of the best terminals in the world. Obviously, there is a lot of shopping and food over there, but the connection is very seamless, too – which adds to all of it, really.

A lot of carriers, off late, have been emphasizing on how Indian they are – in terms of food and everything else. How do you see the trend of infusing ‘Indianness’ panning out? Is it going to grow from here on?

I will say that we have been there for many years and it is not something we shout about, because it just one of subtleties  that we offer. It has been there for years for us. Like I said, it is almost an extension of India when you get on board on a BA flight from India to London.

Star Alliance has expanded its footprints in India, and BA is a very important cog in the wheel for the oneworld Alliance. Between the two formidable alliances, which one do you see gaining more toehold in India. How do you see it from an industry insider’s perspective?

It is interesting what you see with alliances, generally. I mean, we were the first alliances. We started the oneworld Alliance with the American Airlines quite a few years back. These alliances are incredibly important, they provide our customers a lot of benefits – a lot more destinations across the world, code-shared flights, added benefits like frequent flyers program, so they are able to earn points and redeem them at different lounges across the world. When you look at it, you know, there are more joint ventures happening between airlines. So, we have got one, which we spoke about, across the Atlantic with American Airlines, Iberian and Finnair – which is a separate joint venture. We have also got one going the other way to Japan with Japan Airlines, Iberia and Finnair. We have just announced a joint partnership with Qatar Airways, as well. So, we do have Qatar Airways in oneworld. I think the whole concept of partnership has changed. I think with Qatar Airways – they fly to a fair amount of destinations across India – we are able to offer our customers more destinations.

We have also got interline relationships with Vistara, Jet Airways and Air India, so from a connectivity perspective, we can sell our customers any point they want to fly to either London, USA or Europe, or any point in India – they can buy a BA ticket and use one of our partners.

Where would you place British Airline in the international airline pecking order? I am sure it is one of the best, but what is your perspective on that?

There is a lot of competition out there and we respond to that. We have been doing a lot of work in investing in our aircrafts and our product. We have got a lot of new aircrafts. We were the first UK carrier to operate, both, the A-380 and the 787. We have got A-350s coming in 2018 and more 787S on the way. There is a brand-new fleet. We are going to have Wi-Fi on board on all our aircrafts from next year, both long-haul and short-haul; the installation will start next year.

Also, I think the added benefit that we can offer, especially to our customers in India is London. London is such a key hub from India for business reasons, and so many people have families in London. So many people feel that connect and link to London.

Have you seen the outbound numbers growing? Can you share your experience?

Without going into numbers, there is definitely an appetite for more and more people to go to London for business and leisure.

It brings us to a question which examines the broader landscape of tourism in the country. As an airline, one of the oldest, operating in India, and you have spent a fair amount of time in India, what is your understanding of developing tourism and movement of people and services? If you have to suggest some measures that could help Indian tourism grow, what would they be?

Look, I think a lot of positive steps that have already been taken. You see the growth in domestic air travel, it is crazy – and the fact that the government is working on the aviation policy and changing some of the rules, making it easier, opening the skies up. In that respect, it just allows us to operate in a much more free environment really and that is going to boost tourism in the long run for sure.

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