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The British Airways Short Haul Identity Problem

British Airways has a reputation for quality, and rightly or wrongly one expects certain level of service. Therein lies the problem, trying to appease and appeal all – trying to be everything to all people, and that historically that has never ended well.

This week, the airline announced a shake-up of its short haul base at Gatwick, with the plan of a subsidiary to lower costs in order to compete against its low cost competitors. It’s interesting to note that this is driven by British Airways, and not a plan by its owner IAG – and therefore a yellow invasion of Vueling, or the blue and green of Level isn’t going to happen.

Gatwick as long been a problem for British Airways, a base inherited through a miss-mash of different acquisitions through the 80’s and 90’s – including British Caledonian, Dan Air and the original CityFlyer (a brand reborn at London City). They have tried a mini-hub, promising more efficient connections, point-to-point, and the hybrid hub of the moment with a focus on leisure services. It already has lower costs, the original Gatwick mixed-fleet style contracts and now outsourcing much of the ground, so where could they start?

Arguably, this is an ideal chance for British Airways to reimagine and reposition the entire airline from what is essentially a complete reset. Repeatably through the pandemic, the airline has stated that Gatwick could be sacrificed in order to protect their position at Heathrow (their prised possession), but that now seems to have been more of a warning to the unions than anything else. In order for British Airways to substantially rethink Gatwick and the cost base, its going to need to substantially change the contracts and historically that is not something that comes to easy. A threat to have no base at all, entirely possible given the situation, is exactly what the airline needed to push it though.

The initial reports have suggested this is British Airways’ attempt at creating a ‘low cost’ airline at Gatwick. There are two or three obvious avenues this could lead.

The most simple is that everything remains the same and this is just an accounting exercise in order to reduce costs. So, Club Europe stays and the network stays very similar to what was on offer pre-pandemic. With economy (Euro Traveller), already some might say a low-cost product any way, there wouldn’t be too much obvious to the public that there was any difference. The brand would remain the same of ‘British Airways’, maybe just with the very small wording of ‘operated by British Airways Gatwick’ or something very similar to that.

Another option would be to mirror what we know as a low cost airline today, and its biggest competitor at Gatwick, easyJet and thus taking it away from what we would know as the standard British Airways European product, possibly with an all-economy cabin to create further efficiencies. We have seen this style operated before, on domestic services, before all short haul flights were brought in line to have a full business class service. To annex Gatwick retaining the British Airways branding but only offering an all-economy service could very well be confusing to the public though.

Therefore, creating a brand which is very close to British Airways, but not quite might be a good solution. think back to the 80’s and 90’s again when British Airtours (which was later rebranded as Caledonian) operated from Gatwick and Manchester as a leisure-orientated product which looked almost identical to the mainline airline. However, if you’re going to offer a low cost service, it has to be different – I like the name Speedbird, going back to the airlines roots.

If there were a distinction between Heathrow and Gatwick based upon the service, we could see a more substantial shifting of flights between the airports – even competing on different services depending on the time of year (something that Go was very conscious of doing when they stated in the late 90’s). Business class on leisure services are naturally popular with those redeeming miles, so sometimes you have to look at the overall value of it, rather than the specific earning on a flight.

We do already see some division between the two. Heathrow has many of the ‘premium’ and trendy leisure destinations like Ibiza, Mykonos, Santorini – with Gatwick serving those less so like Alicante and Malta. It could very well be the case that popular destinations like Malaga, Palma, Tenerife and Faro could be operated from both airports, with slightly different products.

For those who think a new brand will cost – the aircraft could have the same colour scheme – just with a different name at the front. If it needed a separate website, they could call upon Vueling to provide a low-cost option – along with reusing uniform and other BA branded merchandise. It doesn’t need to cost a lot.

With it due to be up and running for next summer, we should know the plan by Christmas. This is nothing new for Gatwick, British Airways has been trying to find the solution for years.

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