Archive for July 2010

‘Unite’d they fall at BA

It is now getting really disappointing as, after the most recent ballot, the Unite union claims another mandate to strike. They claim the cabin crew are behind them but I would question that after looking at the following vote results.

BA has around 13,000 crew of which about 11,000 are with the disputing union (Unite). The number of crew to actually vote was 5,105 (approx 39% of the workforce) and 3,419 wanted to strike. This means the percentage of BA crew voting to strike was a mere 26%. A mandate to strike? I don’t think so. Especially as I hear that because there is a little remaining internal solidarity amongst the crews it was enough for those who no longer wish to strike to not vote at all this time around. Otherwise it would have been a very different result.

One of the saddest things about this is the impact this dispute has had within the various factions amongst the cabin crew. Many of the main strike supporters are well known in BA circles as long time militants and non representative of the main workforce. Separately some non striking crews have had their cars vandalised in the BA secure staff car parks and face great hostility when they try to work. I cannot see the scars of this strike action healing for years to come let alone by the ultimate end of the dispute. They have turned against each other in a very emotional manner.

Meanwhile the union is fighting for its future credibility after making promises of regaining concessions and lost travel perks as the strike intensified. They got it horribly wrong as, from what I can see, BA has drawn a clear line in the sand and said not only ‘no further’ but ‘you will get less’ as the action continues. Whilst this has been going on BA has not only won the support of its investors, many clients and most TMCs but also issued new contracts to non striking staff and started employing a whole new workforce.

So now we have a different kind of ‘impasse’. OK, the current dispute is no nearer resolution and the strikers are still being used as cannon fodder by Unite in it’s increasingly political campaign but meanwhile BA have quietly advanced plans to make the striking crew surplus to requirements. They must be sharpening the axes at H.Q as I write.

Is there going to be a winner in this dispute? Yes there certainly will. BA will finally clean up a significant amount of the industrial mess left by previous executive management and ultimately build foundations that will enable them to compete more effectively with their rivals. But there will be losers too. A union with a bruised ego and a whole lot of crew out there trying to find new jobs only to discover that the pay is not what they have come to expect. Ironic really.

Brushes with the rich and famous 1 – Royalty

During my career I have had the honour (sometimes dubious) of meeting the royals on a number of occasions. To be honest, all of these meeting have left an indelible mark in my mind, and on one occasion my buttocks, as I will explain. In fact I might as well explain that one first.

I was based in Zambia at the time they were hosting the Commonwealth conference which was to be opened by the queen. One of my jobs was to ‘look after’ the crew of the two giant Hercules cargo aircraft that fly out in advance with the Queen’s essential supplies. In those days (and possibly even now) everything the Queen uses, eats and drinks was all flown down in advance under considerable security by the UK armed forces.

The aircrews had a great time. Although Zambia is one of the most fertile countries in the world it was ravaged by shortages of even the most basic foods and almost everything had to be imported. Only problem was that it was almost impossible to arrange and here is where the crews used to come in. I would be prepared to wager that at least 25% of the aircraft payload consisted of cigarettes, apples, butter, oil and other such important staples. These were used to both sell and act as guaranteed invitation material to any party or event in the country during their stay. There was one expatriate lady who was famous for doing practically anything for a few sticks of celery

Anyway, the point behind this story is that I was allowed a sneak peek at the Queen’s ‘treasure trove’ of supplies and amongst it was two toilet seats. Apparently she always takes her own plus an aide that knows how to fit them on any type of toilet appliance. I am afraid I could not resist trying them . Out of respect to the monarchy I kept my trousers on but unfortunately my belt got stuck. I struggled and struggled until I popped out but for the next few weeks I had an indelible bruise to remind me of my heresy. Every time I see the Queen now I think of what we have in common!

Since that occasion I have had quite a few brushes with royalty including being studiously ignored by Prince Andrew, winked at by Diana, sworn at by Princess Anne and laughed at/with by Prince Harry but my most contentious was an altercation with Prince Philip. My wife still totally disagrees with me about this but I think his highness was totally out of order! After all he is known as a no nonsense, say what you like, approachable type of person. I wonder who you think was right.

We had been invited by Emirates Airline to attend a charity cricket match in the grounds of Windsor School between the airline and the Lords Taverners charity team. All the great and the good were due to attend the event and the guest of honour was to be Prince Philip (their next door neighbour). He swept into the ground and immediately worked the guests up into a frenzy of excitement by ‘chatting’ freely to all. He then headed off to his specially allotted seat and drank his usual bottles of brown beer. It was all very nice and a very English kind of event.

All went well until lunch. I was genuinely very honoured to find we had been put on the top table (of twelve place settings) just two seats away from the Prince with only Mike Gatting (the cricketer) and his charming wife between us. Prince Philip turned up last and then there was a rather long and embarrassing silence. Nobody was being introduced so I spoke up and told him who I and my wife were. It was as if I had thrown a hand grenade on the table. An audible gasp came from the Prince. He recoiled back and threw his hands in the air. His equerry finally appeared and manhandled me aside. “You NEVER speak to the Prince before being spoken to first” he muttered menacingly. “He will be in an awful mood now” he added. And so it was. Prince Philip sat down and would barely utter a word to anyone. Can this be the man who has made so many gaffes and unwise comment over the years I thought?

My wife reckons it was my fault. Do you? My view is that, in this modern world, politeness supersedes traditional etiquette. Needless to say that despite him being the husband of our Queen he will not be on my Christmas card list this year. Maybe someone told him about that toilet seat?

Why small is becoming big in Business Travel.

In many of the key driver markets like the UK the desire by TMCs to move back into the SME market has grown and grown without any sign of let-up. A strange phenomenon one might think considering they have spent the last few years actively trying to get them off their books. There must be a good reason for this re-think and of course there is. It’s because of that good old trio economy, technology and supplier strategy. As a result there is never a better time to be a small customer in business travel.

You see the big organisations have lost the allure they used to have. They now become harder to win and are on longer contracts. They demand more and pay less and the suppliers have done their deals direct with them which make the TMC more marginalised than ever. At the same time the TMCs have caught up with each other to the point that a competitive edge to swing an account gets smaller. So, in the main, TMCs get to keep what they have got (especially with the advent of globalisation) and, if they actually lose something big it hurts real badly. It is often more expensive to lose an account than the benefit you get if you keep it, if that makes sense, which is another reason why little moves!

So what is left out there that is flexible, relatively easy to handle yet very valuable cumulatively especially to suppliers. The answer of course is the SME who demand a good deal but does not carry all those bespoke costs of a large client. If you win one then great, but if you lose then it doesn’t hurt much. TMCs can use all those fancy gizmos created for (and funded by) the major clients to provide added value for peanuts to SMEs. The SME also can be a great deal easier to handle in both operational and financial terms and TMCs resources can be flexed to move this business to the optimum point in their structure. Another consideration is that, in a growing market, the big TMC is beginning to realise that today’s SME is tomorrow’s mega client. Finally, TMCs still need suppliers and suppliers want the SME market but cannot afford to go after them so a consolidation point via an agent is very attractive.

So what is a SME supposed to do? Well, if I was them I would shop around. I would be less interested in the transaction fee I was being charged and more impressed in what supplier savings and efficiencies I would get. I would go to the big TMCs and ask what extra value they can give by sharing out some of those big client products benefits. I would then ensure that I would get agreed levels of service continuity and not have my team poached every time there is a staff shortage with a bigger client.

So simplicity, flexibility and small are all beautiful……for now.
The large corporations? If I was them I would sit on my ego and work out how to make myself more attractive and important again.

Paupers in Paradise

One of the most unusual things about working in the travel industry is that you can sometimes experience activities and lifestyles totally out of proportion with your personal wealth, or in this case, lack of wealth.

Many years ago when Judith and I, recently married and poor as church mice, had just such an experience. It nearly resulted in a quickie divorce on the grounds of emotional cruelty as I will explain.

We were in our mid twenties and had an enormous mortgage. I had a relatively junior sales job with British Caledonian Airways working in the head office department that supported their West Africa routes. They had just started operating to Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast and all the operators and hotels in that country wanted a slice of the new business that the service would generate from the UK.

As I mentioned earlier we were broke but, like most airline people (except striking BA cabin crew) we got great flight discounts and perks including free tickets on new routes for ‘familiarisation’ reasons. A very kind and enthusiastic contact in Intercontinental Hotels came up with a complimentary room in their 5 star hotel in Abidjan city centre. This hotel was known at the time as the most prestigious and luxurious hotel in Africa. So off we went to what we expected to be a cheap but heavenly holiday.

It had started so well with a black hotel limousine picking us up at the airport and whisking us to the hotel. Mind you the driver looked pretty appalled when he saw our beat up old cardboard cases and various plastic Woolworth bags. The hotel GM came out to greet us and escort us to a special top floor suite and took about half an hour to explain all the amenities including introductions to our personal butler. The first and last time we ever saw him as I will explain.

When he left Judith strolled over to the fridge and was about to open a can of coke when I picked up the room service and mini bar price list. Stop! I yelled as that drink alone would have exhausted half of our daily food budget. It got worse from then on and we clearly could not manage such food and drink costs In fact it got so bad that we spent some evenings sitting in the bar sipping one beer between us and eating every last free pretzel and pistachio nut in the place. At one stage I ended up sauntering around the coffee shop waiting for someone to leave their table. As soon as they got up we slipped into the still warm seats, ate anything left and ordered a small snack using the tip money that had been left. I still feel guilty about that!

On the final evening of what was a miserable and hungry week the hotel General Manager invited us to dinner at their ‘signature’ restaurant that revolved around the top of the hotel tower. He insisted we try some of their special cocktails before dinner and Judith took enthusiastically to one called a ‘Tipsy Elephant’ which was a lethal mixture of three spirits. These on a half starved stomach could have only one effect. This peaked when the waiter brought out a plate with a fresh, live and uncooked lobster to get her approval before preparing it. To his horror she grabbed the offered lobster, put it on her plate and pulled a claw off. ”Look” she slurred. “It’s undercooked”! I quickly tried to explain that she must have caught sunstroke and wheeled her away as she yelled “I am not going to stay here to be insulted” or something similar.

We thought that would be the end of the nightmare but the worst was saved for the end when we went to check out the next morning. We were presented with our very meagre bill and I handed over my one and only credit card whilst praying we had not exceeded its credit limit. As feared the clerk started looking concerned and kept tapping entries into her computer. She then looked up and said she was sorry but we would need to wait for the duty manager to talk to us about our bill.

We sat squirming for a few minutes and noticed curious glances from various other members of staff who knew about our bill. Finally the manager arrived with a very serious expression on his face. “Do you not like our hotel” he asked. “Yes, it is lovely” I replied whilst trying not to be intimidated. “Do you not like our restaurants”? “Where have you been eating” “Is our food not to your standard”?

By this time I was getting very embarrassed and annoyed as people were beginning to stop and listen. I asked him directly why he was asking us so many questions. “Well”, he said “we have never had any guests who are on our VIP “all inclusive” basis spending next to nothing!

Judith’s head turned slowly and menacingly towards me. “Can you explain what you actually mean by all inclusive she asked. Certainly madam, he replied, it means you could have eaten or drunk anything you wanted free of charge for the duration of your stay in our hotel.

She nearly physically attacked me there and then. I did not know I muttered. Wait until I get you alone she replied icily as her tummy rumbled. I paid for my error over the following months but I learned one important lesson. Never go anywhere you cannot afford and also listen carefully when someone makes you an offer you will not want to refuse.