Willie Walsh uses BA brand power to put a spoke in ‘Boris Island’ airport hub project

January 19, 2012

British Airways may not be the brand it was when the Saatchi brothers landed Manhattan at Heathrow nearly 30 year ago. But, as national flag carrier, it still packs a punch: it’s still the largest UK airline based on fleet size, number of international flights and international destinations.

What’s more, as a founder member of International Airlines Group, BA has with Iberia created the world’s third largest airline service by revenue and the second largest service in Europe.

So when its chief steward (or perhaps that should be pilot), IAG chief executive Willie Walsh, says he doesn’t like something, the politicians have to listen whether they like it or not.

And right now, their ears will be ringing, because Wee Willie is beside himself with rage. Not only has he been denied ‘his’ precious third runway at Heathrow – more or less BA’s individual fiefdom and a world brand in its own right. But to add insult to injury, he has also been dragged into – as he sees it – the Government’s hare-brained scheme to build a mega-airport in the Thames Estuary.

Over his dead body. In a move reminiscent of Fool’s Mate in Chess, Walsh seems to have played a blinder on the politicians.

David Cameron, his Transport Secretary and Mayor of London Boris Johnson (who originally espoused the idea) have seemingly done little else over the past few days beyond eulogising the £50bn hub project at “Boris Island” and the transformative effect it will have on the British economy.

Er, no. Walsh crash-landed their airy delusions with a simple, crushing declaration. He’s not moving from Heathrow:

“I don’t think it can be financed. If I throw my weight behind it, people will expect me to be part of the solution financing it and I won’t. The only way you’d make it financially successful is say you’re going to build it and, as part of that, you’re going to close Heathrow. If you leave Heathrow open and you build this new airport, we’re going to stay at Heathrow.”

According to Walsh, these socio-economic engineering projects cause staggering disruption for precious little return, financial or otherwise. The new hub at Montreal didn’t work when they tried it; nor did the one at Kuala Lumpur.

If BA – which holds most of the Heathrow slots, not to mention exclusive rights to state-of-the art Terminal 5 – is not moving to Boris Island, none of its rivals will be either, for fear of losing what slots they have. Or so he reckons. And who is to call his bluff?

Manhattan may once have landed at Heathrow, but Heathrow will definitely not be landing at Thames Estuary Airport. Ah, the power of a global brand flexing its muscles.


Whatever you think of the British Airways ad, for God’s sake don’t mention the War!

September 23, 2011

 

Long awaited; now we’ve seen it: BA’s first major corporate advertising campaign in over a decade.

It represents a litmus test moment for agency BBH which, frustratingly, has had to battle through years of turbulence, in the form of industrial unrest, corporate mismanagement and radical restructuring, not to mention volcanic ash-cloud and a recession, before being allowed to do its first major work since wresting the account from M&C Saatchi in 2005.

But what do we – the viewers, the BA audience – think of it? Does it magnify the brand, or is it simply grandiloquent? Does it, in sum, hit the right note?

To my mind, the 90 second ad rumbles along the runway well enough but fails to reach the soaring heights to which it aspires. True, it’s beautifully shot with what appears to be loving attention to period detail. And it’s hard not to be touched by the romance and heroic derring-do of early civil aviation that underpins this hommage to BA’s corporate history. Then there’s all that gleaming, nostalgic aerial technology: the primitive, wind-in-your-hair De Havilland DH-9; the elegant Dragon Rapide; that rugged warhorse the DC3; the once-ubiquitous VC-10, as we move into the age of jet propulsion (though not – I note – the more innovative and earlier Comet, with its unfortunate tendency to metal fatigue in mid-flight); and on through the sound-barrrier with the space-age Concorde, the fastest airliner ever built.

Stirring stuff. But here the epic narrative plunges into bathos, with the appearance of BA’s contemporary fleet of 747s – utilitarian, safe and (relatively) economic no doubt, but hardly the epitome of legend. Indeed, the ad’s closing sequence merely reminds us that the transcendent feature of modern-day civil aviation is its banality. Today’s pilots may be terribly well trained and reliable but, in an age of advanced avionics and autopilots, the risks they run hardly bear comparison with those of their intrepid predecessors.

That is not my only criticism, however. If you’re going to do a nostalgic commercial, make sure it’s glamorous rather than merely portentous. Virgin Airlines knew exactly what it was about with its 25th birthday tribute (crafted by RKC&R/Y&R) 2 years ago; it’s shallow, showy bling, but none the worse for that in imparting a sense of credible excitement.

With the BA ad, by contrast, we’re in trouble almost from the beginning with that overwrought voiceover addressing its paean to the heroic pilot qualities of a bygone age.

And then – and this is the corker – there’s that extraordinary catchline – To Fly To Serve; a motto, we’re told, pinned to the chest of every serving BA captain. Close your eyes, and you can imagine Guy Gibson touching down in his Lancaster after destroying the Möhne Dam. Actually, I’m not joking. “To Fly To Serve” is the English translation of Volamus Ut Serviamus, the motto of 691 Squadron – which was formed on December 1st 1943 with a brief to provide the Royal Navy with aerial training targets around the Plymouth area.

Unfortunate coincidence? Someone not done their homework properly? Probably. But also a subliminal clue that most national carriers (so I’m informed) are military in origin. BA, for instance, is a lineal descendant of Aircraft Transport & Travel (just glimpsed at the beginning of the ad), which was set up during WW1 with a fleet of former military aircraft. Not, I imagine, an aspect of BA’s heritage that its management would care to dwell on.

It would be no surprise to find this particular ad line experiencing a rapid upgrade.


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