(MENAFN - Arab News) British Airways' (BA's) flights have not been affected by any unrest in parts of the Middle East region, according to Paolo De Renzis, BA's area commercial manager, Middle East. "The safety of our passengers and crew is our highest priority, and we are constantly monitoring and reviewing any situation where there might be unrest, to ensure that this isn't compromised," Paolo told Khalil Hanware of Arab News in an exclusive interview.
"We are committed to our customers and are investing over 5 billion in new aircraft, smarter cabins, elegant lounges, and new technologies to make life more comfortable in the air and on the ground," said Paolo, who was appointed to his current position in February 2009. He has since been responsible for BA's commercial operations in the Middle East.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
What is BA's strategy for the Saudi market and the rest of the GCC states? How many flights does BA operate from Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states and what is the seat capacity?
The Middle East is one of the most important markets for BA worldwide. Last year. we celebrated 80 years of flying to the region and we are committed to keep growing and building on this. As with all of the markets, we fly to, our strategy in the Middle East is to focus on our quality product offering and high level of service. BA is a trusted carrier, which provides a world-class service and we are continuously monitoring the market in order to understand and adapt to our customers' needs. Looking at Saudi Arabia in particular, this is a key market for us where we have seen excellent growth and so we are always looking for ways to further enhance our operations and offering here. Our strategy in Saudi Arabia revolves heavily around customer feedback and listening to what our passengers want, which allows us to tailor our service according to the local demands. A prime example of this is the changes we recently made to our Riyadh service; in line with customer demand we moved to a daily 747 aircraft on the route and introduced a new schedule. These changes mean that capacity on the route has increased by more than 1,000 seats per week, while the flights now arrive into Heathrow in the early morning, enabling customers to land in time for a full working day in London and making timings extremely convenient for those transiting in London and connecting through Terminal 5 to our North Atlantic destinations. We also recently made some changes to our Jeddah service. Following customer feedback, this service now operates from Jeddah to London on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for the winter season, while we are also pleased to announce that in the summer season we will be increasing our operations to Jeddah's King Abdulaziz International Airport to daily. Starting from March 31, 2013 the addition of Wednesday and Saturday flights to and from Jeddah will increase our flights from five per week to seven. The increase in flights will be introduced just in time for the university break in the UK, and school and university breaks in the Kingdom - one of the main travel seasons for families. By offering two additional flights per week, passengers will have even more flexibility and choice when it comes to their travel arrangements to and from the Kingdom. This winter BA is operating 68 flights per week between the GCC states and London - something which is set to increase to 70 flights per week from March 2013. The seat capacity on our routes between London and the GCC states is more than 45,000 seats per week.
What kind of services do you have for business travelers?
We have been investing heavily in our customer experience both in the air and on the ground and this includes our offerings in Club World (business class) cabin. We have completed a 300 million embodiment program of Club World as part of our 5 billion plan to enhance the overall customer experience. Club World combines elements from the home and business to create a sleek yet comfortable environment that is suitable for work, rest or relaxation. The wide, comfortable seats recline to a fully flat or 'z' bed position, which ensures rest and privacy during the flight. Club World and First passengers can visit the Galleries Lounge at London Heathrow's Terminal 5, which provides comfortable lounge seating and high-end amenities to suit the needs of business travelers. Passengers can also enjoy treatments at the Elemis Travel Spa within the lounge, or freshen up in one of the shower rooms while British Airways presses their suit. The lounge has unlimited free Internet access and a news zone where customers can catch up on the latest world events. Both business and leisure travelers can join Executive Club, our loyalty scheme free of charge. It provides a range of benefits, including exclusive access to special offers and promotions. Executive Club members earn Avios points when they fly with British Airways or our partner airlines. Avios can be redeemed for flights and upgrades, hotel stays, car rentals and more. Members can register their details for easy booking and save meal and seat preferences, while those in the higher membership tiers receive priority check-in, seat selection, lounge access and even free spa treatments at Heathrow and JFK airports. Customers can become an Executive Club member by registering at ba.com.
We also have another loyalty scheme, On Business, which was developed for our SME business customers who are hugely important to us. On Business allows SMEs to earn redeemable points for their company when their employees travel. On Business-registered companies can redeem points for reward flights, upgrades and hotel stays. As with Executive Club, it's free to join and companies only need two traveling employees to qualify. Customers can earn BA Miles and tier points in addition to earning On Business points for their company.
BA has marked its 80th anniversary of flying to the Middle East. How are you celebrating this landmark achievement?
In celebration of our 80 years of flying to the Middle East, we held some stand-alone events in the cities in which the first plane landed on its inaugural journey in the region. Our 80-year anniversary has not only shown BA's heritage and history in the region, but also the prominent role that we have played in the aviation industry as a whole. We have helped shape the aviation fabric of the Middle East in the last 80 years. In many ways we contributed to the development and growth of this region as air links helped connect nations and draw countries across the world a little closer to each other. For me, the most important thing about this milestone is that we have used it to consolidate our commitment to the region and work toward another successful 80 years here. Now is an incredibly exciting time for BA, with our ongoing investments paving the way for an even stronger presence in the region, which will build on everything we've already achieved over the last eight decades.
What is BA's worldwide network, and what network does the airline offer from Saudi Arabia?
BA has a worldwide route network that covers more than 170 destinations in 75 countries. This entire network is available to passengers from Saudi Arabia, who, by flying with us through Heathrow Terminal 5, can enjoy seamless, well-timed connections to our wide range of destinations in Europe and the North Atlantic.
Is BA investing in new aircraft, new cabins, new technology and new routes?
We are committed to our customers and are investing over 5 billion in new aircraft, smarter cabins, elegant lounges, and new technologies to make life more comfortable in the air and on the ground. As part of our 5 billion plan, we recently completed a 300 million embodiment program of Club World (business) in order to enhance the overall customer experience. Our First cabin is also an incredibly important cabin for us in the region, and is extremely popular with Middle Eastern travelers. As innovators in the airline industry, we set the benchmarks for flat beds in First and business class cabins, and we are investing 100 million in our new First cabins alone. We are now two years into this five-year investment project, and the roll out of our new First cabins is now over 80 percent complete meaning that customers in the region have already started to experience the new cabin on a more regular basis. We are also enhancing customer service through technology, and recently issued specially equipped iPads to 2,000 senior cabin crew across the entire British Airways long- and short-haul fleet. This enables the crew to have access to passenger information at the swipe of an iPad, providing real-time insight into our customers' preferences across a whole range of areas, from special meal requests to onward travel plans, enabling us to deliver a truly bespoke service. We review our route network on an ongoing basis, and have recently had some exciting new additions to our global network with flights launched from London to Chengdu in China and Seoul in South Korea.
What is BA's safety record?
Safety is our absolute priority and is never compromised. British Airways has a very good safety record - key to this is the fact that our pilots and crew are highly trained, with retraining sessions taking place at regular periods. Our aircraft maintenance is also of the highest standard with the safety of our crew and passengers our top priority. Testament to this is a recent report by the Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Center, which ranked British Airways among the top 10 safest airlines in the world.
Qatar Airways and Gulf Air recently won licenses to operate domestic flights in Saudi Arabia. Will this affect BA's strategy in Saudi Arabia?
As BA only offers international flights from Saudi Arabia, I wouldn't consider that the granting of licenses for domestic flights would impact on us in any way as we are talking about a very different offering. Having said that, we always welcome competition when it's on a level playing field. We are always looking at ways to improve our customer offering and keep in line with the competition. The Middle East market in particular is very competitive both from home market carriers and other European carriers, and we are very comfortable competing with both.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has raised its 2013 net profit outlook for the world's airlines by almost 1 billion. Where does BA stand?
While I am not able to discuss specific figures, BA has experienced fantastic growth in the Middle East and we are keen to continue building on that. In the last five years, we have strengthened our network in the GCC, increasing our flight schedule by 40 percent, with the passenger experience continuing to remain our utmost priority.
Does unrest in some parts in the Gulf affect BA's strategy in the region?
Our flights have not been affected by any unrest in the Gulf region. Having said that, the safety of our passengers and crew is our highest priority, and we are constantly monitoring and reviewing any situation where there might be unrest, to ensure that this isn't compromised.