Last week I went on holiday to Sicily. We could have flown a number of airlines from London: easyJet, Ryanair, Norwegian… Even Air Malta flies to Catania from Southend. But out of a deluded sense of loyalty we booked flights on British Airways and – because we had a long drive ahead of us and the plane was not due to land until the evening – we treated ourselves to Club Europe (business-class) tickets to ensure we were among the first off the plane. (Too bad nobody seems to understand the new initiative which tells you to board according to the number on your boarding pass, which means it is ignored and therefore business-class passengers are no longer first on the plane.)
It came as a surprise, then, that despite a printed assurance on our booking that the flight would be operated by British Airways, and no mention to the contrary on our boarding passes, the plane we boarded at Gatwick sported the livery of Titan Airways and was staffed by Titan crew. Titan, for those like me who hadn’t heard of it, is a Stansted-based charter airline, pioneers of what is known in the airline industry as the QC (for “quick change”) concept. As its website puts it, this “enables a rapid conversion between passenger and freight configuration [and] remains key to [its] operation”.
The aircraft was an A320 – the same plane that BA uses on this route – but Titan’s shabby fit-out feels much cheaper and more cramped, and seats do not recline. Sit in row one, and the precarious tray table that clips into one seat arm isn’t big enough to support a standard-sized laptop. On the port side, there’s no screen between you and the door, so you face the crew’s jump seats directly. (On the starboard side there is at least a partial partition between you and the galley.)
There’s also no curtain between the business and economy cabin, so anyone can use the toilets at the front. They are not, therefore, equipped with White Company products as they are in Club class on BA planes, in themselves rather a downgrade from the Elemis ones BA supplied until recently. Indeed the only apparent difference between Club and coach is the offer of complimentary drinks and a meal that began with an unappetising play on the idea of an insalata tricolore consisting of two stems of cold broccoli, a tomato, some cubes of feta and rubbery bocconcini.
In most respects the service, such as it was, mimicked that on a BA short-haul flight. The largely Italian crew, sporting exquisitely unbecoming brown plaid blazers and waistcoats, read the announcements haltingly from a script and did their best to flog sandwiches from the Marks & Spencer buy-on-board menu. Incidentally, BA charges their captive market £4.95 for an M&S Cheddar Cheese Ploughmans, which M&S sells for £2.29 on the ground, a hike of 116 per cent. I know this because, in what I can only assume is an admission of how mediocre the catering is, Club passengers on the flight were given the M&S On Board menu too, though not copies of BA’s reliably interesting Business Life magazine.
The reason for the change of carrier, it transpires, is that last year IAG, which owns BA, acquired a mass of take-off and landing slots at Gatwick previously used by Monarch, the charter airline that collapsed last year, thus increasing the number of flights it operates out of the airport by nearly a third. Without sufficient aircraft of its own to capitalise on these slots, it has had to bring in aircraft and crews from other airlines, a practice known as wet leasing.
Book a “British Airways” flight to a holiday destination in the Mediterranean or the Canaries from Gatwick this summer, and there’s a sporting chance you’ll be flying Titan. (To be fair, a quick trawl on ba.com reveals that they do now warn prospective customers before they select the flight, just as they do with codeshare partners.) Fly to Delhi or Muscat, and you may find yourself offered flights on a Qatar Airways-operated A330, which have been wet-leased pending resolution of the faults identified in the Trent 1000 engines on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners. Depending on the age of the replacement plane, this might even be a good thing, unless you’re booked in First or Premium Economy, in which case you’ll be compelled to downgrade because the Qatar planes have not been fitted with these cabins.
Maybe I was just unlucky not to have been warned of the change of carrier at any stage. But it left a bad taste, as did the lack of lounge access at Catania on the return leg. Fly business (or attain the silver or gold level of its Executive Club), and you are promised the use of not just BA’s own lounges, but “more than 650 oneworld partner lounges”. Not at Catania though, where the oneworld website advertises a lounge, but, as the receptionist took no little glee in telling us, BA customers are ineligible to use it. Usually in such circumstances (there’s no lounge access at Cancun, for example), Club passengers are given vouchers to spend in the airport’s bars and restaurant. Here you get nothing.
Much has been written on British Airways’ chairman and chief executive Alex Cruz’s plan to turn BA into what is essentially a budget airline at the back of the aircraft and a full-service one at the front. (Business-class passengers may occupy a small minority of seats, but they are estimated to generate up to half the airline’s revenue.) But on the basis of this trip, I couldn’t help but sense that the airline cares as little for its premium-paying passengers and most loyal customers as it seems to for anyone else.
- British Airways cabin crew begin two-week strike in pay dispute
- British Airways says IT systems running again after weekend outage
- British Airways CEO puts cost of recent IT outage at 80 million pounds
- With flights back in the skies, British Airways must now repair damaged reputation
- British Airways says Heathrow check-in problem resolved
- British Airways resumes flights from London after IT outage but many passengers still wait
- Global computer outage grounds British Airways Heathrow, Gatwick flights
- British Airways customer claims he was forced to sit in urine-soaked seat
- Passengers covered in bed bug bites after British Airways flight
- British Airways employee claims he was fired for his man bun