x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Strike contingency plans set at BA

Traveller's world In the almost-certain event of a strike, it remains to be seen whether BA will manage to keep a substantial number of flights in the air, or just deliver a bloody nose to the unions.

The mood at British Airways (BA) headquarters was robust last week after the union Unite balloted cabin crew on strike action. The airline's management have spent the past 10 weeks since the legal ruling that prevented a 10-day strike over the Christmas and New Year period preparing to minimise the disruption with a raft of contingency plans. Many of BA's ground and admin staff started their careers as cabin crew and, angry with their striking colleagues, they have happily signed up to hold the fort. BA claims that the 15-day training courses have been full. However, in the almost-certain event of a strike, it remains to be seen whether BA will manage to keep a substantial number of flights in the air, or just deliver a bloody nose to the unions. Around 79 per cent of the workforce voted in the ballot and of those 19 per cent voted against it, but whether they will cross the picket line is another matter.

With strikes ruled out over the busy April period passengers with tickets for travel in March can only cross their fingers and wait. Anxious travellers are being told that they can only get full refunds if their flights are cancelled.

The real reason that I was at BA's HQ at Heathrow was to examine its new first-class cabin. The first refitted plane, a Boeing 777, is currently flying around the world, having gone to Chicago on its inaugural flight. The plane just touched down in Dubai on Wednesday before returning to Heathrow. It will be tested over the next 90 days after which a US$155m (Dh569m) revamp will be rolled out across the fleet. It's the first real investment in first class for a very long time and a badly needed one. The airline was the first to pioneer a fully flat bed in first class in 1996 and once had the reputation of being the leader in the style stakes. But it has fallen well behind the curve and its fleet - as well as its reputation - is currently urgently in need of an overhaul. With bigger issues on the horizon, the launch created more of a whimper than a bang despite the presence of British actress Rachel Weisz on board to create a photo opportunity.

The service's key new features include a 60 per cent wider flatbed at the shoulders, a personal wardrobe, mood lighting, a buddy seat and a 15-inch TV screen with noise cancelling headphones. The blue and cream interior, "intelligent" mattress and 400-thread count Egyptian cotton bedlinen is all very plush, but the problem is that others have got there first. Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways already offer all of that plus sliding doors, so first-class passengers have their very own cabin. BA's passengers apparently did not want the cabins, according to their extensive research, instead curved sides provide a real sense of privacy. The only unique feature in the new BA First is personal electronic blinds which they boast as being the first for a commercial airline. They are indeed attractive, covering two windows in one go, but there is a limit to how much fun a passenger can have with electronic blinds. The three words that best sum up the new look are understated, classic and British - all deliberately so. And if the anticipated strike does not bring the airline to its knees, expect to see economy class go through a similar revamp later this autumn.

I can't decide who loathes each other more - Ryanair its passengers, or the passengers, Ryanair. I try to avoid the European budget airline where possible if only because I hate having to decide between taking a handbag or a laptop, due to their draconian policy of allowing only one piece of hand luggage (and that includes any shopping you might buy airside.) But being the only airline that flies from London to Klagenfurt in Austria I had no choice but to give them my business last weekend.

Ryanair's most bizarre policy is to disallow passengers on the front rows for take-off and landing when the plane is not full. Seated in the two seats next to me were three people - a mother with two children - and so I duly moved to one of the empty rows after take-off to give her more room. As we started to descend I was asked to move back the few centimetres into my original seat. Even the stewardess agreed that the move was ludicrous but said she feared for her job if I didn't do so. I asked her how she could possibly get into trouble as she was in charge of the cabin. "We have a lot of mystery passengers [read company spies] at the moment who take down notes," she replied. The given reason is that it helps to balance the aircraft - an explanation which made the Gulf region manager of Austrian Airways laugh out loud when I told the story at dinner that night. Thank goodness for that, if where I sat could unbalance the whole plane, I don't think I would ever fly again.

Back at home, there is at least some good news for consumers as the marketplace remains tough for hoteliers. Following the huge number of hotels that opened in the autumn of last year for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, there are now far more beds available than there are guests to fill them - a situation that is likely to continue until the various ambitious leisure and cultural projects on Saadiyat Island come to fruition.

Figures from 2009 from Smith Travel Research (STR), a research company, reveal a depressing picture for the industry over the last three months of the year. Hotel occupancy in Abu Dhabi went from 80.1 per cent in October (in itself an 11.3 per cent decline on the previous month) to 52.9 per cent in December. The average daily room rate fell rather more slowly from $328 (Dh1,205) in October to $292 (Dh1,072) in November and $257 (Dh945) in December. What hoteliers are battling with now is whether reducing prices further will attract more customers or just deplete their incomes.

Dubai's many hotels fared better, hoteliers having decided a while ago to drop their prices significantly. According to the same survey, occupancy was 74.9 per cent in October, 82.1 per cent in November and 71 per cent in December. Average room rates over the same period went from $265 (Dh972) to $295 (Dh1083) and $244 (Dh897). This more flexible pricing strategy was a result of emergency meetings a year ago between tourist chiefs and hoteliers, and occupancy figures suggest it has worked. The big question is whether Abu Dhabi, which has only just arrived at a similar problem, will do the same.