British Airways CEO: Biggest Threat to the Airline’s Future is its Employees

In a speech at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London British Airways CEO Alex Cruz declared that ‘the main threat to BA’s future’ is the airline’s employees.

He’s been forced to walk that back and clarify his remarks on an internal website,

Cruz said that “there truly is only one thing that will stop us from becoming the best airline in the world: us”. He allegedly goes on to say that everyone must work together, embrace change and support one another.

It’s certainly true that British Airways staff have real challenges delivering service, I find their cabin crew to be mostly indifferent especially senior flight attendants from their Worldwide fleet that’s paid more and has greater seniority than their Mixed Fleet crews.

However it’s decisions by leadership that create the greatest threats. British Airways service has been… British.. for many years. What’s different are changes that have transformed BA into something closer to a low cost carrier over the past three years and changes to product have tracked with declining consumer perception.

Indeed British Airways revealed a little over a year ago that perception of the airline had fallen to the same level as United — in the immediate aftermath of United’s PR debacles which included their passenger dragging incident.

At the investor day in the fall for the airline’s corporate parent they identified the damage to their brand as also creating the greatest upside for them.

British Airways says they’re already well-positioned on schedule and price, and essentially the fact that their brand is at a nadir presents an opportunity because it can get better (“more value can be captured”).

Cruz’s comments that the greatest threat to the airline comes from themselves is accurate, but the threats come more from management than from employees. Unquestionably the airline would benefit from holding crew accounting for providing even average levels of service, but that’s difficult to do when crew are given mixed messages about what the airline is trying to be and trying to deliver to customers.

Credit: British Airways

There’s a huge opportunity with the carrier’s impending business class refresh to truly be a world class airline for premium customers, but decisions across the airline have to recognize that the London-based airline’s bread and butter is business travel and gear all of the carrier’s product and service decisions towards meeting the needs of its customers.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If you’ve been lucky enough to work in a good group with good management you can learn a lot. One thing is that it is much harder to build from bad to good than it is for a bad manager to destroy a good office/team/etc. One you get the bad leadership, morale starts dropping and then people start leaving.

    Generally people don’t like to leave their job since most people hate change so they stay too long. But once a person leaves, then it is easier for the next one and then its like dominoes falling since their friends/coworkers they like are no longer there.

    Honestly I haven’t had any bad experiences flying BA although it has been very infrequent but I will admit one of the first things I think about now with BA is bed bugs. Not exactly an image you want to project and more importantly, not something they have really worked hard on removing. Very poor PR.

    Bad management just destroys companies and sadly it is very easy to find bad managers (greedy, dictator-like, egotistic, etc.) compared to find a good manager (fights for their employees, rewards the hardest workers and not the butt kissers, etc.).

    Sadly due to stock options, short sighted investors, etc. all too often people only look at the short term instead of taking a long term view to making companies strong.

  2. I don’t think this is a uniquely BA issue. It’s my observation that tenure often creates ambivalence and a sense of entitlement.

    I’ve certainly seen this on US and Australia based airlines too. Maybe not so much on Asian and ME airlines…but to be honest I can’t really recall seeing many “senior” staff (at least in the cabin) on these airlines.

  3. I don’t think it is a secret that unions are the problem with the airline cost structure. When the cost base consists of high fixed costs for equipment leasing and volatile fuel prices, the only lever left to pull in a downturn is labor costs and union contracts make them inflexible.

  4. Wow! Nothing screams selfish, greedy, arrogant, out-of-touch, SOB better than belittling and talking smack about one’s own employees – and before an audience with the word “Royal” in the title no less!

    Go figure!

    Oh, please, selfish, arrogant & obscenely overpaid divas in the C-suites of many airlines (e.g., Alex Cruz, Doug Parker, Scott Kirby just to name a few) who seek only to pad their own, and their shareholders’, bank accounts with obscenely large, multi-billion £/$ annual stock buybacks pissing on the employees who do the heavy lifting and grunt work that makes their outsized compensation packages possible, along with belittling the fare paying passengers who pay the freight and make their C-suite jobs, Golden parachutes and the privilege of living out their lifetimes with free, positive space travel in the best seats in the skies are every bit, if NOT more of the problem than over-worked and underpaid line employees who rely on unions to protect them from vultures who nearly always whine about everyone being overpaid and working too little – except of course, themselves for whom their own already outsized compensation and benefits are never enough!

    [cue massive eye rolls, please! 😉 ]

  5. @Hendrik: “I don’t think this is a uniquely BA issue. It’s my observation that tenure often creates ambivalence and a sense of entitlement.”

    It is not tenure, it is unions. That is why long-term employees at Southwest (tenure earned) are so different from those at BA (tenured by the union).

  6. My wife and I just recently flew First Class on BA from LHR to PHL. The 747 was in one of the historic BOAC liveries. It was a wonderful experience. The crew serving us, Aimee and John, appeared to be by age and expertise to have many years of experience. The food and service was very good. The hard product compared favorably with our First Class flights on Lufthansa and very, very favorable for United’s Global First when we flew on them a few years ago.

    The biggest improvement that I would suggest is the boarding experience; we would suggest adopting something like Lufthansa did for First Class recently in Chicago. While waiting in the First and Business Class Boarding line, the Lufthansa agents collected the First Class passengers and moved them inside the boarding ropes, took our passports, and boarding passes, processed those, and then had seats next to the gate reserved for us until boarding.

    Employees are the most important assets of a company, especially in the service industries.

  7. BA has lost it way, racism within the airline is rife,the management is third class.

  8. With no realistic competition BA has a captive market and can behave like a monopoly..It just takes someone with the chutzpah of Alex Cruz, the right man at the right time, to enrich the executives and shareholders while grinding the clients and staff into the dust.
    BA has some unique records – the only airline to regularly run out of food choices in first class; the only airline to offload latecomers automatically 35 minutes ahead, even when the plane is not yet at the gate; and the most obscenely high carrier-charges on awards.

  9. @Jim Lovejoy: Irrelevant. Southwest’s flight attendants are represented by what is essentially a consultative channel. A far cry from BA’s belligerent industrial unions.

    Look at what happened when BA wet-leased Qatar. Passengers were unanimous that it was the best that BA had ever been. No change at the top.

  10. “However it’s decisions by leadership that create the greatest threats. British Airways service has been… British.. for many years.”

    So does that mean that the treatment I have had on all American airlines is reflective of your country in its entirety? Bizarre comment.

  11. I last flew BA economy from London to Rio return about 10 years ago and it was so bad ,I have not flown on them since .
    A relative flys on BA regularly in Business Class and says he never has any problems and suggests I try them again.
    I might .

  12. BA is in a no win situation – it’s an airline that competes globally against cost structures it cannot match, against profitability (or lack of need for profitability) it cannot match. Its bread and butter routes are serviced by everyone and anyone who can.

    To top it off, it needs continental Europe as a sheltered region to work in, yet Brexit constantly threatens this. If Brexit happens, IAG should focus investment on its EU-located airlines.

  13. @adp – they have a virtual stranglehold on the most premium most profitable airport in the world, and their cost structure is their own doing not something purely exogenous.

  14. @Gary Leff….. are you seriously suggesting that NO other airline has any advantage at its “home” base??
    @L3….ALL workplace discussions between union and management should be a “consultative channel” when it isn’t, its generally due to imposition by management. Your comments regarding the machinations of unions at BA show a severe lack of knowledge about the subject matter, your comments, as you so eloquently put it to another respondent, are irrelevant.
    The problem for BA is the obscene drive for ever increasing profits over quality of product, its mindset of creating mistrust amongst its employees, a trend set in motion with the appointment of WW and continued with constant puppet management changes at the top. AC was lauded as the most loved CEO to have been poached from another airline, his tenure would prove otherwise. Colin Marshall and Lord King must have turned more than once in their graves since they departed BA, they said on many occasions, the greatest asset BA has are its employees, the current management team see them as a threat to their future! The problems begin & stop at the top!!

  15. A typical block-headed comment and overall attitude from the marionette that is Alex Cruz. Willie Walsh’s arrogance and ego-swamped aura is all over this.
    The Worldwide fleet has been delivering excellent numbers for a lengthy time. Cabin crew are the face of any airline but BA has adopted a policy of cutting the nose off to spite its own looks for many years now.

  16. @Bob Adams: You are a johnny-come-lately to BA labor relations. The unions have a bloody-minded attitude that goes back at least to privatization (when the airline began to have to compete for customers). The airline has changed management without results. It was only when they changed employees (wet-leased Qatar) that service underwent a massive positive turnaround.

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