During one of the most challenging eras for the airline industry, British Airways (BA) did the inconceivable and reached one of its long-standing financial goals. This year, it achieved the objective set by its former CEO of operating at a 10% profit margin, generating $1.4 billion in net profit for FY 2008 (which ends in March for the airline), based on $17 billion in revenue.
Reaching this milestone gave the communications team a chance to give travelers - many wary of airlines cutting both flights and amenities - renewed confidence in a legacy carrier. However, the team knew these figures would not resonate unless consumers knew what it meant for their flying experience, says John Lampl, BA's VP of corporate communications for the Americas.
Thus, the company's four-person communications team in the US focused on telling the media how the profits are being reinvested into the airline for a premium flying experience. This includes the development of a new terminal at Heathrow Airport and the launch of a high-end subsidiary called OpenSkies, which offers direct flights between New York and Paris.
"At a time when a lot of airlines are cutting back or slowing down, we still have multimillion-dollar investments into [projects like] refurbishing our aircraft or our $30 million development project at JFK," adds Lampl.
But if a project doesn't get underway as planned, this strategy can backfire. The airline faced this when the opening of its anticipated Terminal 5 project at Heathrow was mired with flight cancellations and lost baggage earlier this year. Yet when the terminal reopened on June 5, the team got to work on renewing the project's credibility.
"We took [the media] on tours of the terminal and were just being honest with them about how it didn't go well at first, but now we've updated and improved the situation," says Lampl. "We tried to be very proactive on that."
Even though BA has enjoyed financial stability, the reality of rising gas prices has forced the team to convey some discouraging news, including grounding portions of its fleet. Last year, the company's fuel costs surpassed $4 billion, overtaking its staff expenditure for the first time, he added.
But BA only flies international routes from the US - a point that the communications teams leverages in its messaging, adds Lisa Lam, also a VP of corporate communications for the Americas at the airline.
"There is always a mystique of going to another country, whereas domestic travel is considered a chore or a commute," she says.
The company positions its flying experience as a thoroughly British one, telling consumers that their journey to the UK (and now with OpenSkies, to France) begins the moment they get on the plane. But the strategy of touting itself as a foreign brand makes it a challenge to gain attention from the US press.
"We do have to work a bit harder to get some of the proactive coverage in the [US] because we are a big fish in a big pond, but in the [UK] we're a big fish in a slightly smaller pond," Lam notes.
Besides consumer outreach, the team must also respond to the business media's interest in airline wheelings and dealings. Rumors often emerge about BA's interest in increasing the cap on how much foreign airlines can invest in US carriers, such as American Airlines or Continental, and the communications team usually can't comment.
"There is very little you can say until you have something official to say, especially when you're dealing with a publicly traded company," explains Lam.
Even so, BA's messaging as the market leader for premium international travel has strengthened in recent months, especially in the wake of several small business-class-only carriers, such as Silverjet, failing. But the communications team remains focused on reaching out to US travelers, who are often tied to American legacy carriers because of mileage programs.
"Our message is, when other airlines are focused on survival and potential consolidation, we're still focused on the customer experience," adds Lam.
Company: British Airways
President and CEO: Willie Walsh
Headquarters: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK
Key trade titles: Travel Weekly, Travel Agent, Business Travel News, Aviation Daily, Air Transport World, Airline Business
Comms budget: Undisclosed
John Lampl, VP, corporate comms, Americas; Lisa Lam, VP, corporate
comms, Americas; Michele Kropf, manager, corporate comms; Alan Proud, manager, corporate comms
PR agency: Porter Novelli (North America)