REPUTATION CHECK: BAA struggles to repair its image

Exclusive research by PRWeek shows how BAA's image problems are hitting its bottom line. Kate Magee reports.

Dan Milmo: transport correspondent, <em>The Guardian</em>
Dan Milmo: transport correspondent, The Guardian

Britain’s largest airport operator BAA has spent much of the summer beseiged by the media amid complaints over the way its airports are run and the departure of several senior level executives.

A barrage of negative coverage also focused on complaints over delays to passengers following increased secur­ity measures. Even Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said that Heathrow ‘shamed London’.

BAA has lost many key staff since its purchase last June by Spanish comp­any Ferrovial. Chairman Marcus Agius and CEO Mike Clasper left shortly afterwards, with Heathrow Airport’s CEO Tony Douglas finding the exit door two months ago.

Then, director of corporate affairs Duncan Bonfield and head of media Mark Mann sensationally quit last month amid reports of a media “lockdown” by Ferrovial that supposedly banned staff from talking to the media.

Now, a survey commissioned by PRWeek has found potential customers are actively avoiding flying, and particularly avoiding flying from Heathrow Airport. New chairman Sir Nigel Rudd has a battle on his hands, as the coverage in the wake of his appointment last month made clear (see graph, below).

Our Opinion Matters poll found 39 per cent of Britons are less likely to fly because of the negative press. People who travel eight to ten times a year are the most likely to have been influenced in this way, with 53 per cent trying to avoid flying.

Those polled singled out Heathrow Airport as particularly problematic, with 43 per cent saying they would be willing to pay more on their ticket to avoid it. And 28 per cent were willing to stump up £20-50 extra to fly from an alternative airport.

Here, Virgin Atlantic’s director of communications Paul Charles and The Guardian’s transport correspondent Dan Milmo give their views on what BAA should do to restore its reputation.

Analysis 1: the PR professional’s view

Paul Charles (l), director of comms, Virgin Atlantic: There are several ways BAA can restore its reputation. It needs to rebuild confidence in who’s running the company by showcasing new chairman Sir Nigel Rudd and its new management team. It should unveil its vision for how Britain’s airports should operate in future in an environmentally-friendly framework, such as using baggage belts powered by renewable energy and buses running on hydrogen fuel.

It also needs to: outline its strategy for putting passengers and airline customers first by implementing customer service measures such as 100 per cent online check-in and bag drops; show journalists queues are things of the past and that more security resources are now in place; and embark on an overseas roadshow to rebuild confidence in Heathrow for transit passengers.

BAA should outline plans to analysts to sell off parts of BAA that are no longer core (such as Gatwick) and use the launch of the new T3 later this year to show the Heathrow of the future. This can be followed up with T5’s launch and Heathrow East plans.

Overall, it needs to start proving why it wants to own Heathrow.

Analysis 2: the journalist’s view

Dan Milmo (pictured top), transport correspondent, The Guardian: BAA faces a battle on four fronts: passengers, politicians, regulators and the media. There has been an avalanche of anecdotal criticism recently from passengers queuing at terminals, which has soured the public mood over the past year. Now ministers are joining in, while regulators consider slashing its financial returns and ordering a break-up of the group. The Financial Times and Evening Standard’s campaign, which at its peak reached a story a day, startled BAA’s owner, Ferrovial.

Reports of a media lockdown suggested that Ferrovial is struggling to control the PR situation – as underlined by the fact that the departures of Bonfield and Mann became a big story.

BAA will probably feel it needs to be more proactive. At the moment, BAA is struggling to convince people of its side of the story. Giving the chairmanship of BAA to Nigel Rudd, a city big-hitter, will give the company a public face that passengers, politicians and the media can address. Behind the scenes it needs an equally statuesque corporate communications and public affairs boss.


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