When London Heathrow Terminal 5 opened a little over five years ago (the opening was a day many will never forget!), much was made by BA of the introduction of its “Galleries” lounge concept. At Heathrow, this comprises the “flagship” Concorde Room for first class passengers and Concorde Room cardholders, a Galleries First lounge for BA Executive Club Gold cardholders, three Galleries Club lounges and a Galleries Arrivals lounge for arriving passengers. The lounges were designed by what was then known as Davies & Baron. The lounges feature bespoke Osborne & Little patterns, bold statements such as horse lamps as well as more subtle art and design statements.
With regard to the running of the lounges, BA chose not to follow the approach adopted by other airlines in appointing a hotel company to run the lounge. Qantas Airways’ First Lounges in Sydney and Melbourne and its recently opened lounge in Singapore are managed by Sofitel.
BA appointed Compass Group’s Restaurant Associates to run the catering services in the lounges and it is fair to say that standards were often some way short of expectations. In the Concorde Room in particular, BA’s flagship lounge, the service (which I can attest from personal experience) often lacked the charm and attentiveness you see at top hotels and restaurants that appears effortless but is in fact the product of an extremely well-honed and tightly managed operation.
There was some cause for optimism when in January of this year it was announced that BaxterStorey had won the lounge catering contract in a competitive tender. Since 1 May, BaxterStorey has been taking over responsibility for the catering at BA’s UK lounges. It’s perhaps a little early to reach conclusions. However, in the case of the BA Galleries First lounge at Heathrow (Full disclosure: I’ve not visited the lounges since the change in contractor, but will do so soon), there have been vociferous complaints from passengers about the reduction in the quality and quantity of food, specifically the availability of hot food outside normal meal times (see this discussion on FlyerTalk for example).
This is concerning, for a number of reasons and it is hoped this is a transitional blip. The lounge product is an important part of BA’s offer. The lounges attract short-haul passengers who might otherwise be inclined to try low cost carriers. The lounges also attract connecting passengers who often have a choice of a direct flight or an alternative connecting airport than Heathrow. Furthermore, the lounges also compensate for reduced catering on board aircraft specifically after breakfast on UK domestic flights and in economy on short-haul flights, and the reduced times during which hot meals are served in short-haul business class.
Furthermore, competition on lounge product is extremely strong at London Heathrow. Not only does BA compete against Virgin Atlantic and its universally acclaimed Heathrow Clubhouse but Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific and others have all made substantial investments in London Heathrow lounges. There arguably isn’t another airport in the world where so many non-resident airlines have made investments in their lounges. This is a reflection of the importance of the London market for business and first class passenger traffic.
More worringly, the reduction in availability of hot food points to a lack of appreciation on BA’s part (also in evidence on board aircraft) that business passengers are often not able to eat at normal meal times nor do passengers crossing time zones necessarily want to observe normal UK meal times.
BA has had a good run of late. After a tumultuous period up to 2012 which included severe operational problems at Heathrow, the self-inflicted wound that was the opening of Terminal 5, heavy financial losses post the collapse of Lehman Brothers and a long-running industrial dispute with cabin crew the airline has turned a corner. It has returned to profitability, it is taking delivery of new aircraft, adding new routes at Heathrow following the purchase of bmi and implemented a number of initiatives to improve service (the latter under the direction of Managing Director of Brands and Customer Experience, Frank van der Post).
However, with regard to catering BA seems to overlooked the fact that the UK’s, and specifically London’s, reputation for food has transformed beyond recognition over the past two decades. In spite of initiatives like “Height Cuisine” some product improvements (business class meals in long-haul premium economy for example), catering is still not a point of distinction for BA and it’s a shame BA does not set its ambitions far higher.