In defence of British Airways – even after this weekend’s performance

Going places? British Airways aircraft at London Heathrow (Simon Calder )
Going places? British Airways aircraft at London Heathrow (Simon Calder )

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you

Full disclosure: due to the latest IT meltdown at British Airways, I spent most of Friday afternoon and evening at London Heathrow airport. Mine was one of more than 200 flights between Thursday and Saturday that were grounded by BA. My booked flight to Prague was cancelled, and the next was late. I finally reached my hotel room in the Czech capital at 1am.

BA also downgraded me: exceptionally, I had booked a business-class flight. All the prices to Prague this weekend were alarmingly high, and when a single Club Europe seat came up on the Avios frequent-flyer site I grabbed it. But when finally I flew, I was moved from a posh window seat to an economy middle seat.

To continue the demotion theme: after decades of clinging on by my fingertips to “Silver” status in the British Airways Executive Club, I have finally been relegated to “Bronze” – losing all kinds of benefits, from lounge access to free seat selection.

So what do I think of BA? Rather more than Which? magazine does. This month, “the UK’s consumer champion”, as the organisation describes itself, published its assessment of the best and worst airlines of 2023. British Airways is described as “a thoroughly mediocre airline”.

The survey continues: “On long haul, the story is simple. Fly anyone but British Airways and Lufthansa.” I find that a bizarre statement, presumably from someone who has never experienced the “Caribbean configuration” on Air France, for example. While I would do almost anything never to travel on the French airline again, the prospect of an intercontinental flight on BA appeals.

For almost 40 years, British Airways has had an annoying long-haul rival in the shape of Virgin Atlantic, keeping the “legacy” carrier honest and competitive. BA has a formidable safety record, and thousands of professional staff who strive to deliver good service even when the tech lets them down.

The “Best and worst airlines in 2023” survey gets weirder. No doubt to the relief of Ryanair, the Which? choice of worst airline this year is its arch low-cost rival: Wizz Air.

“Quite simply, it is to be avoided at all costs,” says Which? of Wizz Air.

A carrier that cancelled one in 50 flights within 24 hours of departure, and was late nearly half the time, deserves to be called out. As do British Airways and easyJet, which last summer cancelled many thousands of flights, reducing choice and forcing up fares, often with lousy customer service when passengers tried to sort out the mess the airlines had created.

Wizz Air admits it fouled up badly last year. The airline says: “Flights were too often late or cancelled, disruptions were not managed at an adequate level, and claims took too long to process. Wizz Air has learnt from this experience and is serious about making improvements.”

Which? points out that Wizz Air “gained just one star for seat comfort and cabin environment”. That’s odd. I have flown in enough British Airways, easyJet and Wizz Air planes to know there is nothing significant to choose between them. With 180 seats crammed into an Airbus A320, passengers should not expect the height of luxury.

“At current levels of service and comfort, its new long-haul flights to the Middle East and Asia are frankly unthinkable,” says Which? of Wizz Air. Yet this month I enjoyed a perfectly acceptable flight with the carrier from Luton to Tel Aviv – a five-hour journey – and I am certainly tempted to break the journey to Dubai using the Wizz Air link from Vienna to Dubai (5h 30m and typically £100).

For value for money, Finnair is rated (by 49 readers) as 4*, AIr France is rated 3*, and Wizz Air only 2*. On what planet are the national carriers of Finland and France able to offer much better value than a budget start-up?

Urging passengers to switch to another airline, with Wizz Air to be “avoided at all costs”, strikes me as a bizarre conclusion from an organisation that champions consumer choice. Try Wizz Air, British Airways and Lufthansa, and be glad for the competition they provide.

After this article was first published, Which? asked for the opportunity to respond. The full statement is as follows:

Rory Boland, Which? Travel Editor, said: “Rather than the view of a single travel journalist who travels constantly and perhaps accepts that disruption comes with the job, the Which? survey represents the views of more than 8,000 passengers who really value their occasional trips abroad and don’t want them to be ruined by avoidable disruption or terrible customer service from their carrier.

“We’d welcome Simon to join our passenger survey next year, where he can express his opinion on the best and worst airlines alongside thousands of other airline customers. This includes rating his business class experiences.”