American, BA, Iberia Need to Eliminate Differences or Do a Better Job of Highlighting Them

Last week, American and its joint venture partners British Airways and Iberia were here in Southern California to pitch the benefits of the joint venture to the region. The airlines are launching a lot of new service here in the next month, and they say the joint venture is a big reason why. I, however, was more interested in how the airlines were going to deal with their sometimes large product differences. The result? There doesn’t seem to be much concern about that.

As you probably know, BA and Iberia are now co-owned by the same umbrella company so they are slowly beginning to act more like one airline these days. All of these airlines have been in the oneworld alliance together for a long time, but it’s only in the last year that they’ve been granted antitrust immunity to effectively operate as one airline over the Atlantic. This is something that Delta/Air France (including Northwest/KLM) and United/Lufthansa have had for a long time so these guys are playing catch up. And they were in LA to spread the gospel about how great this is going to be.

Some of the point here is to promote new service. Iberia starts its nonstop from LA to Madrid soon, BA is adding San Diego to London again, and American is adding a bunch of regional jet flying around the Western US. Oh, and LA to Shanghai too. With the increasingly tightened cooperation, it had me wondering about the onboard experience. Did they think that it was an issue that the experiences could be so different on the airplane? The answer was no.

We need to look no further than the offerings in LA to see that there is a stark difference, even in coach. Iberia, for example, has no powerports and only overhead video screens on its flight to Madrid. American’s London flight has looping movies in each seat with scattered cigarette-lighter style powerports. BA has full audio/video on demand and no powerports. Meanwhile, BA has a premium economy section that the others do not have. And the business class experiences are very different as well. BA has a full flat bed while Iberia and American have different angled lie flat seats. And Iberia doesn’t have a First Class while the others do. And yet, you wouldn’t know a difference existed if you book online at the airline website. Here’s a shot from BA’s:

As you can see, you know the name of the airline that’s operating the flight but that’s about it. If you click on the class of service, it just gives a vague description of what you get on BA in those classes and not the other airlines. You can go to the more robust descriptions on the BA website and there are links to American and Iberia from there, but this assumes that people think in advance to ask if there’s a difference. One solution would be to work toward a combined product standard, but they don’t like that idea.

Jose Maria Alvarado, General Manager of the US and Canada for Iberia said, “I don’t think the passenger wants the same cookie cutter service.”

I think there’s a big difference between having similar product offerings and offering “cookie cutter” service. But let’s assume he’s right and that everyone loves each of these airlines for the differences they offer. Shouldn’t they at least be making a greater effort to describe product differences in the booking process?

Kevin Burns, Regional Director of Western USA and Canada for BA said that “to bias the decision process isn’t to our benefit.” Again, there’s a wide gap between informing the customer of the options and biasing the decision process. My hopes aren’t high that we’ll see this change anytime soon.

This isn’t a problem that only these airlines face. Every airline entering into a joint venture or any close business cooperation has to learn to either eliminate the differences or do a better job of explaining them. I wish more airlines would focus on this, especially as they get tighter and tighter with their partners.

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