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

American, British Airways, Iberia

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:

BA Codeshare Display

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

  1. It’s a little mean to single out BA/IB – these inconsistencies occur in all of the major alliances and not all of the booking sites even make it as clear as the screenshot above. How many people have booked on trans-Atlantic segment sold as Lufthansa but operated as United and offering few of the amenities they were expecting?

    1. Well Rory, I must disagree with you on your opinion regarding Cranky highlighting the differences in BA -IB. I believe that, as Cranky has pointed out, people are interested in any differences between airline services and prices. To some of us travelers who fly frequently to Europe this can be important. Lets start with fares; the round trip to Madrid from LAX is currently being advertised by IB at $769 round trip Vs. $2937 for BA. Granted the level of service is different, but not enough to demand over a $2,000 more. 2nd, I personally will do anything to by-pass Heathrow due to log-jam volumn of people and super long Security lines. It makes this a connection nightmare.

      Therefore, if you are traveling to other destinations in Europe connecting in Madrid is definitely worth consideration.

      I think that as more aircraft are replaced by Iberia services with be upgraded. Travelers need to ask any questions regarding services DIRECTLY with each airline, as you cannot expect one airline to know what a rival line offers. AND – Do travlers REALLY need ALL of the amenities offered if you can save a bundle of money by doing without some of them Rory??

      Finally, I agree with Cranky, it would be very informative, convenient and customer friendly to have ONE WORLD list any differences in services that share destinations. They have had plenty of time to plan for this and issue some level of information for travelers. They could start by advising if there are any differences in baggage fees, carry-on rules, etc.

    2. I only singled them out because of the conversation we had. As I mentioned in the last paragraph “This isn’t a problem that only these airlines face.”

  2. I know you’re talking about onboard product, but that’s hardly the only annoying inconsistency with oneworld.

    I had a trip booked in Club on BA with miles from JFK to HKG, through LHR. I think it was 200K or 240K miles. It was over Christmas, and the snow at LHR forced me to cancel the trip.

    So I rebooked, on BA’s site, but the new dates let me see other oneworld options, and I ended up booking First on CX for 150K miles. Nonstop from JFK.

    So 200K in Club with a stop or 150K in First without.

    Basically, as your point above notes, the customer has to do all the work – and a lot of it, to figure out what’s best. Or hire Cranky to do it.

  3. It’s a good point, although (as you note near the end, Cranky) oneworld is hardly the only alliance to suffer from this problem. With UA, for instance, you’d have a flat bed in business (well, at least on some aircraft) whereas it’s be angled lie-flat on Lufthansa — not sure the Star Alliance airline websites make the differences clear, either.

    Note — this isn’t only an issue across multiple airlines. It’s an issue WITHIN airlines, too, given the variation in aircraft. Most every U.S. airline at the moment has variation in its fleet, domestic and international. On UA, 777s still are getting an updated business cabin; there’s variation in coach, too (2-5-2 on old 777s vs. 3-4-3 on new, not to mention the IFE differences…and that’s within one aircraft type. Loop in the ancient 747s with overhead video in coach and you have even more differences). On DL, they are installing flat beds; some international aircraft have it, many don’t. Same with CO. Same with US. Domestically, you have the big RJ/mainline difference, but you also have differences in IFE, power ports, etc. More than not providing great information with an “additional click,” some airlines nearly mislead — on United, when you buy a ticket online, you are given the option to upgrade to United First. The picture next to the upgrade box is of the new international first, even as your itinerary is entirely domestic on A319 and A320 aircraft — there’s a small note that says the cabin pictured is for 747 and 767s, but the picture that’s used to entice you is of a first class seat you never have a chance of seeing domestically (except in the rarest of circumstances).

    The only airline I’ve seen attempt to make this substantially clearer to the customer is Delta with all of the icons on its new website.

    All goes to show that doing your research as a customer is critical.

  4. I flew LHR-LAX on an AA 777 a few months ago in the back, and they had full-on on-demand video, not the looping videos that they’d had several years ago when I took an AA 777 EZE-MIA. I don’t know if they’re in partially through upgrading the fleet, or if they have route-specific amenities.

  5. Do any of the alliances have a big notice to passengers that says something like “service may vary” or something like that when you book codeshare flights?

    Sounds like half the people are surprised if the carrier who operates the codeshare flight has better service then who they thought they booked space on, and the other half will be surprised if the carrier who operates the flight has aweful service compared to which carrier they booked and thought they were flying on.

    At least maybe people will learn a lesson if they like the service of one partner over the other, they should make sure to never book a flight with out knowing who exactly operates the flight.

    1. I don’t think there are any notices like that. They certainly display the operating airline, but that just implies that there’s a difference without spelling it out explicitly.

  6. The heart of the matter is what CP says above: This isn’t just an issue with alliances or certain airlines, it’s an industry fact that there’s no consistency in service and product. That spans within airlines (as CP points out) just as much as within alliances. Even airlines that are good at this (e.g. Delta, or Emirates) suffer from inconsistency when one flight is late, or one F/A has a bad day, or one seat’s power outlets aren’t working.

    It’s just really really hard to have consistency across such large and dynamic organizations with so many external variables.

    To top it off, there’s no incentive for airlines to fix it because the passenger chooses based on price (with some exceptions of course, but that’s a general rule).

    So in Brett’s example above, if a pax gets on BA and has a wonderful time, they’ll still choose Iberia (or United or Delta, etc.) next time around if it’s cheaper, whether you highlight the differences in product to them or not.

    I agree with the IB/AA/BA approach. There’s almost zero value in creating any product commonalities at this level, so why bother? Better communication of the differences (a la Delta) would certainly be helpful, but I can’t imagine it’s a priority.

    I’m not saying I like it or agree with it in principal, but it’s the right business decision.

    1. I’m not necessarily arguing for product commonality but at least a base product standard might be good. Delta is a decent example of this internally. The proposition in biz is going to be that you get direct aisle access and a flat bed. They have several different types of seats on their airplanes but you will (once the conversion is done), always have direct aisle access and a flat bed, or so they say. (I guess the 757s aren’t included?)

      But I’m also not suggesting that they should all be identical. I’m suggesting that the key is at least communication. I think we agree that it would be helpful. It shouldn’t be a top priority but it wouldn’t be hard to have a link to the other airline’s product or something more intuitive in the booking process.

  7. With the recent mergers (like UA/CO and DL/NW) the differentiation WITHIN an airline can be huge. Like I bought a ticket on DL for a 757 flight to Europe. Not great to fly narrowbody to Europe, but I thought at least I’d get their decent entertainment system. Then I realize I’d be flying an old NW plane with no AVOD.

    Not much you can do, though, since few people have much of a choice between aircraft — unless you’re making a connection anyway or there are multiple nonstops on the same airline with different airplanes between your city pairs.

  8. Living in the past as I do, and opinionated as I am, I’m convinced that too many airline managements think ALL passengers are morons who could care less about service or aircraft type and who make all buying decisons based on price, at least that which airlines might make known, subject to “other fares might be lower and additional fees might apply!”

    Code-shares, regardless how many asterisks denoting disclosure are made, should simply and finally be outlawed. Likewise, “operated by…” would be outlawed. “Alliances” would be allowed but in no way to suggest what is, or might be, isn’t. “Partnering” is fine, but be careful how you characterize it.

    Yes, we’ve all met a few passengers who are morons, but most of us do have an appreciation of service differences, be they born of culture, region, aircraft type, aircraft features, what have you. Stop this insanity!

    1. Well, by outlawing code share or “operated by…” flights, it would be impossible to get many places in the world since you would only be flying one carrier (unless you would want to buy several different tickets which would be more expensive, more trouble, and still be on different airlines). Also, within most major airlines there is a variation in aircraft and so outlawing code sharing wouldn’t necessarily fix anything.
      Also, I do think that many people (me included) are “morons” who buy tickets based on price. I am willing to pay $50 for a nicer long haul flight, but not $2000 more. Besides, if money isn’t an issue and you want good service, fly business or first class.

      1. Fred, before code share you were still able to get places in the world, it was called interlining, basically one airline sold a flight on another airline.. Of course sometimes this led to long waits in the terminal because the airlines couldn’t coordinate schedules.

        1. True, but that wouldn’t do anything for fixing the service or aircraft differences, so there really is no advantage to interlining when code sharing is possible

  9. You missed the glaring difference between the carriers….shall I say elephant in the room?

    Buy a first class ticket from Heathrow to San Jose, CA via LAS and you get to spend the last hour and 15 minutes of flight time stuffed into one of American Eagle’s lawn darts, separated from your carry-on bag with your knees tucked nicely under your chin. Why rent a limo to go somewhere only to walk in the pouring rain the last several blocks?

    1. That’s not just a BA-AA issue. You can use that example with any airline. For example, I have a client going LAX-Madrid-Bordeaux. That last leg is on Air Nostrum, a regional partner for Iberia. At least on the 50 seat level, you get the same crappy experience across most airlines!

      1. Agreed, but at American you’re chance of ending up on an ERJ-145 between large metropolitan markets is increasing as of late. When flying between points A and B, if both A and B are among the top 50 markets in size of population, one should expect the comforts of an E170 for at least some of the flights. Gawd forbid a 737 in the mix once or twice a day. And yes, I’m aware AA has no E170s, but at what point do the old-school trunk carriers quit using ‘scope’ as an excuse? Need something smaller than a 737? Fine. Then buy some ‘real’ airplanes and say to the pilot group, “I need to know how little I can pay you to fly these and it better be less than I’m paying you to fly my 737s.” Until then, contract flying will increase, as will the discomfort. Save the ERJ-135/45s for little airports that can’t handle a 737 or the 20 min hop to the hub.

      2. Wait, thats the solution, fly 50 seaters everywhere, then everyone will have the same crappy experience. We’d just have to strap huge fuel tanks under the CRJ200s to get them across the pond!

    1. I keep finding conflicting information on that and didn’t think to ask Jose. Are you sure it’s flat on all long haul? Do you have a source that shows that definitively? The Iberia website doesn’t seem clear. It says there’s a “bed” but doesn’t say if it’s full flat or lie flat.

  10. Given that BA and Iberia are now under one company I’m sure there is more likelihood of these inconsistencies to be ironed out. American is going to be the tougher one to bring into line. I will certainly be very careful how I book on ensuring that I only book on BA flights. In seat power aside, the BA product is far superior across all classes.

  11. Having flown both airlines on long distance economy I can only say there is a world of difference between the comfort and service level offered between BA and Iberia. That would certainly bias my decision process, but I guess it’s also an experience you have to make yourself.

  12. Eh, I don’t think this is a huge issue. It would be ridiculous to propose that the availability of movies and powerports and the seat angles should be listed on the fare results page. If someone wants a particular amenity, they can go on the operating carrier’s website and see if it’s available, alliance or no alliance.

    1. I agree. That would be ridiculous to put all that info in there. But a link to the offered product would be nice at the very least.

      1. I don’t think it is too ridiculous. Delta does a great job at their website of communicating what amenities they have on the planes they operate. Its just another step to add that for their code share partners…

  13. Where a big issue comes in is like DL/AF. DL has 2-cabin aircraft over the Atlantic and AF 3-cabin. DL sells it’s front cabin as J/C space, but it’s their ‘first’ class service. But if you book a flight as DL in J/C and the aircraft is operated by AF with it’s 3-cabin aircraft, guess where you are sitting, in business class on the AF aircraft. That can make a big difference if you were expecting to sit in the front cabin and now find yourself in the second/business cabin. Since not all products are the same with alliance partners or their aircraft, that lie flat bed might turn into an old fashion business cabin or seats that don’t fully recline.

    1. While it’s not vary big Delta’s website does say your class like “Business (J)” if it’s nonstop while if you take a flight on AF for example it will show “Business (J) + Others” and if you click on others it will tell you what class you are traveling on AF. Just need to click around on all of the tabs on that particular itinerary.

  14. I think most people are just after price and that explains to a large extent why you see the cramped seats and questionable service everywhere in coach. For those where the comfort/service make a difference and they can’t afford business or first, they are going to take the time to see what is being offered before they press the purchase button. There are numerous websites out there to find all of this type info. The issue I have is when you have taken the time to do all of this and then they change planes at the last minute. I am presently looking to book an Air France flight over the Atlantic but have begun to second think this because I am concerned they will switch the equipment to a 777 where they shove in 10 across in economy.

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