LEADER: Time for BA to let consumers know what it stands for

The world's favourite airline may be about to become something

entirely different. That is, if it survives.



This week, details emerged of a radical repositioning for British

Airways, labelled by some as the biggest revolution since privatisation

in 1997. Aside from thousands more job cuts, the plan involves pulling

out of the domestic market and surrendering to budget airlines by

cutting flights to Europe. Instead, BA would focus on profitable

long-haul routes, ending its culture of being a global carrier that is

all things to all people.



Of course, all this might be too late - the gloom-mongers predict that

BA is in a nosedive toward bankruptcy.



If BA goes under, it will not only be a blow to the airline industry,

but to the country - it's likely to seriously damage the image of 'UK

plc'. After all, as little as a decade ago, BA was one of the UK's most

famous and most trusted brands - known for its standards of service,

professionalism and safety. Synonymous, some might even say, with

Britishness.



So what happened? The latest crisis may have been sparked by September

11, but it is not really about the state of air travel. During the 90s,

BA saw Virgin walk away with its customer service mantle, while easyJet

and Ryanair proved that cheap and simple is the way forward on

short-haul routes. Then there were the PR disasters: the tailfin fiasco,

the strikes and the Concorde crash.



Repositioning BA as a carrier for premium passengers pleased the City,

but the timing was wrong, with the economic slowdown forcing businesses

to cut costs. It also sent out damaging signals, turning BA's

positioning into the 'world's favourite airline for rich businessmen'.

This hardly enhanced its already arrogant image, fuelled by Virgin's

clever PR tactics.



Our review of 2001, starting on page 20, charts BA's fortunes over the

past year. Contrasted with the success of the budget carriers, it

illustrates just what chaos BA has fallen into. BA's current marketing

strategy seems unclear and smacks of desperation - with a raft of price

cuts and promotions with The Daily Mail aiming at precisely the kind of

travellers BA was trying to move away from.



Is there a way out of this tailspin? Perhaps it's too late, in which

case BA will be consigned to history as a once great, now dead,

brand.



Or perhaps BA can reinvent itself for a new kind of flying public - one

that is wary of flying but still wants and needs to travel long

distances efficiently and economically, yet with high standards of

service and comfort.



If BA does go ahead with radical change, then it must not do so

half-heartedly, but embrace its new image in its branding, communicating

to travellers what it stands for. And that's something BA hasn't done

for some time.



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