Business Travel Show Europe Kick Off, 23 February,
Global Travel Risk Summit Europe, April 2023,
3rd Annual Sustainable Business Travel Summit
IN ADDITION TO pontificating on leading issues of the day for this column, I do a number of other jobs to put bread on the Cohen family table. These range from moderating conferences to playing double-bass in The Johnsons, Somerset's leading - oh, all right, only - eight-piece country-punk bluegrass band.
Then there's the international modelling career, of course.
But on top of all the above, I also scratch a living by running a media training business. Now if you want to know who I would point to as the ideal interviewee, I invite you to look no further than our very own British Airways UK & Ireland sales and marketing top man, Richard Tams. Apart from being funny, which is something you can't teach, Richard excels at making you see his point of view, which is something you can teach.
It is a very important skill. All travel managers know that if you explain the 'why' as well as the 'what' of your travel policy, many more people will follow it. Richard does the same for BA. He makes even the unpalatable sound eminently reasonable, and he is so refreshingly frank about it, that it always seems churlish to argue with him.
However, I'm going to have a go.
I recently interviewed Richard about fuel surcharges, which BA raised in December 2010 and February 2011 and may well have done again by the time you read this. With the price of oil rocketing, it is entirely understandable that airlines should put their prices up, too, but is it fair that they should do so through the mechanism of a fuel surcharge?
It is a key question for travel buyers, because only the base fare in a ticket price is subject to a corporate discount. Since, like buying aircraft or paying pilots, fuel is an unavoidable cost for an airline, why should it be ring-fenced from client deals?
Richard's response was simple. One part of his defence was that it is easier, logistically, to adjust a surcharge than to file a new set of fares; but also, he said, BA could not afford it any other way. "If surcharges were part of the corporate deal," he told me, "it would have a massive impact on our revenues. Other costs don't fluctuate in the same way as oil. We desperately need the surcharges to make a profit."
You can see what I mean about there being an unanswerable logic to this argument. Even so, the isolation of fuel costs from the ticket price still seems wrong. A surcharge, surely, is inherently a temporary measure, yet BA (along with most other carriers) has been imposing one since 2004. And you can safely bet the price of a new Airbus A380 that the surcharge won't disappear in the next seven years either.
It puts me in mind of the decades-long 'state of emergency' that President Mubarak enforced in Egypt - and we all know what happened to him earlier this year. Having said that, there is little sign of travel managers setting up camp in the indoor plaza at Waterside until Willie Walsh takes the first Learjet out of town to his villa in Sharm el-Sheikh, but it may at least be time to bring up the issue more forcefully in corporate negotiations.
Like Mr Tams, Willie Walsh is another media star, able to communicate tough messages simply and likeably. Though not without occasional spectacular setbacks, BA's image is much improved from the 'dirty tricks' era when I first covered travel in the early 1990s. Someone who once worked in the BA press office told me virtually every letter of complaint they received at that time would end with the words "another BA dirty trick" - usually in capital letters and appended by several exclamation marks.
I was reminded of this recently when Mrs Cohen, who is a caterer, delivered some of her excellent ready-made meals to a local wealthy cider heiress, of which we have several in Somerset. My missus made the mistake of letting slip in conversation that I am a business travel writer, which prompted the lady to vent her spleen on a recent experience when flying with BA. This woman and her husband were flying to their pad in the Caribbean, in first class, of course, when they asked for a Bloody Mary with extra Tabasco sauce. The request was denied, the cabin attendant telling them the airline no longer carries Tabasco because, according to the complainant, it can't afford it (despite not giving corporate discounts on fuel surcharges).
The cider heiress was most adamant that the world should know of this heinous crime. The fact she was complaining to my wife about her Tabasco-less first class flight just days after the Japanese tsunami left tens of thousands dead or missing and many times more without water, heat or even a roof over their heads, let alone any fiery pepper sauces, does not lessen my sympathy for her plight one iota.
By way of an interesting contrast, a Mr Pinkerton-Smith who flew from Auckland to Christchurch in economy class a few weeks ago, turned out to be now newly-wed helicopter pilot Prince William, on his way to meet victims of the New Zealand earthquake. Now there is someone else who has been doing their media training.
I will say one thing for our heiress: while on the ground there truly is no finer drink than a pint of proper (i.e. unfiltered and uncarbonated) Somerset cider; in the air I am all for abandoning what made her family's fortune and downing a Bloody Mary instead. In fact, look around the cabin and half of the other passengers are doing likewise.
What is it about flying that makes this cocktail seem so right? My guess is it is something to do with craving salt before eating, but if anyone can enlighten me, I would be most grateful.
editor's note: British Airways has since assured us that Tabasco sauce has not been a victim of cost-cutting and continues to be available in first class.