British Airways: The Next Generation
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

British Airways: The Next Generation

When British Airways hired GCI Group in May 1999, its competition, viewed as young, hip, and affordable, was steadily gaining ticket sales share, especially on the New York–London routes.

Paul Holmes


When British Airways hired GCI Group in May 1999, the company’s sales were down significantly and its brand image was weak and confused.  British Airways’ competition, viewed as young, hip, and affordable, was steadily gaining ticket sales share, especially on the New York – London routes.

British Airways employed GCI to develop and maintain a global campaign that would make an immediate and positive impact on British Airways’ revenues and image in the U.S. and overseas, as well as provide strategic counsel for a billion-dollar renovation to the airlines’ product. GCI offices in North America, Western and Eastern Europe and in British Airways’ home city of London accepted the challenge.  


The first step GCI took was to conduct an audit of British Airways’ business model and to implement other consumer research to fill in the gaps.  Research revealed British Airways’ premium tickets are the most profitable tickets the company sells.  Therefore, increasing premium sales would have the greatest immediate positive impact on British Airways’ bottom line.  Also, travel between NY and London accounts for more than 40% of the airline’s total revenue, so focusing on the NY-London route would make an immediate and positive impact on sales.  Additionally, research showed the public still viewed British Airways’ “Britishness” in an extremely positive light, associating the notion of being British with higher standards in customer service and refinement.

The research re-defined our initial focus, which was on all routes and all travelers (coach and premium).  It was clear our target audience was business and affluent travelers, aged 25-54, with an eye to the importance of the London-New York route.


First, we diagnosed British Airways’ brand position and determine the best public relations strategy to take.  The diagnosis determined British Airways to be a brand with high awareness among its target audience and a weak brand image, one with low relevance, an indistinct proposition and a lack of focus on a core message.  

GCI’s global strategy was to develop a campaign that would fulfill the immediate need for increased premium ticket sales, re-establish British Airways’ image for superior customer service, develop an image of industry leadership, and make the brand relevant and distinct to its target consumer. 


  • Increase sales of British Airways’ premium tickets, e.g., First Class, Business Class
  • Exploit British Airways’ highly recognizable name to redefine and highlight the company’s best qualities
  • Highlight British Airways’ product innovation and superior service elements
  • Re-establish a lasting awareness of British Airways as a premium airline


Tier One – Immediate Need 

NYLon:  To generate immediate buzz and bolster ticket sales on the New York-London route, we created the term NYLon, an acronym of sorts to define what we identified as the increasing trend toward a NY-London lifestyle.  We used as proof points the many NY-based businesses, e.g., Nobu, Ralph Lauren, that have “traveled” to London and the many London-based businesses, e.g., Alexander McQueen, Thomas Pink, that have “traveled” to NY. To extend the trend, we defined the NYLon Set as the NY-London crowd, those who travel between NY and London on the British Airways Concorde as if it were the “new D train.”

Working one-on-one with Aileen Mehle (“Suzy”) of Women’s Wear Daily and W Magazine, we seeded the concept of NYLon in her Women’s Wear Daily column, a must-read among NY-area trendsetters, including those working in the consumer lifestyle media.  Recognizing that frequency was critical, due to the immediacy of the need, we arranged to use celebrities’ names in NYLon publicity, thereby ensuring that target media outlets had multiple story opportunities.

NYLon Evaluation:  In the six-month period during which the program was executed (from July through February 2000), we achieved more than 45 million media impressions, which mentioned NYLon as well as British Airways and/or the Concorde. Coverage reached NY-area target consumers in media from Women’s Wear Daily and Hamptons Magazine to The New York Daily News and The New York Post.  In addition, the word “NYLon” has been established in the vocabularies of BA’s New York-area target consumers and the lifestyle media. Not only have we heard people use the word “NYLon” in conversation, numerous media outlets, including Vogue, New York and Wallpaper, have used the word of their own volition to describe people, places and things that represent a New York/London sensibility. 

In addition, after two years of consistently flat or decreasing sales, British Airways’ premium ticket sales grew in each month of the six months during which the program was being executed. Total premium ticket sales growth was 28.4%.

Tier Two – A Lasting Impression

Next Generation:  In order to increase and maintain British Airways’ reputation as a premium carrier with the highest standards in product quality and customer service, GCI implemented a worldwide publicity push to coincide with the airline’s announcement of fleet-wide renovations, including the first fully flat beds in business class.  GCI offices from London to Los Angeles worked together to introduce “the biggest bed-room in the sky” to the world. 

Next Generation was the largest investment the airline had ever made in its product, and entailed the re-fitting of every aircraft in the fleet over a two-year period.  The aggressive nature of the renovations was best matched by an aggressive public relations campaign. GCI London handled press relations for the announcement as it took place in London, while GCI offices in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles worked around the clock to disseminate information in the U.S. using the following GCI crafted communications messages:

  • British Airways is the first to put flat beds in business class – demonstrating the airline’s leadership and customer commitment
  • New seats were designed with the help of sleep experts and NASA engineers – proving British Airways advanced research and use of technology
  • All of the renovations were implemented in direct response to British Airways customer surveys – proving that British Airways’ highest priority is its customers needs.
Next Generation Evaluation: Within two months of the program out reach, GCI achieved more than 67,000,000 in media impressions in the U.S.  In Europe, over 20 journalists attended the launch event from 13 European countries, with briefings and events being held in 18 European countries simultaneously, attended by over 180 journalists from broadcast, national, trade and consumer media.  Coverage appeared in on over 30 national newspapers across the 18 European countries in the first two days following the launch, and there were over 120 print media hits within the first week.
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