British Airways looking to Israeli startups for airline tech

UK’s largest airline by fleet has launched a new £4.5 billion investment program over five years; mulls Gatwick-Eilat route

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

British Airways CEO and Chairman Alex Cruz, center, in Tel Aviv, marking 85 years since the start of the UK-Israel route. Nov. 9, 2017 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)
British Airways CEO and Chairman Alex Cruz, center, in Tel Aviv, marking 85 years since the start of the UK-Israel route. Nov. 9, 2017 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

British Airways is in touch with Israeli startups to keep the airline up to speed with the latest technologies, the CEO and chairman Alex Cruz said at a press conference Thursday, marking 85 years of the London-Tel Aviv route.

The airline, the UK’s largest by fleet announced this week a new £4.5 billion ($5.9 billion) investment program that will be spread over five years. The plan envisages the acquisition of 72 new aircraft, and upgrading of 128 existing aircraft with at-seat power stations and high-speed internet connections for passengers.

“I recognize the huge importance and the impact of the whole development of digital technologies in our industry,” he told a gathering of journalists over a brunch in Tel Aviv. “I had a delegation of Israeli startups come to my office about six weeks ago and I spent a full day with them and it was refreshing. It was motivating, and I am in touch with two of them directly because I enjoyed the session so much and I am sure that we will do more and more business together.”

The airline is on the scout for technologies in a variety of sectors, he said, mainly via the global startup accelerator program of its parent company International Airlines Group (IAG), called Hangar 51, which hopes to attract early stage businesses and fast track their ideas working closely with IAG.

British Airways CEO and Chairman, Alex Cruz (Courtesy)

Aircraft technology is on the top of the list, Cruz said, but also cybersecurity, online marketing and distribution and video technologies, he said. “There is such a wide array of offers that startups here in Israel have, that honestly we are looking at quite a wide range of overall technologies,” he said.

“What will actually dictate which ones are adopted faster is our own ability, within our own 100-year-old IT systems, to be able to assimilate all of these technologies,” he said. “That is where a great deal of my energy goes, so we can modernize our platform so we can work very fast with these startups that have really great propositions.”

The airline transports some 150,000 passengers on the London-Tel Aviv route a year, up from the 16 passengers it carried in the 72-hour original journey — which  included a 20-hour train ride from Paris to Brindisi — on the airline’s inagural  flight to Israel in 1932, on the then Imperial Airways airline. The flight landed on the waters of the Sea of Galilee, and passengers were taken ashore by boats.

But 2017 proved to be a bumpier year, with British Air plagued by a series of setbacks — including an expensive computer crash, cabin crew strikes and delays due to a lack of toilet paper.

Cruz said he forecasts the capacity of the airline to and from Israel to continue to increase in coming years, both via added flights and bigger aircraft. He also said that the airline is mulling a direct flight to Eilat from Gatwick, but there are no firm plans yet. The recent demise of Monarch Airlines that left thousands of travelers stranded, has freed up some slots — take-off and landing rights — and that may have opened up some opportunities for added flights from Gatwick, he said.

On Nov. 8, two UK High Court judges said that the slots that had been allocated to Monarch at Gatwick should go into a pool for rival airlines to bid for, in coming weeks, with 50 percent going to new market entrants free of charge.

“You bet we are going to submit requests for those slots,” Cruz said. “When slots are released we will find out how many we have, and depending on how many we have we will have to take a look at our options.”

Gatwick airport, some 29.5 miles south of Central London has been slot constrained, making it harder for airlines to add flights from the UK’s second busiest international airport, after Heathrow.

British Airways’ event in Tel Aviv marking 85 years since the launch of the UK-Israel route; Nov. 9, 2017 (Shoshanna Solomon/TimesofIsrael)

“Our operation from Gatwick continues to look for options to grow,” Cruz told the Times of Israel on the sidelines of the event. “The very unfortunate events around Monarch may offer some opportunities.”

“Eilat continues to be a very attractive destination in the Mediterranean,” he added. “At this stage we are unable to firmly commit to Eilat but I believe that Eilat is a live discussion topic and we will continue working with the tourism authorities to understand what kind of opportunities may be there. Gatwick-Eilat: interesting. Nothing to announce at the moment, but we will continue working over the possibility.”

Cruz said that the US continues to be a huge growth market for the airline, but that British Airways is also looking to Asian markets, including the possibility of adding destinations to China. The airline is also in talks with UK authorities to ease the Visa regime, “which is complex and expensive” for Chinese visitors to the UK, he said.

In response to a question, he said that he did not think Brexit — the UK’s plan to withdraw from the European Union — will dramatically change the flight landscape of the current route patterns.

“The overall need for air connectivity from both parties is so big that we don’t believe it will be affected,” he said. “It is in the best interest of all parties involved, all countries involved, for all that air traffic to continue. It generates a lot of jobs, a lot of economic development.”

British airways operates 14 weekly flights on the Tel Aviv-London route.

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