June 11, 2010 10:18 pm

Brand Britain, not Middling England

Heathrow does not feel like an international aviation hub on the move, but rather one in steep descent

The week started with a bit of a bounce (not the positive kind) and a thud on Monday when our BMI Airbus slapped the runway at Heathrow and did some heavy breaking to make an early turn-off to the gate. It was hard leaving the sunny skies and warm hospitality of Beirut four hours earlier, swapping them for an airline that’s in need of a major rethink, turbulent skies over the Balkans and muggy, grey London.

I had spent the first 15 minutes on the aircraft wondering if new parent Lufthansa is going to do anything innovative with their recent acquisition or just leave it as is and hope they can somehow squeeze something that resembles a profit out of it. As we rolled along the tarmac at Beirut, I went through my own pre-flight check-list of what needed to be done. Should the name be tackled first, or the uniforms?

BMI (British Midland International) doesn’t really say a lot for a carrier that seems to be focusing most of its efforts at the far end of the Mediterranean and Central Asia. Several years ago, the old British Airways subsidiary British Mediterranean was folded into BMI, and with it came “missed branding opportunity” number one. Surely they could have started building a more attractive airline with the word “Mediterranean” in it rather than “Midland.” British Mediterranean International sounds bright, optimistic and focused on delivering passengers to warm destinations and hot opportunities. British Midland sounds like it only operates domestic flights, is neither north or south, east or west, and is simply “middling.”

I was about to park my mental branding exercise and settle in for a nap, when the bar cart suddenly rattled out of the galley flanked by two flight attendants suffering in dreadful royal blue blazers. While they did their best to deliver a decent level of service with limited tools, I glanced around the rest of the cabin and noted that the aircraft was a stew pot of different brands – outside the greasy-hair-smudged window the aircraft was still in an old, hybrid livery mixing three different airlines; the carpets were burgundy, the seats various shades of blue and everything felt a bit threadbare. I was all set to start thinking about new uniform options but the early wake-up call got the better of me somewhere over Nicosia.

As we rolled towards the gate, past the diggers, bulldozers, and workmen working on extensions to old terminals and constructing new ones, the British Airways planes grounded by yet another strike and more BMI aircraft in varying liveries, Heathrow wasn’t feeling much like an international aviation hub on the move – rather one in steep descent.

Fresh building works aside, the airport’s reputation has been seriously dented by BA’s ongoing labour dispute and the existing infrastructure feels like it’s going to collapse. How many times does an aircraft pull up at a Heathrow gate and the airbridge doesn’t work? Add to this the new government’s scrapping of a third runway and it’s hard to see how London is going to stay relevant as Frankfurt, Munich and Charles de Gaulle all continue to expand and carriers such as Emirates announce that they’re taking their order books for the A380 up to 90 aircraft.

At a time when the UK is looking at drastic public sector cuts, it needs all the inward investment it can muster in order to top up the coffers. Leaving the airports in a holding pattern does not send the appropriate signals to potential investors in Istanbul, Doha and Seoul, for example.

An ambitious journalist paired with a speedy publisher might want to forgo summer holidays this year and work on a potential Christmas bestseller unravelling how the UK, in less than a decade, fell out of the major league in the world of civil aviation. BA’s global clout, the European supremacy of Heathrow and the plucky innovation at Virgin are all part of a distinctly different era and it’s difficult to see how any of these players will get back in the game.

The UK’s new coalition government is going into a round of public consultations to ask the people where it should be making cuts but it’s not doing much in the way of giving anyone – at home or abroad – much to get excited about in terms of a broader, bolder vision. For sure it’s early days, and the Budget is still being shaped, but the Cammy/Clegg show needs to come up with a set of projects (even grands projéts) that grab front pages and get markets, tourists and simple townfolk excited about the years ahead and Brand Britain.

For the moment however, the menu is looking rather slim on choices. The cities that are the most liveable (see the Monocle Quality of Life index in House & Home) are those that offer freedom of movement and are readily connected to the rest of the world. London (and the UK) is in danger of becoming the capital of Middling England unless it comes up with seductive, sustainable plans to re-ignite its position on the world stage.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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