Brexit and customer satisfaction with easyJet's John Barton CA
Many of us are setting up our out-of-office emails and dreaming of tropical destinations as summer draws near. Eleanor O’Neill spoke to John Barton CA, Non-Executive Chairman of easyJet plc, about what Brexit means for UK airlines, how technology aids safety and what customers want.
How did you become Chairman of easyJet?
In my career I have chaired many companies so an executive search firm approached me. After looking at the company and meeting the Chief Executive, at the time Carolyn McCall, I felt that I could work with her.
That is probably the most important thing about the job of a chairman - that you like, respect, and can work with the chief executive.
Having a CA qualification has given me the opportunity to collect a lot of experience of being at the top of companies, involved in their strategies, involved in their boards, and, in particular, understanding their financial objectives.
All companies, at the end of the day, are trying to make money for their shareholders. On top of all the corporate governance burdens we have, that still remains our primary objective.
Being a CA gives you insight into how the finances of companies work. It definitely gives you an edge.
Has the travel industry presented you with new challenges?
Improving customer experience is a huge priority for the travel industry, every company has that objective. Particularly with an airline, every day is a challenge.
At easyJet, we have to get 300 aircraft in the air for what we call the ‘first wave’ in the early morning, to enable them to do their day's work effectively. However, no aircraft can leave the ground unless it's in perfect condition and safe to fly.
You can't wait and sort something out in an hour, or tomorrow, or the next day. It has to be now.
In my first experience of something going wrong for that first wave, an employee in Toulouse who drove the tractor that pushes the airplane had forgotten his keys. It caused the plane to be an hour late. That was a setback for that plane because it's scheduled very strictly and was late for the rest of the day.
Things like that are much more immediate than almost any other business I've been involved in. You can't wait and sort something out in an hour, or tomorrow, or the next day. It has to be now.
What other challenges are on the horizon?
Brexit is a huge issue for the travel industry. We currently have no deal to fly in and out of Europe, though I'm sure the politicians will eventually resolve that one.
More worryingly, it's against European law for a non-European airline to fly within Europe. In other words, if you're not a European-owned airline, you won't be able to fly from Barcelona to Brussels, or from Rome to Paris. That is an immediate issue for a number of airlines, not just us.
Long term, the biggest challenge the aviation industry faces is the constantly increasing number of people travelling. There's a huge volume of people travelling, and it puts incredible pressure on the air traffic system.
I'm sure that technology will help, and the Europeans are trying to make a single system, which will make it much more efficient, but the air traffic controllers are going on strike against this change. They think it threatens their jobs, which it may do.
Is technology set to have a big impact?
easyJet is a web-based company. You can't buy tickets through a travel agent. You have to do it online. In that respect, we're already halfway there. But advancements in technology mean an enormous amount for us.
We will have the data analysed so that we can tell when a craft is likely to have a fault and pull it in for maintenance.
One thing we're developing with Airbus is predictive maintenance. Instead of waiting for an airplane to break down because a part goes, we will have the data analysed so that we can tell when a craft is likely to have a fault and pull it in for maintenance.
That will make a very big difference to us as it stops delays and improves our on-time performance, which is what our customers like.
Skyscanner recently announced easyJet as the best value airline for short-haul flights. How do you deliver value while staying competitive?
A very high level of on-time performance gives our customers the confidence that their plane will take off and land when we said it would. So there's our objective.
Ideally, we'd like every single plane to take off and land on-time, but that doesn't happen. We want to get up into the 80%-90% range so the customers have confidence in us.
Another thing that sets easyJet apart is that we make sure our flight crew are trained to a very high level and have a good rapport with our customers. That is very important to us.
Where is your favourite holiday destination?
In the summer months, easyJet must fly at least a dozen flights a day from London, where I live, to the south of France, where I have a house. That makes it very easy for me to get there.
The weather's fantastic, the culture's different and my wife and I really enjoy going there.