BA Inflight: Groundwork

Researching how to enhance the inflight experience for British Airways passengers.

Project 3 General Assembly (concept app)
Team: J Mawhinney, Yulka, Myself
Client: British Airways
My role: UX Researcher / UX Designer
Duration: 1 week
Methods: Competitive Analysis, Market Research, 1–2–1 Interviews, Concept Mapping, Storyboarding, User Flows, Experience Mapping, Card Sorting

All good UX projects start with good research. UX is in the business of balancing user and business goals and in this case neither were apparent at the start of the project.

This article focusses on the process of divining what business goals we might address and which would align our users’ goals. If you’re interested in the design phase of the UX process, my next article talks about how we stayed on track with this vision in the design and testing phase.

The Brief

My team were challenged with optimising the user experience and digitalising the inflight services for British Airways. The mission was to communicate the value of the design to creating a great in-flight experience for British Airways customers that simultaneously met BA’s business goals.


British Airways Plc (‘BA’ or ‘the Group’) is the UK’s largest international scheduled airline and one of the world’s leading global premium airlines. The Group’s principal place of business is London and BA flies to more than 400 destinations worldwide. In order to ascertain the business goals we performed a situational analysis of where BA are now. A key source of information was the AGM’s Strategic report, presented in three sections but the overarching theme is this:

BA’s vision is to be the most admired airline.

A paraphrased summary of BA’s Strategic Report follows where they identify their own risks, vision and values:

1. Management review; Invest in our product where it matters most

We have focused on investing in our product where it matters most to our customers and, as well as introducing new aircraft, we also began to refresh the first of 18 Boeing 747s, with new interiors and state of the art in-flight entertainment systems… to offer our customers a more pleasant flying experience.

We listened to customer feedback and provided significantly more opportunities for our customers to book reward flights and gave customers the chance to pre-pay for gourmet meals in the World Traveller cabin. We also added to the entertainment system with content requested, started a new Small Business Scheme and provided a new luxury inflight magazine.

Use technology to enhance customer engagement

We know that the way customers connect and travel with us is changing, and in 2015 we launched our app for the Apple watch. A simple swipe opens the BA app, which was re-designed to fit the Apple Watch screen. It then displays a summary of the customer’s next flight, the flight number, route, departure time, flight status, a countdown to the departure time and the weather at the destination. Having seen the use of the app quadruple in just four months, we introduced 136 new scanners to make them easier and faster to use at check in desks across Heathrow Terminals 3 and 5.

We also introduced Apple Pay to make it easier for customers to purchase flights, holidays and experiences with us, and celebrated five years of mobile boarding passes. More than 28,000 of our customers now use a digital boarding pass every day.


BA has set a solid foundation for the future, generating a £1,264 million pre-exceptional operating profit in 2015 (2014: £975 million). Going forward, BA will target a return on capital of at least 15 per cent with an operating margin in the range of 12–15 per-cent.

Improving the customer experience will be a key feature of this business plan with plans to either replace or refurbish 99% of wide-body aircraft by 2020. Our customer’s will benefit from new inflight entertainment, in-seat power and the rollout of on-board WIFI across both the long and shorthaul fleet.

Customer service will be improved through additional cabin crew training and investment in digital to provide personalised, seamless service that sets BA apart from the competition.

3. Principal risks and uncertainties


The markets in which the Group operates are highly competitive. The Group’s strong global market positioning, leadership in strategic markets, alliances and diverse customer base continues to address this risk. The Group’s unrelenting focus on the customer, together with our own exploitation of digital technology, reduces the impact digital disrupters can have.

Business and operational: Brand reputation

BA’s brand has significant commercial value. Erosion of the brand, through either a single event or series of events, may adversely impact the Company’s leadership position with customers and could ultimately affect future revenue and profitability. The Group regularly monitors customer satisfaction through the global customer survey, alongside ongoing research and development of the BA product, in order to mitigate this risk. BA allocates substantial resources to safety, operational integrity, on-board product and new aircraft to maintain its leadership position.

Additional Revenue streams

In the past legacy airlines have not had to employ the classical low-cost airline carrier model of making money back on ancillary sales and airport authority kick backs (Ryanair are the kings here they’re paid considerable sums per passenger they land in most locations, and get ludicrously great deals on the airports they open). However, with competition raging more intensely than ever they are now forced to get into the ancillary airport revenue game, as they are no longer able to compete purely on superior quality of service on the same routes. A major challenger to the traditional industry split that many interviewees cited was Norwegian Airlines who not only cost the same as low cost rivals but provide competition on long haul flights and in more modern planes including in seat chargers. This model is supported by their leasing the planes for their time in flight.

Market Trends

Years ago, in-flight entertainment (IFE) meant watching movies on large, wall-mounted screens at the front of an airplane’s cabin. If you didn’t like the movie that was offered, well, you were out of luck. As the demand for IFE systems grew, user-facing technology was incorporated into the seatbacks, ushering in a new era of personalized entertainment. Locking the entertainment experience into the seatbacks, however, is neither comfortable nor convenient for passengers. That’s all changing thanks to wireless-enabled IFE systems.

In the world where 97 percent of airline passengers board with some form of personal electronic device, according to a 2015 study by SITA OnAir, wireless connectivity for entertainment is the way of the future. There’s a class of passenger known as “digital omnivores” that challenges even the most robust IFE system with constant demands for bandwidth and a fully engaged experience. And even less digitally voracious passengers desire entertainment, flight information, and food and beverage options at their fingertips, whether its accessed through an onboard IFE device or their personal device.

Digital Appetites Are Growing

Today’s airline passenger is constantly connected on the journey from his home to the seat on the plane. Throughout every step of the journey, from check-in through security, the passenger has access to mobile devices. The airline communicates with the passenger through these mobile channels about preflight and boarding information. The passenger can even pull up an e-ticket on his mobile phone to board the plane. Once on board the aircraft, however, the passenger is cut off from his digital ecosystem. This is where the opportunity for wireless, customizable IFE systems lies.

Competitive Analysis

We identified 10 direct and indirect competitors who provide inflight or onboard services (including Virgin Trains and Eurostar) and then trimmed the competitive field down to direct competitors in the premium space. This decision was made because no low cost carrier (*with the exception of Norwegian Air) could rival the international coverage and premium service expected of a legacy carrier. Within the premium segment all of the innovative inflight services were already accounted for. So who are they currently and what features do they support?

  • Lufthansa (Lufthansa Entertainment iPhone/iPad/Android app)
  • AirBerlin (AirBerlin Connect iPhone/iPad/Android app)
  • Iberia (Responsive web app)

The features that consistently were evident in competitors were duty-free, pre-order a meal, devices, content (movies, games, etc), planner feature.


We screened for interviewees in BA forums and from amongst from our network taking care to establish that respondents were appropriate to the industry segment. We then began to establish our three personas based on the trends from the 140 responses we’d received and identified individuals from the screener survey to take forward to user interviews.

Some important habits and trends were also established in the survey responses that we wanted to find out more about. Primarily that the majority of travellers surveyed engage in different ways with inflight services depending on flight length, varying from how and what they prepare, on what devices they depend (mobile or tablet in short haul, tablet or laptop in 4+ hour flights), whilst nearly 90% of those surveyed always had their mobile, but also which services they use on board. What we learnt was that we needed to account for differing expectations and experiences based on 2 factors: the primary one; flight length and secondary; whether the customer was travelling for business or leisure.

Interview findings

  • People experience negative emotions when unoccupied (no in-build entertainment)
  • People don’t always want to interact with personnel to get something done (order a drink)
  • People tend to use laptops and tablets on medium-haul flights, and their mobile devices on short-haul flights
  • Most frustrations are experienced on medium-haul flights (no in-built IFE and it’s a long time to get bored)
  • There are people who pre-plan (especially if they have children) and people who don’t, most people bring their own entertainment, be that films downloaded, magazine/book /newspaper or work

We extracted the key trends and worked to identify Alexa as our primary persona based on the congruence of BA’s business needs and her encapsulating the needs of so many users who are business frequent fliers and need to engage with many features of the inflight services. This helped us identify individuals to interview.

Interview quotes

“There was no entertainment on my flight. This was frustrating. If you have more than 1.5 hours, you have time to watch a movie.” — Freddy, 28

“The whole experience is terrible from buying the ticket to taking a plane. I dread flying. The experience is so traumatic.” — Marcela, 31

“The entertainment software is outdated and nobody looks after it; useless!” — Roberto, 23

“My biggest fear is boredom, I can’t risk that the movies will be re-runs of 90s cartoons and I won’t know if my work will take all the time.” — Alex, 29

“If I remember I download something of BBC iPlayer. The TVs on BA are really crap; they’re too far away and too small and picture quality is terrible but I do like the map.” — Victoria, 48

Persona Development

We looked at creating personas that reflected the segmentation of the market into distinct groups with differing patterns of spend, service requirements and expectation. Despite Business travellers comprising 12% of all flyers, they account for up to 75% of airline profits as they represent the biggest profit margin, 2 of our 3 personas predominantly fly for business.

Our 3 personas capture the important characteristics of frequent premium fliers

Alexa is our primary persona, usually flies alone and is our most frequent passenger as she often travels for business. As she can expense her business flights she is also the highest spender. She’s pretty exacting about her needs and is drawn to premium airlines, now she is pregnant with her first child she also has dietary needs to inform the airline about in advance.

Joshua, who often flies short haul for both business and leisure most closely matches onto our surveyed users. Though he will choose a premium service for his work trips he is very price sensitive on his short haul weekend get-a-ways with friends so will usually fly budget on his own account. His biggest frustration is the wifi and work space / environment onboard, followed by the food selection and difficulty of collating all his receipts into one easily expenses compliant one for his company.

Finally, Valeria, is an expat and mother. She is a high spender (not least because she’s usually travelling with family members) and relatively frequent flier in order to visit family and friends back home. Her needs focus around entertainment onboard and on her journey into the airport.

Bringing Alexa to life was no mean feat, we wanted to know her and her needs and goals intimately.
Alexa’s Experience Map, without the full development of her persona this would have been impossible to develop.

Problem Statements:

  1. British Airways needs a way to provide entertainment to passengers on medium and short haul flights, because otherwise people are restless and bored or have to pre-plan their own entertainment, which is time consuming requires motivation.
  2. British Airways needs a way to provide better visibility of food and drink selection and price in advance, because passengers currently don’t know what to expect. This lack of information causes additional cost and time at the airport as passengers end up buying alternative food.


  1. We believe that providing in-flight entertainment for the passengers on their personal devices, we will achieve greater levels of customer in-flight satisfaction. We will know this to be true when we see increased price elasticity of demand and higher customer satisfaction scores.
  2. We believe that by allowing passengers to pre-order meals, we will achieve lower food waste, faster and more efficient service, higher customer satisfaction and easier account management. We will know this to be true when we see higher food and drink sales and a 5% reduction in food waste.

So… The Design Deliverable

A web-hosted application that adheres to the British Airways visual style guide, if you want to see the build out of a high-fidelity prototype that demonstrates the key functionality of the posited web app..

…Read all about it in my next post!

Senior Product Designer at Third Space Learning. Inveterate Nomad, Culture Vulture and Cook.

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