A Very British Airline on BBC2: Lobsters in the sky with doughnuts

From the new "bespoke" wardrobes installed in BA's A380s to the recommendation cabin crew do not stow dead bodies in the loo, Rachel Cooke is transfixed by the BBC's bizarre new documentary series.

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A Very British Airline
BBC2

The new BBC2 documentary series A Very British Airline (Mondays, 9pm) is so weird. For one thing, the BBC seems wittingly to have become entangled in boosting the PR campaign of a major company. For another, there’s the ethos of the company (British Airways), which is what a religious cult would look like if it was led by Christopher Biggins and involved sacraments based around the Union Jack, “doughnut” hairstyles, extreme eyebrows, lip gloss, wheelie bags, Bloody Marys and “flat bed chairs”.

I started watching the show in a state of mild outrage. “Let sodding BA pay for its ads!” I thought, as the titles rolled. But pretty soon, I’d forgotten all about how access had probably been granted in exchange for some porny shots of BA’s new first-class tasting menu (think soufflés, lobsters and repulsively entitled businessmen who are happy to pay more than £6,000 for a return flight to Los Angeles) and a full description of the “bespoke” wardrobe designed for the airline’s new A380s (from the breathless way that staff talked about this, I was expecting highly polished Biedermeier but, alas, it was just another grey box, most likely crafted from MDF). I was fascinated. The moment when a new batch of cabin crew trainees were reminded that they should on no account attempt to hide a dead body in the loo mid-flight – “They won’t be strapped in,” said the instructor, sagely – will stay with me for a very long time.

I’m rushing ahead of myself. The series began by informing us mournfully (like we care!) that more people now fly EasyJet than BA. Meanwhile, at the other end of the market, airlines must compete for the richest and fussiest customers by somehow making one end of their large, metal tubes seem more appealing than the equivalent ends of the large, metal tubes operated by their rivals. What this comes down to is service, the only point of difference that exists up there in the sky (assuming that Emirates has no immediate plans to instal on-board plunge pools and a squash court).

At BA’s HQ – Waterside, in Hillingdon – trainees are taught right from the get-go that nothing is too much trouble. Even the dead get premier service on BA (wannabe stewards are advised to do something “respectful” with a blanket). As for first-class passengers, they are “detail driven”. Scratch the bespoke wardrobe and they will notice.

In other news, the only way of increasing passenger capacity, since there are no more slots available at Heathrow, is to fly giant planes such as the A380, the biggest passenger jet in the world. BA spent billions on buying a fleet of these babies, so you’d have thought that when it came to launching the jet it might have stumped up for a better act to caterwaul at Terminal 5 than Melanie C and Matt Cardle.

Then again, budgets are tight. BA is now recruiting younger, cheaper staff to serve its pretzels, something it can easily do – applications vastly outnumber opportunities. This also gives it licence to be prissily strict about the way trainees look and behave and there’s an early-1960s vibe in its obsession with the angle of female staff’s hats and its determination that their handbags do not crush their shoulder pads. Jodi, whom we’re following as she progresses through her training, got ticked off for everything, even her brace position (among the zillions of other things I now know is that one brace position is definitely not like another).

Will she survive the next round? All I can tell you is that her carefully sprayed doughnut – like a bun, only with a hole – could survive a nuclear war and her savagely plucked eyebrows are unlikely to grow back this side of the general election. She seems to have taken on board the concept that the only place a passenger can be resuscitated
is in an aisle (odd that this has to be put into words) and she is able to point out the emergency exits with all the gusto of a hen doing a Beyoncé routine. All she can do now is pray: that her tights don’t ladder, that her pretzel routine continues to be ruthlessly precise and that she can continue to put up with being patronised to within an inch of her life.

The New Statesman is a media partner of Latitude Festival, where Rachel Cooke will be in conversation on Sunday 20 July

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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