I am not what you might call patriotic. I am pleased to have been born British – believing that we, as a people, are naturally tolerant, liberal and welcoming – and I think this country, in its culture and its traditions, has much to recommend it. But beyond that, I find the concept of Britishness a rather nebulous one for today’s polyglot nation. And neither do I get rheumy-eyed when the national anthem is struck up and the glories of Great Britain are invoked. Irrational pride in one’s country? Isn’t that how wars start?
But there is one area in which I am proud to proclaim allegiance to the flag. I am generally a promiscuous consumer, seduced by offers of convenience and economy, but when it comes to buying an air ticket, I have a brand loyalty that transcends all other considerations.
My loyalty to British Airways has been tested over the years and there are aspects of its custom and practice I find egregious. (I think it is unfair to use its older, less comfortable aircraft on long-haul holiday routes – ie, on flights where people are paying with their own hard-earned money – and reserve the brand spanking new fleet for business routes – ie, when many people aren’t paying for themselves.)
But brand allegiance is often an emotionally-driven response and there’s something about BA that must appeal to a sense of national pride I have chosen to sublimate.
A new BBC documentary, A Very British Airline, started this week and its premise, expressed in the opening sequence, was that BA “sells Britishness as a mark of quality”. Timed to co-incide with the launch of the new Terminal 2 at Heathrow, this programme was the latest in a very familiar genre – we are granted privileged access behind the scenes of a highly visible institution and there’s a human aspect of the narrative that is part-reality show, part-Jeremy Kyle – but it delivered quite a punch in its portrayal of a company that was, well, very British. Apart from one or two Dutch people – and, of course, its CEO – everyone we met was resolutely British, with names like Steve Duffy, or Ros Handley, or Simon Jones, or Alice Kennedy.
But the choice of which airline to patronise is not an entirely illogical one. BA has not had a fatal accident for 29 years and the exhaustive safety training its staff undergoes did nothing to weaken my faith. We followed a group of new recruits to see who would cut it as cabin staff and, as one pointed out, “it was like being in the military”. One of their number failed to make the grade and his colleagues, who’d obviously watched Masterchef and its like, knew exactly what to do. They dabbed away tears and said how gutted they were.
But my favourite bit was when they learned what to do in extreme circumstances.
“You can’t put a dead passenger in the toilet,” said the instructor. “That’s disrespectful. And you can’t do what we used to do – prop them up in their seat, put an eyeshade on them and give them a gin and tonic and a copy of the Daily Mail.”
How wonderfully macabre. How very British.