BT's flights of fancy

Just how confident is BT about its future in the retail broadband market if it had to resort to playing the free flights card?
Written by Leader , Contributor
The Advertising Standards Agency deserves congratulation this week for finally recognising the failings of BT's free flights offer.

Back in September 2004, when ZDNet UK's TalkBack forums first rang with tales of woe from angry BT customers, the ASA seemed blissfully unaware that lots of people were suffering from the same problem. But now it's official -- hundreds of people who bought a BT broadband connection expecting to get a free flight to Europe or the US instead found they were the unlucky recipients of weeks of confusion and hassle.

Many customers said they didn't feel they had been helped by Rise Travel, which ran the offer with some reporting unanswered calls. Didn't BT tell them that it's good to talk?

Hoover effectively invented this kind of promotion in the early 1990s when it started giving away two free flights to America to any customer spending over £100. The offer was hugely popular, Hoover couldn't cope with the demand, and the whole fiasco cost the company an estimated £50m and ultimately its independence.

Given this legacy, surely only the mad or the desperate would follow Hoover's example? What was BT thinking of when it decided to launch the promotion in the first place? With smart cookies like Sir Christopher Bland and Ben Verwaayen in charge, BT isn't suffering from dementia.

BT Wholesale still owns the lion's share of all UK ADSL lines, but its retail arm is under attack from rival ISPs such as Tiscali, AOL, Wanadoo and Virgin. Its market share has been falling, and perhaps desperate times called for desperate measures?

The whole sorry episode doesn't say much for BT's confidence in its broadband portfolio. It should be selling high-speed Internet access on its own merits, not as a make-weight in a cheap holiday.

A peek at our TalkBacks shows some of the other UK companies which have resorted to free flights and suffered similar problems to BT. Sainsbury's, struggling with failing IT systems and the unstoppable Tesco; The Daily Express , stuck in the shadow of The Daily Mail . Both can look back at better days but peer forwards with trepidation.

Is BT heading the same way? Like one of Hoover's better innovations, that really would suck.

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