Rumor: British Airways To Charge For Food On Shorthaul Flights

In May I wrote about how British Airways was considering charging for food & drinks in shorthaul economy. The airline’s current CEO, Alex Cruz, used to run Spanish low cost airline Vueling. He seems determined to use some of the strategies he learned there at British Airways.

British-Airways-A320

Last month we learned that British Airways will begin selling packaged snacks in economy on longhaul flights, and now there are several reliable rumors that British Airways will announce the elimination of free food in shorthaul economy. Instead they’ll offer a buy on board food service, in conjunction with retailer Marks & Spencer, which they’ve apparently struck a deal with.

While I know many people appreciate a complimentary snack, in practice the benefit to British Airways could greatly exceed just the cost savings from free food and the additional revenue from buy on board items. In practice they could also cut staffing levels on intra-Europe flights, since as it stands British Airways often staffs flights above minimums. The number of flight attendants needed to provide a buy on board service would be much lower than under the current system, where each passenger gets a free drink and snack.

British-Airways-Economy-1

The problem is that some suggest this will lead to lower airfare. It won’t. Per the Daily Mail:

BA has always distinguished itself from its budget rivals by including meals in ticket prices, and passengers may complain the quality airline is going downmarket.

But the deal would allow it to cut fares, making it look better value in comparison to Ryanair and easyJet, which have been taking a growing share of the market.

While some travellers say they prefer BA because they do not have to buy snacks, executives believe holidaymakers are increasingly prepared to pay for extras if ticket prices are lower.

This is, of course, absolute hogwash. When airlines have added fees — especially legacy airlines — we’ve almost never seen a corresponding drop in airfare. Airlines charge what they can get away with, and the reality is that most people won’t pay extra for a flight if it includes free snacks. Now, one could argue a snack contributes to the overall experience and with enough cuts people may choose to fly carriers like Easyjet and Ryanair. However, I’d say for the most part that’s already true.

Airlines eliminate services so they can price competitively and maximize profits, but there’s hardly a direct correlation between the elimination of free food and a reduction in airfare costs.

British-Airways-Economy

While I’ve heard from several reliable sources that the buy on board plan is set in stone, what remains to be seen is:

  • Whether drinks will still be complimentary, or if they’ll be for sale as well
  • Whether there are any changes to intra-Europe business class service; will British Airways instead just offer buy on board snacks for free to these passengers, or will they maintain a separate meal service?

Bottom line

Of course I don’t like to see service cuts, but at the same time I can hardly blame the major carriers for these kinds of changes, given the competition they face. The benefit isn’t just incremental revenue and cost savings on food, but long term it could lead to lower staffing levels as well, which saves them more money.

At the same time, while I don’t think anyone chooses British Airways exclusively for the free food, the less they do to differentiate themselves, the less of a reason there is for passengers to avoid ultra low cost carriers.

What do you make of British Airways soon switching to a buy on board model for shorthaul flights?

Comments

  1. Meh, especially on short haul flights the majority of pax will buy the cheapest ticket they can find given that it fits their general schedule. Complimentary food on a 2 hour flight will not make a difference, especially if the cost difference is more than a few dollars.

    Further, i’d rather pay on board for good food than receive a free crappy meal.

  2. British Airways used to be one of my preferred airlines, but they have recently introduced service cuts that make no sense. I noticed this on my recent Business Class flight to Vancouver in an A380 (you can watch my clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKLGq9GUSa4): there was no choice of a starter anymore (you were stick with a very cheap looking mozzarella salad), food was bad, and the selection of snacks at the walk-in bar (Club Kitchen) was reduced. For the price of a Business Class ticket, you should get at least decent food, and the cost of my meal could not have been more than $10-15 USD. In addition, 3 Business Class seats were broken. Don’t know what to make of the fact that they will start charging food on shorthaul flights, but that seems to be the norm now in Europe.

  3. This highlights some serious issues to. While your argumentation is definitely valid for point-to-point travel (where by the way low-cost carriers already made their mark and hunted down the maker) there is one thing we should not forget. BA is using their short-haul service to “feed” their hub and sell on long-haul tickets. Check-out for example the majority of Eastern European and some other EU cities they serve specifically on this purpose. (as the majority of those smaller cities do not have direct connections towards the US). So this is more part of the “overall service” you get in my view. And after a 10 hour long-haul changing to a 2,5 hours short-haul to take you home this IS a serious drawback. Not because of the dry sandwich but because of the feeling of a premium airline and the option and the value vs. expenditure you get. I would not compare BA directly to Ryanair or EasyJet or Wizz on these routes, more to Lufthansa, Air France, Turkish, Austrian etc. which are also feeding hubs from these cities and are potentially providing higher value proposition overall. (and cutting back the service would be touching on the most sensitive economy traveller group which will quickly change its mind for a couple of USD difference but an overall much better value proposition on any of its competitors). What they are doing is defo a two-bladed sword and quickly fall back on them topping the Brexit cake.

  4. I agree unlikeky to ever see price cuts because of this – it’s about reducing ancillary costs to improve profit, little else.

    Buy On Board (BoB) can be better than inclusive catering – provided the BoB is reasonably priced good quality offerings and the outgoing inclusive catering was just rubbish (crappy free food hardly worth the effort – and from all accounts BA’s wasn’t anything decent). That said, BA should offer tea, coffee, and water (maybe basic softdrinks) free on all flights.

    When it comes to Business Class (Club Europe) – free meal/drinks should be inclusive (especially since for Club Europe, the seating is still an Economy seat).

  5. Lucky, I doubt that cutting free snacks on board will save much time and won’t allow cutting staff. To achieve that, they’d have to eliminate free Drinks Overall, in my experience, it takes much longer to distribute Drinks as there is usually just one generic Snack.
    Compared to Ryanair or Easyjet, one main factors in which legacy Airlines tend to score worse is the Hand luggage allowance. While Lufthansa and others only allow you to take 8kg, Ryanair’s limit is 10, while Easyjet only restricts the size of the cabin luggage

  6. One advantage of BOB is that it allows you to have a range of options and you can consume what you need. I have been on BA shorthaul flights and been left hungry as there isn’t much food. Though I’m going to assume the grump factor of BA flight attendants is not going to make this a fun process…

  7. I’m not sure that BA do staff above minimum on the vast, vast majority of short haul flights? Certainly they have certain planes configured (EMB190) with deliberately fewer seats than would otherwise fit so that they can minimise crew. They also have one FEWER crew members on their A319/A320 flights than Easyjet (because EZY need the extra crew member to deal with BoB sales), so I really don’t see for a second that this will allow them to reduce crew levels.

  8. I can’t think of anything less important to me as a factor in whether I buy a ticket than if food is being served or not. I barely think about it on a longhual, it’s completely irrelevant on an intra-Europe shorthual – where I’m going to decline any free meal anyway. Honestly the color that the plane is painted is more important.

  9. Last BA flight I took LHR-VCE I was given a hummus wrap and some oaty-yoghurt thing. It isn’t something I’d eat at 5ft, let alone 38,000 so it’s a pointless offering anyway. I suppose it breaks up the flight a bit if not sleeping to see what trash they’re passing off as a meal…

    BUT the reason I am truly cutting my custom with BA in Europe is because for a quarter (sometimes less) of the price, Ryanair will get you there in a not too dissimilar style. They’re almost always on time and comfortable enough. Saving £100 is quite a big deal to me…

    Flying to Belfast the other week I realised at short notice I needed to bring my return flight forward one day…my option was to change the ticket at £30 odd, or buy a new flight for £9.99… It just makes sense to use this service more often than not!

  10. I quite often buy M&S food before travel (be that plane train or boat). Since that’s my insurance that I’ll get something edible, doesn’t make much difference to me.

  11. Please temper your sympathies for BA. They monopolise LHR to the detriment of superior carriers (in PaxEx terms) and their parent recently posted one of their largest ever profits. This is penny pinching by a LCC CEO.

  12. It’s very disappointing to see what’s happening to BA. It certainly seems to be well on track to basically becoming a low-cost carrier (while continuing to charge a fair bit for their tickets).

    I’m not disappointed because I enjoy the food so much (the reality is that I hardly ever eat it), but because it’s just another step on BA’s downward spiral.

    Unfortunately, I live in the UK so BA is my obvious airline of choice. Though I wouldn’t call it choice. I wish I had a selection similar to the US. I wish there were more alternatives that’d allow me I avoid BA and still collect miles and tier points in a meaningful way. Sadly, BA seems to be the only real way forward while I’m in the UK.

  13. Whenever we fly BA, we eat at the Airport beforehand. Their meals must cost considerably less than £1 per passenger – minimal saving to pass on unless you factor in staff savings. Even their long haul food is aweful.

  14. As a regular BA flyer internally and around Europe, this does disappoint. Firstly I have no idea how this will impact the Club Europe service which currently is very good in my opinion. For economy on certain short flights, e.g. London-Amsterdam, they can barely manage to fit in service of a light refreshment the flight is that short (sometimes with just two staff serving the entire economy cabin). Will they have to put on more staff to cover more ground more quickly? Will they offer hot food like Easyjet? If so, where will they heat it? In the Club Europe galley? Or will they have to go to the back of the plane each time? I don’t think this has been thought through. Might work for Vueling et al but not for a two class single aisle cabin.

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