British Airways Is Considering Eliminating Free Food & Drinks On Longhaul Flights

Earlier this year, British Airways eliminated free food and drinks on shorthaul flights. Instead they’re offering a selection of snack options through Marks & Spencer. British Airways claims that this is actually an improvement for customers, since the old stuff they used to serve wasn’t good, and now passengers have access to fresh food that they’d actually want to eat.

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This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but this seems to only be the beginning of British Airways’ transformation into an ultra low cost carrier, at least in economy.

The Sunday Times quotes British Airways’ CEO, Alex Cruz, as saying that the airline may move to a buy on board model in economy on longhaul flights as well, and eliminate free food and drinks:

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Cruz said that after “a rough start” customers now welcomed the chance to pay for M&S food on European flights. The airline’s buy-on-board system, which replaced free food on short flights in January, is “a perfect decision”, he said.

“It’s going great. Customers say to us: ‘Finally, I have good choices. No more chicken or beef’.” The service could be extended to long-haul economy. “We might do it,” he said.

Personally I think it’s highly likely that this will happen. Maybe not immediately, but almost certainly in the next five years. The transatlantic market has been shaken up by the likes of Norwegian and WOW Air, and that competition will only increase, as we start seeing more narrowbody planes (including A321s and 737s) launch transatlantic service.

WOW-Air-A330

British Airways will also soon be going with a configuration of 10 seats per row in 777 economy. I’m surprised it took them that long, given that most of their competition has been operating with such a configuration for a long time.

Alex Cruz is the former head of Spanish low cost carrier Vueling, and as much as there’s no denying that his goal is to turn British Airways into the worst low cost carrier, I actually sort of like the guy, and I can’t fault his strategy. He’s also quoted in the article as saying the following:

Cruz’s comments will anger travellers who complain that the quality of BA’s aircraft and service is nosediving. But he said: “I don’t engage with running this airline into the ground.”

British-Airways-Lounge-San-Francisco - 40

He’s blunt, and I appreciate that.

His strategy seems to be two-fold — improve British Airways’ premium cabin product somewhat, while making economy as no frills as possible. While he’s making extreme changes over a short period of time, ultimately this very closely reflects the overall industry trend. The airline industry is changing faster than ever before with the growth of ultra low cost and Gulf carriers, and it’s tough for traditional airlines to compete:

  • British Airways will be improving bedding and sleep quality in business class; their business class product won’t be industry leading, but rather just good enough so that people don’t avoid it, which is all they need, given the market share they have in London
  • British Airways will be bringing back the amuse bouche and fresh flowers in first class (these are very minor improvements, but whatever)
  • British Airways will cut service in economy to the point that they’re no better than their low cost carrier competition

British-Airways-First-Class

As much as I’d like say this is a bad strategy, I’m not sure that’s true. I can’t off the top of my head think of a single global airline that attributes their profitability to offering a superior experience in economy. Cathay Pacific is bleeding money, and they have nine seats per row in economy. Singapore Airlines claims they haven’t made money on longhaul flights in a long time. American used to offer “More Room Throughout Coach,” but they found that people were’t willing to pay even a modest premium for more legroom across the board.

So the inevitable conclusion is that airlines compete on price, and then those who are willing to pay extra have other options, like buying up to exit rows, premium meals, premium economy, business class, first class, etc.

Do you think British Airways will switch to a buy on board model in economy?

Comments

  1. How well would this go over with the revenue sharing agreement on the TATL flights. If this influences a traveler’s decision to fly a non OW airline that does offer food in economy. Wouldn’t any potential loss in revenue affect AA and AY as well?

  2. Remember that United has BOB snacks on lounghaul since a few years. Its a great way to open for more choices but I dont think this will ends complementary hot food onboard lounghaul. It can still be both. SAS also has BOB alc drinks on routes to USA (still free on the route to Tokoy)

  3. @ Cristoffer Cedergren — Except we’re talking about British Airways here, so I imagine it *would* end with them cutting free food and drinks as well. 😉 Certainly could be wrong, though.

  4. For a moment i was excited that maybe they plan to eliminate fuel ripoff charges but then i read the full headline lol.

  5. @ Peter B — It would, though there have always been inconsistencies when it comes to product offerings. For example, a decade ago American offered angled seats in business, while British Airways offered fully flat seats, so I imagine BA lost quite a bit of revenue because of that. Given BA’s size, I imagine they’d have the power to implement a change like this.

  6. I live in England and never fly British. I fly ryan air and plenty of other short haul economy carriers. For long haul no more economy. Just did my last ever on American DFW to LHR. Never again. Premium economy at minimum no matter what.

    British is terrible and expensive. Not even worth getting miles.

  7. I think British Airways is run by a team of very smart professionals. I heard someplace that the management team there is discussing killing some first and business class passengers in flights and then selling the bodies for medical research in India. Of course the ticket contract will reflect this policy in very tiny print. I think the changes will make investors very happy.

  8. This will only make sense if they also compete with the LCC on price for econ seats. If they just do what AA recently did with “Economy Minus” (TM), where they lower the benefits while keeping the same high price, I don’t get this working. In the long run people will only pay more for BA tickets if they get something extra in hard and/or soft product. Otherwise why not just go with WOW and Norwegian? And I have zero expertise on this, but I’m guessing BA will never be able to get their costs down as low as the LLCs. Meaning they will never be able to compete on price.

  9. I agree with other comments here. It’s all okay if they compete on price. Frequent travelers and those cognizant of the differences between LCCs and legacies may pay a bit of a premium for the superior operations of a legacy, but casual flyers who have exploded the LCC market and book purely on price won’t discern the difference.

  10. It would be wonderful to find,an airline management team that actually innovate. These CEO’s cut and penny pinch and continually make the customer experience worse. Then they stand there, collect their bonuses, and take a bow for reinventing the wheel. I’m not what’s worse though…the CEO’s or the cunsumer who time after time buys the product then complains later.

  11. Everytime BA is in the news it’s about downgrading their product. BA is no longer an airline I aspire to travel on and I only fly FIRST with them.

  12. What’s the fuss? BA’s economy hasn’t been glamorous or inspirational for decades. How is eliminating a free mediocre meal going to make it worse? A customer longing for the good old days of flying can choose to splurge on premium economy.

    To @Robert Hanson’s point: BA’S vast economies of scale could make competing (price-wise) with Norwegian feasible. BA certainly has an overwhelming competitive edge when it comes to route network and convenient connections.

  13. I think he is moving into reality of coach. The low costs carriers are making this “model” a success why not BA? I fly AS domestic and frankly I have written them many times suggesting they offer good food for sale in FC. It’s just horrible ( I am a high mileage FF) So offering tasteful food for sale at a reasonable price point is not so bad in my book.

    Internationally I enjoy foreign flags for FC and Biz. have not flown US metal for 15 years why subject myself to inferior service and food?

    my opinion is premium coach is looking better and better. AF as an example has ( never flown but went and sat back there during flight ) a separate quiet cabin for premium. Best it’s quiet and access to fav’s between biz

  14. Not entirely shocked here. customers have tacitly identfied that for which they are willing to pay a premium, and unappetizing mediocre food in Y is not it. Sucjh a decision, should it happen, would reflect a concession that passengers would prefer to pay for and choose from the many options available preflight in an airport than to have the higher cost of crappy food served at 30,000 feet built into the price of the ticket.

    I do wish, however, that, instead, that airlines would make food at 30,000 feet available at a price – not a profit center, but just at the cost to them as an accommodation to the passenger. In such a world, I do not believe there would be inordinate grousing about reductions in service level.

  15. Not sure if it counts as a “Global” airline (at least not yet), but JetBlue has definitely made a lot of their success from having a superior experience in Coach (and even Business, with Mint). Would love to see how they might shake up the market when they start TATL ops.

  16. I only have one thing to say – just how basic will LEVEL actually be if the actual BA itself goes ultra low cost?

    I mean airplane food is not spectacular and I totally prefer to sit down in the lounge and eat if time allows, but for those in cattle are they all going to come on board with like a sandwich meal deal and a 5 guys?

    Seriously. BA need to stop being tight.

  17. Makes sense. Most people in coach are flying the lowest priced fare they can find that works w their schedule. Nobody chose ba over aa or Norwegian because of the awesome overcomes ravioli they serve.

    Cut and unbundle as much as you can in order to get the fare as low as possible. Focus on premium items in premium economy business and first. Pax there will pay for amenities

  18. “BA certainly has an overwhelming competitive edge when it comes to route network and convenient connections”

    Aye, there’s the rub. Connections…

    The advantage of the new LCCs are the fuel efficient narrow body planes that allow more non-stop routes. BDL-EDI on Norwegian’s new 737-MAX for instance. BA offers this route on their own metal: BDL-ORD on AA, ORD-LHR on BA, LHR-EDI on BA, with a trip time of 16 hours, and a price of $1654 all in. Norwegian has a 6 hour non-stop with a non-promotional price starting at $135 plus additional costs for seat assignments, carry ons, and perhaps seat belt rental. 😉

    How many people are going to choose 16 hours of BA’s new no-frills service @10 times the all in cost? Not to mention the competitive disadvantage of the fuel guzzling 747 BA flies from ORD-LHR vs the super fuel efficient 737-MAX.

    I know it’s just one rather obscure route, but Norwegian has 108 of these 737-MAX planes on order. As they are delivered and go into service on new non-stop routes BA’s “overwhelming competitive edge when it comes to route network” is going to take a major hit.

  19. The fear I have is the it will become monkey see, monkey do. The reason why American brought back free beer and wine across the ocean was because BA offered it. Now they might think it’s ok to cut.

  20. If BA brings buy on board for long haul economy then I don’t see why people would bother choosing it over other low cost options. The tickets are never going to be more affordable and all the ‘prestige’ of flying BA will be lost somewhere between the buy on board and the dreadfully crammed 10 abreast seating.

    I think Shaun has nailed it. It’s never about experience, innovation or improvement for the passenger. It’s about money saving and making for the company and with BA it’s cringingly obvious Alex Cruz is entirely of the low-cost mindset – he thinks BA is Vueling. Sadly I do think he will run it into the ground.

    Alex Joyce copped a lot of flak for shaking up Qantas but in my view he never brought down its image or reputation in the way Cruz is ruining BA.

  21. Will GB stay in the European common air transit market after brexit? Could really shake things up if they leave eventually.

  22. The biggest issue I have with this is that when you buy an airline ticket on board food and drinks is in the price you pay for the ticket. Thus, will BA reduce the ticket price since they will charge for food and drinks? Well, of course not. Thus, if they take out “free food and drinks” and keep the price for tickets the same it means they are offering less for the same price. I wouldn’t mind if they do not serve that terrible food in economy but charging for water on a long flight it is crazy.

  23. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw something akin to what Air NZ has done (reasonably successfully) through its Seats To Suit strategy on its South Pacific, Australian and Asian leisure routes. Some fares are bundled with IFE, checked bag and meals, other fares are Seat Only or Seat+Bag with the option to buy other food on board. Meal allocations on board are done through a simple colour-coded headrest system, so there is no slowing down of service while crew crosscheck the manifest. A Seats To Suit strategy would effectively allow BA to be all things to all people. Those who book codeshares or award tickets would automatically be ticketed into an all inclusive fare which would remove the JV problem. As much as S2S was derided by NZ frequent flyers when it first launched, it has allowed NZ to compete quite effectively with the likes of Jetstar.

  24. I kind of hope they do. Having experienced the M&S offering on eurotraveller flights, I’d much rather eat something I want, rather than complain about the food on board. I’m flying club euro later this month and would secretly prefer the M&S bacon roll to the business offering.

    For long haul I think they should keep soft drinks as free (everyone needs hydration) and offer an extended M&S offering

  25. I quit United a decade ago because they scrapped free alco drinks on long-haul flights to Europe while BA still had them. But these days I only fly Business Class and I don’t think that would bother me any more. Economy for a 10 hour flight is so miserable that you might as well take a couple of Ambien and make the time do away (did that once as well).

    But if you’re a kid you just want to save money so what the heck – take on sandwiches and save a few bucks.

    BA is right here – make their Economy like Norwegian for Norwegian prices, and improve things for the folks over-paying at the pointy end where all the profit it anyway

  26. Can’t really comprehend this on a LHR-SIN-SYD ultra long haul. Particularly with middle-eastern and asian carriers offering ‘all the frills’ for no doubt the same or a similr the price.

  27. I don’t really fly economy anymore for long flights. But I wouldn’t mind paying for meals if there is a good choice. The real problem is with the rest of the hard product. 10 across on 777 and 9 across on 787 seating is just too bad for a 10 hour flight for someone with broad shoulders and 6ft 4 inches tall. Also, if buy on board is best for consumers, I wonder why US airlines are slowly bringing back some free meals on transcon flights?

  28. Until BA customers vote with their feet and transfer their loyalty and
    spending power to more competitive airlines, Cruz is going to continue the ‘no-frills’ drive to cheapen one of Britain’s remaining heritage brands.

    My feeling is that Cruz is exploiting the age-old British complacency and, now misguided, customer loyalty to implement the insults with which he is rewarding that loyalty. Once BA is brought to its ‘no-frills’ knees and Cruz is ousted, the inevitable rabid drive to seduce new customers will be embarrassing to witness … but will it be too late, one wonders? After all, once a brand has been debased by the very guardians who are supposed to champion it, is a comeback even possible?

    To target Economy class customers is, quite frankly, below the belt, especially when charging them in excess of £1000 return to some long haul destinations while competitors charge between £400 and £600 return for the same destination and on new aircraft.

    One would have more respect for BA if it were to simply become a Business and First Class carrier with all the perks. Rather than penalising loyal Economy travellers and imposing ill-considered restrictions on the higher classes, this might be the solution to greater profits. The public would understand such a decision and BA’s world class airline status would remain intact.

  29. This will continue until either every airline is an LCC or the public decides that it is willing to pay more for more. Which is unlikely because we love our money far too much.

  30. Nothing beats EK long haul (eg DXB-DFW) on the main deck of an A 380. Food inedible, small seats, almost zero legroom (30″?) and very poor service.

  31. Alan, Emirates actually have quite a lot of legroom. 32-34″ according to seatguru infact.

  32. It’s all relative – I used to pay about $1000 Europe to Asia in Economy. Now I can pay half that, but instead I pay $1200 to fly Prem Economy if it’s my own money. So you could argue that at the same price point things have improved, it’s just whether the average traveller thinks they deserve everything they got in economy 10 years ago, but at half the price.

  33. I flew BA once in coach and it was horrible. The return was in Premium Economy which i would have paid anything to be out of coach. That was better, but only ‘just’. I’ve flown them in business as well and found it to be totally underwhelming. I’ll fly Iberia in business any day (which, btw they have a really nice product). BA itself is a big disappointment. As a major OneWorld carrier, they really should be ashamed of themselves. The 747s are ancient. Business class is less than adequate and far below what American offers and far far below what Iberia offers in business. Perhaps they were a worldwide standard at one point in the distant past, but now are not even worth looking at as an option.

  34. This concept will be the future of Eco-Class catering on long-haul. First, booking the meal in advance means, that everybody gets exactly, what he/she wants. Its more personalized, what is not bad at all. Second, people, who have to pay for something, only order it, when they really want it. So, less uneaten food will be dumped and less weight will cause fuelburn. Great for the footprint.

  35. I remember when BA was the standard for airline service, even their economy was pretty good, still coach, but altogether not bad. Hell I even flew on their Concorde back in 98 and it was the best flight experience I ever had – even had it’s own class, “Supersonic Class” which alone gave me enough points to catapult me to silver.
    But more and more I hear how they are going the way of the US3 in the race to the bottom.

    I will agree with the premise, it is we the customers, by voting strictly for the lowest costs with our wallets, that contribute to this race to the bottom. The overwhelming majority of travelers seem to use price as a sole determining factor when buying airline tickets, and I’ve done that occasionally too. But I learned very early, price does not equal value, and by being willing and able to shell out extra, I feel I get a much better value if not price.

  36. Trust Lucky to say he admires Cruz…That’s only because this CEO will destroy the airline that Lucky despises….

  37. I want to be angry at Mr Cruz, especially when he comes out with total B/S like “Out customer are loving having to pay for M&S food, when before all food and drink was free” – ok i embellished that slightly ..

    But the point he totals nails, is that people get what they want to pay for. So if pax are going to be so tight as to “jump ship” to another carrier because it was £5 cheaper, then they get everything they deserve – 10 across on a 777, pay for everything and oh look, its become Ryan Air

    No thanks.. as far as BA are concerned, its J,F or I ain’t boarding

  38. “Empowering the customer”? What a joke. I bet that guy United dragged off the plane felt empowered to “voluntarily” give up his seat. Flying these days is horrific.

  39. British Airways is fast becoming a basket case. Ive flown business and economy for 30 years with BA at least twice a month and apart from the Club lounges the in-flight service has steadily degraded whilst pricing has risen in business class.
    I dont feel any sort of loyalty any longer I would just as soon fly Air New Zealand to LA than BA business class or Virgin to Cape Town. My last Cape Town flight from London the Club seat area was flilthy and the screen kept going up & down on its own.

    Mr Cruz will kill the airline like the Spannish have done to Iberia.

  40. It is a great shame and pity that it has come down to this. All that they are doing is dropping their standards and quite frankly, it is very unattractive, especially to long haul passengers. They are going to lose a lot of business by this decision and quite honestly, it is ridiculous. If people choose alternate airlines, then BA will lose even more instead of gaining by cutting down on their meals. Some very unrealistic decisions being made which the company will live to regret. Whose brain child is this? Good luck BA!

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