Swiss Is Introducing Buy On Board In Shorthaul Economy, With A Twist

Europe is a highly competitive market for aviation, both for shorthaul and longhaul flying. In shorthaul markets you have ultra low cost carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair, while in longhaul markets you have Norwegian and WOW Air for travel west, and the Gulf carriers and an increasing number of Chinese carriers for travel east.

As a result, the traditional European mega-airlines have been adapting their business model, though they can’t seem to fully decide whether they just want to compete head on with the ultra low cost carriers, or offer a differentiated experience. The problem is that they’ll never be able to compete directly with these airlines, since they can’t achieve a cost structure that’s as low.

However, that doesn’t stop them from trying. This is perhaps most evident at British Airways, as they densify their planes (both shorthaul and longhaul), and have introduced buy on board catering in economy on shorthaul flights.

Swiss is generally considered to be one of Europe’s most premium airlines, and they’ll soon be introducing buy on board catering on shorthaul flights… but not in the same way as British Airways.

Swiss will be adjusting economy service on all flights out of Geneva (with the exception of flights to New York and Zurich). Here’s what this trial will initially look like:

  • Economy passengers will only receive complimentary water, a snack, and a chocolate (previously all beverages, including alcoholic beverages, were complimentary)
  • Those on “Eco Light” fares won’t be receiving the complimentary snack, but rather will only receive water and a chocolate
  • In addition to the complimentary offerings, all other drinks as well as a range of snacks will be available for sale

On the plus side, at least Swiss isn’t eliminating free water and basic snacks in economy, as so many other airlines have done. Instead they’re taking a hybrid approach here, and offering the basics, while allowing passengers to purchase other drinks and more substantial snacks.

The thing that I find especially strange is that they’re further differentiating Eco Light fares. Many of these intra-Europe flights are so short, it seems like a pain for the crew to have to figure out who is entitled to free snacks and who isn’t. Furthermore, processing purchases takes time, so that will slow down the service flow as well. Then again, I guess since they’ll just be pouring water for free, there are significant time savings there.

This is also the first time I can remember where a traditional airline is offering different onboard services to those passengers booked on the cheapest economy fares. Even in the case of basic economy in the US, the only difference is the ground experience. You’re restricted in terms of your carry-ons, but it’s up to the gate agent to enforce that — once you’re on the plane you’re no different than anyone else.

I’ll be curious to see how this trial works out for Swiss. Since they’re part of the Lufthansa Group, you can bet something like this will expand to Austrian and Lufthansa if “successful.”

What do you make of Swiss’ hybrid buy on board model, and of them offering reduced onboard services to those on the cheapest fares?

(Tip of the hat to YHBU and FrankfurtFlyer)


  1. Other Lufthansa carriers Brussels Airlines and Eurowings already differentiate economy passengers. For example on Brussels Airlines you have “Flex&Fast”, an economy product with food and drinks included and “Light&Relax”, an economy product with buy on board.
    The Eurowings product matches even more the Swiss approach: in “best” you get full service, in “smart” you get a small bottle water and a snack and in “basic” it’s full buy on board. Seems like Swiss is making the shift towards the “hybrid” partners in Lufthansa Group.

  2. Oh man, I remember the good old days (a few years ago) where Swiss offered a hot pizza snack on a flight between Zurich and Amsterdam. Started at the top, now we are here….

  3. Ryan

    Yes, when a ZRH-LHR ticket was €400+

    Today the same route is €130.

    The fall in service levels across the board has been perpetuated by the constant demand for cheaper travel.

    You can not blame the airlines.

  4. Hmm interesting you see this as favourable to BA when 1. all Swiss gets you on the cheapest intra-europe flight is a cup of water and a tiny chocolate and 2. Swiss already has 3-4-3 in Y.

    Not sure what BA have done to warrant this, though is 100% expected from OMAAT…

  5. @ Tommy — Swiss gives everyone free water and a chocolate, and gives all non-Eco Light fares a free snack. BA gives no one anything for free in economy. How could you not see this as being a better policy than what BA has?! I think you’re the one letting your bias show here…

  6. @ Lucky

    Sorry – I know BA isn’t ‘better’ but given Swiss tends to be more expensive (in my experience), the differentiation – which you must admit is tiny – doesn’t warrant BA bashing at all costs.

    Indeed, I do fly BA (being LHR-based it makes sense), but I hate their HBO policy for elites and don’t think my family will be too impressed with them this summer. BA aren’t perfect by any means but I’m not sure why they’re always used as a straw man. LH created Eurowings first, AF uses Joon to pay its staff less (and has angled seats in J), Scandinavian have reduced lounge access in Europe for elites, etc. Whilst BA have been cost cutting, they’ve recently gotten lounge access in multiple airports in Europe, opened the First Wing, etc. BA aren’t perfect but I’m not convinced they deserve constant bashing.

  7. I suppose those with eco light fares sit at the very back of the bus near the toilets while those with normal economy fares sit in front? That way the crew can differentiate who’s who.

  8. @ Tommy — I’m not sure on what basis you say that BA is more expensive? They’re competitively priced between London and Geneva, for example, and in many cases Swiss is cheaper. But this isn’t even about fare. I wasn’t saying Swiss provides a better value (there would be no way to analyze that anyway, since on the typical intra-Europe flight you have some people paying $50 for a seat, and others paying $500 for the same seat). I simply said that Swiss isn’t introducing buy on board catering in the same way British Airways has. I’m pretty sure that’s factually correct?

  9. @Lucky

    Fair enough – it’s not exactly the same. Not sure you can use points to pay for food/drink on Swiss, which given even the lowest Avios earning rates does give enough for crisps on a flight of say 600 miles. Obviously not perfect, but not the end of the world.

    Guess my major qualm was the point of bringing in irrelevant data (i.e. BA 777’s) when Swiss’ are 100% 3-4-3 and have been for some time. Fair enough to point out that BA are cutting costs, but to not call out other airlines when they do the same. This change on Swiss is not a positive for the customer, full stop. It’s just calling a spade a spade IMO, which seems to happen in some instances and not others.

    Regardless, thanks for taking the time to respond. Really appreciate it and do love your blog, BA-related conversations aside ;).

  10. @Tommy

    Swiss actually has all the A330s and the remaining A340 (5-6 I think) aircraft with the 2-4-2 in economy. Only the 777 has the 3-4-3. Check your facts!

  11. @ Cedric

    Please, show me where I said any Airbus aircraft had 3-4-3 seating. The fuss made on this blog is about BA’s 777 – simply a comparison to that of Swiss.

  12. @Lucky — Is it really accurate to say this is the first time a traditional airline has distinguished between the onboard economy experience based on what fare you buy? On transcon premium service routes, United provides free meals only to customers in economy plus; regular economy customers only have access to buy on board options. My understanding is that Delta similarly offers onboard benefits to comfort plus customers, like certain free alcoholic drinks that are regular economy customers have to pay for.

    Is the distinction here just that customers who are eligible and ineligible will be interspersed throughout the cabin, rather than sitting in designated “plus” seats? There is some precedent even for that in that United and American give free buy on board to certain elites, who could be seated anywhere in economy, while others have to pay. I’m not sure that what Swiss is doing is that crazy. Presumably their flight attendants will have a color coded seat map that shows them exactly which customers are eligible for snacks and which are not.

  13. I can’t imagine this working. I agree it’s nice they haven’t cut free water as well (that was what most annoyed me about the BA implementation), but on a 1-hour flight from GVA to LCY or LHR, I can’t picture the flight attendants being able to sift successfully between fare classes within Ng economy to differentiate service.

    Swiss must surely be counting on virtually no-one buying in flight meals, but settling for water and a chocolate, therefore just looking g at this as a substantial cost saving on food.

    BA may have been the first to “race to the bottom” in economy but their strategy has been generally correct (as much as it pains me to admit it) and expect all European carriers to have implemented buy-on-board shortly. I also Think it’s a joke how “premium” Swiss is considered given their J class is mediocre and their longhaul 777 economy has always been 10-abreast (as @Tommy points out)

  14. I remember that Swiss already charged for meals in economy back in 2005 and switched back. Will be interesting to see what they will offer. I personally prefer BA on the ZRH – LHR route (also since I like the T5 Lounge). What I like about BA’s menu is that:
    – it offers special drinks (i.e. a good IPA and not only standard Lager)
    – Sandwiches are from M&S and not overpriced i.e. similar as bought in the store. So it doesn’t matter wheter I pick it up in the terminal or on board
    – coffee definitely better in swiss

    I hope Swiss will not just start to charge a typical (high) Swiss price for their current sandwiches and lager beer…. By the way, SAS does a very good job in my eyes. Tea, Coffee water for free and premium food/drinks for sale. They even got a specially for SAS brewed Mikkeller IPA… happy to pay a few Euros for that!

    Let’s see – might also just stay for flights ex Geneva. The one-way fares also did not make it to ZRH..

  15. I think it sounds very cumbersome particulary for a Short flight. The differentiation over the free snack seems a bit over the TOP and redundant. Why don’t they simply offer chocolates and water to everyone and go BOB for the rest? They can offer a free snack as a value bundle option like Air NZ. The intermediate fare buckets can be differentiated through ground services, baggage and advanced seat selection. No one cares about the snack at all.

    This almost seems like a half-hearted attempt by Swiss to offer BOB apologetically. I wish some legacy airline would have the courage to offer a premiumized BOB experience.

  16. Offering two products on one csbin doesn’t work. I think Swiss tried this before when they offered complimentary beverages and meals for customers who had connections to longhauls
    You either offer comp meals and snacks or you don’t Water should always be free

  17. @AL

    Don’t say anything too positive of BA on here…you’ll get blocked by Lucky haha

    BA is much cheaper than Swiss. Not sure why Lucky says BA is more expensive :-S They are far cheaper from LHR to ZRH and GVA.

    BA also offers free water to economy short haul passengers if you ask.

  18. As an American familiar with our now miserable “lowcost” legacy service, I find all this intra-European messing around ridiculous. My last trip to Europe I took Ryanair and was pleasantly surprised.

    Earlier I had been on a Finnair 4 hour flight with every seat full. Despite good efficient efforts from the FAs, it was a miserable crowded, claustrophobic experience. Thirty people in the aisles lined up for the johns most of the trip? Not again, thanks.

    A big part of what made Ryanair endurable was that it was from one not-big airport to another not-big airport (Valencia to Bologna 1.5 hours) instead of wasting 5-6 hours connecting a hub as is de rigeur in the US.
    I’m amazed that legacy airlines in the US and Europe keep deleting “benefits” or serving them with tweezers and still ignore flight lengths or insist on their hub model. So we get free water and chocolate or not free water and no chocolate OR we get to sit in DFW for 5 hours and 32 minutes between two two-hour flights.
    No wonder Ryanair is so successful.

  19. I fly Swiss for the chocolate. About halfway through the flight they come down with a basket with these cute little red-and-white bars of chocolate in the Swiss branding. Delicious. Very glad to hear they are keeping those free, or I may have switched to another airline…

  20. Great point about the implementation, Lucky. This is almost the reverse of United giving complimentary snacks/drinks to 1K and GS members. That process is anything but seamless, to say the least… I cannot fathom how they will go through the cabin and identify “no frills” customers on such short legs. Also, imagine how uncomfortable and awkward this will be when someone switches seats and is misidentified as “water only”.

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