British Airways Tests the Lower Bounds of a Full Service Carrier

British Airways

Ever since full service carriers began to cut what’s included in the base fare, people have wondered just what the breaking point might be. Or to put it another way, how low can they go? Some airlines are cautious, but British Airways seems to be more willing than most to push the envelope, provoking a fair bit of public anger. Recent cuts have only increased the noise, but will that anger actually hurt the business? BA seems determined to find out.

How low can British Airways go?

Most moves by full service carriers have been accepted, albeit begrudgingly. But a few have apparently crossed a line. For example:

What’s interesting is that there seems to be an imaginary line drawn in the heads of many executives. For example, the full service carriers have been reluctant to try charging for carry-on bags. I’d say that would probably fail, but then again, I thought the same thing when they started charging for the first checked bag. Some execs think they know the boundaries. But at British Airways, they want to keep pushing.

The most remarkable and obnoxious move to me has been BA’s decision to actually charge for seat assignments… in business class. (Of course, coach and premium economy charge as well.) That’s a long-standing practice that hasn’t been reversed, and I’m amazed. But now BA is getting even more aggressive.

Gulliver over at the Economist sums up the changes nicely.

On long-haul flights of less than 8.5 hours in coach and 7 hours in premium economy, British Airways will stop serving two meals. It’ll just be the one meal at the beginning and then snacks the rest of the way. That might not sound all that bad, but it hurts people like me. Especially when I fly east, I really have no interest in the first meal since I’m trying to adjust to European time. It’s that morning breakfast (mmmm… British bacon sandwich) that helps me to reset my clock. I can still get that from LA, but anywhere on the East Coast? Forget it.

Beyond that, BA continues to cut around the edges. Now, as Gulliver found out from Head for Points, the list of cuts keeps growing.

  • Blankets are now only by request on day flights in First Class.
  • Club World will have fewer fresh snacks and more that are shelf-stable.
  • The arrivals lounge for premium customers will now no longer be offered to arrivals after noon. [Update: BA tells me this hasn’t changed]
  • Bottles of water have been replaced by cuplets in coach.

These are just some of the things being tweaked around the edges. But how much is too much?

Certainly British Airways has more leeway than others. While its name may be British Airways, nearly its entire operation is centered around London. And BA’s hub, also London’s most desirable airport, Heathrow, is full. So BA can get away with cutting more than others simply because competition can’t get in there. Oh sure, there’s room at the other London airports, but most efforts to fly long-haul from them have failed. BA has it good.

On the other hand, Norwegian is expanding at Gatwick a lot. It’s not clear that this operation is sustainable, but the more that BA cuts, the more it helps Norwegian. Of course, people connecting on BA through London have more choices as well. And at some point, they may start choosing other options. (Then again, if the connecting situation at Heathrow isn’t enough to deter them already….)

Personally, I’m excited to see BA doing this. That sounds insane, but now we’ll see if there really is a lower limit to what full service carriers can get away with. BA may previously have been a top tier carrier, but I’d say its current offerings put it more squarely in the middle of the pack. Maybe that’s where BA thinks the future is. If the changes don’t hurt BA, then it might be right. But at some point, it’ll cut too much. That’s when we learn the breaking point.

Let’s see how low things can go.

[By EndlisnisStreet limbo 3, CC BY 2.0,]

41 comments on “British Airways Tests the Lower Bounds of a Full Service Carrier

  1. For all the noise about meals over the years, I have really been wondering how much does a coach meal actually cost the airline? $3? more? Is that how much they are saving and that is making a difference on the bottom line? I get the walmart angle and all or saving pennies, it just seems a bit silly on intercontinental travel.

    1. This has been a question of mine ever since meals on domestic flights disappeared post 9/11. When times were tight I understand that the cost of the meals could mean the difference if a flight operated in the black or red. Right now, I hardly think that’s the case. I’m sure the number crunchers have done the work but I’d be interested in what a cost per passenger is for an in-flight meal. As someone who thinks it’s asinine that the airlines aren’t providing meals on flights to places like Costa Rica (especially from northern US hubs) dropping a second meal on a +8hr flight seems ridiculous.

    2. John – I don’t remember exact figures, but it is not a lot money at all.
      Still, it adds up quickly and in a business with thin margins (historically, at least), it can really make a difference.

  2. Next up on chargeable items:
    1) seat cushions – do you really need one for flights less than 8 hrs?
    2) jetway gap less than 2 feet away from plane – that’ll cut down on oversized luggage making its way onto the plane.
    2) emergency oxygen – hey, you’re on your own.

  3. The arrivals lounge doesn’t surprise me. I’m sure BA has data on usage to show how underutilized they are once people are able to check into their hotel room. I’d never use an arrivals lounge if I can stop at the hotel first.

    The second meal? From the east coast, I usually skipped it in favor of the extra 20 minutes of sleep. The positive here is a quieter cabin and no need to turn up the lights early.

    1. I agree about the second meal. I hate 8 hour overnight flights because with the two meals, there’s not enough time for sleep. Give me a 14 hour flight over the 8 hour flights any day! I timed it on an MSP-AMS flight that departed after 10 PM: the lights were only out for three hours in coach. They typically turn on the lights for breakfast on those long hauls 1-1.5 hours before landing. If they can keep the lights out until final approach, that’s an extra 40 minutes or more of sleep. I’m all in favor.

      1. I agree. That’s why I take the 9:30am IAD-LHR whenever possible. On a “good” day, the slight time can be at 6 hours. Only enough for a grump-inducing nap to be awakened by the sounds and smells of breakfast on those overnight shuttles from the East Coast to London.

  4. I’m on soap-box over your throw-away comment about Heathrow being London’s “most desirable airport.” It is the only option for flying to most North American cities, but that doesn’t make it desirable. Both from where I work by The Tower of London and from where I live, Gatwick is preferable.

    With direct train service from London Bridge, London Blackfriars, and London Victoria (versus either the sluggish and crowded Piccadilly Line or services from not-so-convenient-as-it-may-seem Paddington), Gatwick is more accessible though a bit more out-of-pocket. With reasonable food and shopping options, it works for me.

    And that is without mentioning that, at Heathrow T-2, it requires a snack and a bottle of water to get from security to the far, far-off gates for United. Not such a long, long walk for most Gatwick gates.

    On your subject of paying for seats, I recently had a bit of a surprise. I purchase assignments on a BA domestic flight. £9 each. When I thought I might want to change them for another seat, BA was going to charge me another £9. The purchase of a seat assignment is not transferable from one seat to another.

    1. Ferrelled – No question some people like Gatwick, but there’s a reason that all the US carriers walked away from Gatwick as soon as they could get into Heathrow. Delta and US Airways even tried to stick it out, but those flights disappeared too. It is really a giant leisure airport now and it serves that market well, but it’s just not going to be the preferred London airport.

  5. Problem is that the other Legacy carriers will try to follow suit, all at the expense and comfort of the paying passengers. Witness charging for bags. Hopefully, passengers who are a bit savvy can select another carrier within the group, like One World, etc. and thus vote with their feet. Remember when Delta was charging for drinks on International flights? So, I just chose the Air France alternative (besides, their wine was better) problem solved. Oh yeah, Delta backed off

  6. Personally, I’d rather see an LCC or a ULCC “go up” (ex. B6 Mint, Southwest Business Select) than a full service carrier “go down” (ex. BA), both from a management and customer perspective.

    From a management perspective, an LCC or ULCC would keep their low operating costs, but would offer higher fares (though it would be for a more expensive product).
    From a passenger perspective, I would be used to an LCC or ULCC being, well, low-cost, and I would be pleasantly surprised if they offered upgrades, better service, etc.

    From a management perspective, if a full service carrier “went down”, they’d probably keep their higher operating costs, but have to offer lower fares.
    From a passenger perspective, I would be used to receiving better service, though at a usually higher fare, and would be very annoyed if a full service carrier “went down” this much.

    Not everyone would agree with me, but this is just my opinion.

  7. I don’t worry about sneaky BA charges, etc. I’ve been to Europe 6-7 times and, because of the awful “fuel” surcharges, would NEVER fly on BA, anyway.

  8. The water bottle removal is an interesting change. Will this not just result in more work for the FAs?

    I recently booked a TATL ticket on BA, eastbound in business and return in Prem Economy (I refuse to use their confusing brand names for their classes of “service”). I did end up paying extra for seat selection for the Prem Econ segment because there were only a few seats left and I wanted to ensure decent seats for me and my wife next to each other (day flight). But I refused to pay extra for the business class selection. It’s an overnight flight and if I end up not sitting (sleeping) next to my wife I am sure we will survive.

    On a previous trip in Prem Econ I ordered a special meal (Asian vegetarian). The special second meal, shared with Economy, was a complete joke.

    1. A couple thoughts about the water bottles…

      1) The water bottle removal could be more about packing space than anything else. Sure, it’s a little more work for the FA’s but they’re a sunk cost, so to speak. The waste from all the water bottles takes up a lot of space in the trash bins (even though it’s recyclable) when you distribute it across all the cabins and randomly toss them into the bins. The larger empty bottles remain with the galley equipment, so now the cost of pouring the cups gets balanced out against less trash elsewhere in the cabin. Plus, the empty cups stack…

      2) I suspect a fair percentage of the individual water bottles never get opened on the plane. I know I always took one or two away in my carry-on if I wasn’t connecting…

      1. Are they going to use that storage space they save by removing the bottles for the removed 2nd meal? :)

        Perhaps they should offer water bottles in demand. That would help address the waste issue.

        I guess I will be ringing my call button and asking for a cup of water a few times during each flight now. Hope others do the same.

    2. At least the aircraft will be lighter once the passenger drink the water and it’s no longer in the cup.

      1. Just for the part that is sweated out of the body and dried by the ventilation system of the aircraft !…

  9. What is the definition of a “full service carrier?” Is there a list of items that if one has, it adds up to “full service,” and if one doesn’t have, no “full service,” you?

    Domestic US, for example…can we say AA, DL, UA, WN, JetBlue, Virgin, Alaska, Hawaiian, Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant are all “full service? How about Cape Air? Great Lakes? In the international arena, are Singapore Air, Lufthansa, AA, UA, DL, Turkish, Norwegian, Icelandair all “full service?”

    In the airline business, it seems to me “service” is so undefined one can advertise anything as “full service.” Fares used to be very defined, too, easy to understand, (yes, high, too) but now with unbundling, what is the fare, or the price, DOT’s efforts at “transparency” notwithstanding?

    I guess this is why I, and I believe a lot of people, find dealing with the airlines so frustrating, even maddening, and yes, elect me, and Immediately, immediately, I will make airline service great again, just like I know it never was!

  10. I would say British Airways is doing this *Because of* Norwegian’s competition at Gatwick, not despite it. More and more passengers are demonstrating that price is their single greatest priority and are willing to travel with a lot less service so long as the price is lower as demonstrated by Norwegian’s growth. In this context BA is trying to react by lowering its operational costs to allow it to offer more competitive fares while still turning a profit. Without knowing the numbers I imagine these small costs multiplied over all those passengers 12 months a year do come up to an important saving. The return of the Gatwick New York service as well as the expansion into Stansted are all symptoms of the same strategy.

    1. But, why would they make cuts in F and J in response to Norwegian’s routes? I don’t recall Norwegian offering F or J.

    2. Anonymous – I would hope BA isn’t doing this to compete with Norwegian, because that strategy generally doesn’t work. At least in the US, the airlines have learned that it’s best to kill them with segmentation. It’s different when you’re bleeding money, but if BA thinks the way to remain highly profitable (as it is today) is to cut and cut again, then it’s going to reduce its differentiation with Norwegian and make it harder to compete. It’s never going to have as low of a cost structure as Norwegian, so that’s a bad plan.

  11. Cranky Flyer,

    British Airways just did this number to us last week. We purchased tickets on AA from ORD to LHR. BA code shared one of the Flights. After getting seat assignments on AA – I tried for BA. – I was redirected to British Airways web site where I had to pay 180.00 for 3 seat assignments together for one way flight ! These were NOT upgrades but had to purchase so our family Could sit together.

    I could not believe it. – BA web site said if you do not pre-purchase seat assignments one will be assigned day of flight – Really ?
    Maybe British Airways and Frontier should merge – they seem to have the same low ball tactics.

    1. You paid for the certainty of your seats and assumption that BA wouldn’t seat you together. While I don’t like the fee either, I never paid it. My family has never been seated apart when waiting until check-in time and the seats being revealed to us. Imagine the uproar from the British press if ‘BA extorting money from hard working families’.

  12. Spot on regarding cuts around the edges strategy from BA. It makes me suspicious every time BA introduces a “new” service what the cost savings are, such as their JFK-LHR sleeper service where you are supposed to eat in the lounge before boarding so they can skip the first on-board meal.

  13. Just thinking, perhaps it’s time that we start a ranking system for airlines similar to the ‘Stars’ we use to judge hotel’s service level. The definition of LCC or ULCC, etc., is, to me, highly subjective. This way everyone would be on the same page of the hymnal so to speak

  14. Heathrow might be full but there is more competition between the US and the UK and not all carriers have the same views of service and charges including in the economy cabin.

    There will be an impact to BA’s finances because of Brexit (the devalued pound will cut winter travel from the UK or require it be sold at lower fare levels) while transatlantic low cost competition will take a hit out of the Euro flags’ businesses. Add in the impact of the Middle East carriers on the Euro flag’s eastbound longhaul networks and the recipe is ripe for BA to be as negatively impacted as AF/KL and LH have been on the continent. So far, both have tried not to devalue their products in some of the ways that BA is doing.

    The worst thing BA can do for its own future as a premium carrier (but help its competitors) is cheapen its product right at the time when consumers have more choices than ever and have more information than ever to compare travel choices.

  15. This makes me sad, really. I remember flying BA 747s when I was a teenager and feeling like the height of sophistication. No more.

    1. Yup. I have flown them a few times (including in paid C and premium economy) in recent years after moving away from SFO and thus escaping the UA ties. Really not any better than UA’s service. And getting worse while UA seems to make moves in the other direction.

  16. BA could be trying to reduce weight. I saw numbers years ago that every pound reduction in weight saved xx dollars in fuel per year. I forget the number now but it was surprising. Cranky? Water and meals are heavy. When fuel cost went up, Ryanair was ruthless about reducing weight, even removing the blinds from the windows.

    1. The bottle of water I will be carrying on my next BA flight will be larger and heavier than the one they used to hand out. And the food I will be carrying on will weigh more, too.

      Oh, wait. I might actually fly Emirates instead of BA next time I go to India.

    2. Doug – Every amount of weight does add to the cost, but at some point, you can cut too much and revenue suffers. I don’t know what that points is, but I’m excited to find out.

  17. I should have added that In Canada, Air Transat has announced that they will no longer offer special meals on transat flights (except kosher and veggie). There can be 17 different kinds of special meals in the air. All delicious, of course.

    1. In my days working for TWA I was amazed at the number of special meals offered. But other then kosher, seafood, fruit plate, veggie and every so often a child meal, the others were rarely ordered since no one really offered to go over the large list of dietary options.

      1. I generally order the Hindu Veg meal. I am not Hindu or Indian, but I have found that the main meal is generally fairly edible (certainly better than the pasta or chicken choices). The second meal is usually blah.

    2. For whatever reason, AA has always been skimpy on the variety and availability of SPMLs and it’s only gotten worse with the merger (as has the quality and fitness of the standard offerings) for a mostly Kosher vegetarian like myself.

      AA has long only had about half dozen SPMLs, while at the time of the merger USAIR had 2.5-3x that. They’ve obviously moved down to the lower common denominator. Currently, DL is the only US major to offer SPMLs on all domestic meal service flights-including DCI. UA formerly did up until the merger, but that went away in 2011. Many arrogantly say “bring your own food” but with limited carry-on space, need to chill, etc it’s much easier said than done.

      That said, the B6 Mint SPMLs look quite good and to their credit they also give detailed descriptions online (much like CO did before the merger).

  18. So their plan to cut costs is to nickel and dime the premium customers that pay thousands of dollars for a ticket. I am definitely not representative of this group, but don’t they choose on quality and not price? Wouldn’t BA be better served to just marginally raise their premium price?

      1. And for those, there is a price sensibility to the original ticket price, and not to the extras (which are computed long afterwards through one’s expense account !!!)…

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