LONDON — Passengers travelling with British Airways (BA) face very different types of journey in the coming few years.
If you’re lucky enough to turn left when entering the aircraft, you will find an improved cabin and facilities. Premium economy passengers will also have better food and drink. But if, like most people, you turn right and keep going, you will find that the gap in amenities between you and the front of the aircraft is widening appreciably. Especially if you are flying from London Gatwick.
BA’s Gatwick-based sub-fleet of 22 Boeing 777-200s, which tend to be deployed on leisure-oriented routes such as Florida and the Caribbean, will see the latest phase of BA’s ‘densification’ program. The economy cabin is going from nine abreast to 10-abreast. Total passenger load will jump from 280 to 332, with fewer business-class seats (dropping from 40 to 32) more than offset by a doubling in size of the premium economy cabin to 48 and economy cabin capacity rising from 216 to 252.
Up front throughout the BA long-haul fleet, however, there will be a new first-class product on the airline’s Boeing 787-9s and a £400 million ($500 million) upgrade in the airline’s business class, including what the company describes as “radical improvement” in quality and presentation of its food and drink, better bedding for the lie-flat seats and a “step change” in service, with a completely new service routine from cabin crew.
In the short-haul fleet, meanwhile, BA’s second densification exercise in four years will see capacity of its London Heathrow-based Airbus A320s rise from 168 to 180 in Winter 2017 and that of its A321s climb from 205 to 218 from Summer 2018.
Furthermore, from the start of 2017, BA will scrap one of the main differentiators between it and low-cost carriers (LCCs) such as Ryanair and EasyJet, namely complimentary food and drink on its short-haul sectors.
Admittedly, the food offering these days has usually shrunk to a sandwich wrap, but many a tired business executive will tell you that their flight home at the end of a long day has been improved markedly by a BA cabin crew member pressing a large gin and tonic into their hand.
Of course, BA describes the change in short-haul food arrangements as an ‘improvement’ because it will now offer a wider range of food from one of the UK’s best-known High Street chains, Marks & Spencer. But you’ll have to pay for it.
BA can argue that it is merely bringing its short-haul food and drink policy into line with those of fellow-IAG carriers Aer Lingus, Iberia and Vueling, all of which charge for onboard sustenance. But passengers generally dislike the loss of a previously free service.
However, several of BA’s full-service European short-haul rivals – Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, Alitalia, Austrian and Swiss – still serve free food and drink.
Changes to the in-flight service were revealed as part of a Capital Markets Day presentation for analysts early in November.
A BA spokesman told Airways that it was flying more passengers than ever and the densification of aircraft would allow it to offer lower fares. He also held out the introduction of a new IFE system as a plus in the airline’s cabin update plans.
Seat pitch, he said, would not deteriorate in either the Gatwick 777 fleet or the short-haul A4320-family fleet from the current 31in, despite the addition of extra rows of seats in the latter, because of new, slimmer seat designs.
Other airlines in BA’s parent International Airlines Group vary: According to SeatGuru.com Aer Lingus’s short-haul passengers have 31-32in of legroom, Iberia’s have from 30in down to a tight 28in in short-haul, while LCC Vueling’s aircraft offer 29-30in.
For the record, other LCCs have the same, or almost the same, pitch as BA. Norwegian’s economy is 31in in its long-haul 787s and 30 in its short-haul 737-800s. Ryanair is 30in. EasyJet is “an average 29.8in”, said a spokesman.
But will BA’s actions alienate its traditional passengers? Will they balk at what some will see as a deterioration in the service levels they have come to expect from the UK’s flag-carrier?
Responses on more than 120 pages of the Flyertalk website suggest that BA passengers are none too impressed with the demise of short-haul catering.
‘The brekkie is a major differentiator for me on my morning domestic flights and [the] tipple is a major differentiator on the way back up,’ said one. ‘It isn’t just the £2 it would cost to purchase a drink, it is just the cheapening of the brand and the “experience” that I object to,’ commented another.
One thoughtful passenger wrote: ‘This is a marketing fail. How does BA position itself now as a short-haul carrier? A no-frills, full-service carrier or an expensive, low-cost carrier? Either way is a contradiction and deliberately positions itself worse than the market leader in either category.’
However, BA’s actions are unsurprising, says Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at UK consultancy Strategic Aero Research. “If anything, BA are being a little bit slow and reactive” in their actions.” Most 777 operators, he notes, have already gone to 10-abreast in economy, even those that earn high marks for customer service like Qatar Airways.
Ahmad believes that in slotting in an extra seat per row BA has decided to chase volume, rather than yield, in the search for greater profitability.
Moves such as doing away with free food on short-haul could backfire: “I think they’re going to hack off a lot of passengers.” But will they be sufficiently annoyed to take their custom elsewhere? “That’s really difficult to tell. But I struggle to see the economic value when you have such a risk of alienating people.”
Noting that BA’s future plans include the provision of free onboard wi-fi, he comments that the airline is “giving with one hand and taking away with the other.” BA’s hope may be that passengers will be so immersed in their electronic devices to think about refreshments.