By Brian Lait
IT HAS been expected for a long time, but by e-mail dated September 29 British Airways (BA) officially informed me (being a highly valued Executive Club member) that on all BA short-haul flights (generally acknowledged to be less than four hours) to and from both Heathrow (LHR) and Gatwick (LGW) BA will no longer be offering “free” food and drink in tourist class from January 11, 2017 (a Wednesday, which seems an odd type of date and day to introduce something new).
I put free in inverted commas because such things are never free. BA have always recovered such costs through the price of their air tickets.
BA have confirmed that the regular flights to/from Larnaca (LCA) and LHR or LGW will be classified as short-haul, despite them being between four and five hours which should be classified as medium-haul (3-6 hours by accepted definition, long-haul being between 6-12 hours, and over 12 hours is ultra long-haul), and thus not have this change applied to them.
Regardless, the e-mail is written in the time honoured honey-coated gobbledygook expected in such tiresome communications and needs to be read with great care to interpret its true message. BA say this change is “upgrading our food offering…”. My dictionary defines upgrade as “To raise in status, quality, value, etc.” and it is here that I have my first problem: Is charging for food and drink instead of handing out so-called free food and drink an upgrade in any way? I suggest that it is not, although based on recent experiences almost any food would be better than the current BA offerings.
The message goes on to tell us that there will now be a “buy-on-board menu range” and this will all be supplied by Marks & Spencer (M&S) “another great British brand” (what’s the other one?). Indeed the e-mail is headed “M&S is coming aboard”. There are a few pretty pictures of sandwiches, etc. to supposedly whet our appetites and all food on the menu will be under £5, although no prices are given for drinks. However, we will not be able to use cash, only credit and debit cards (oh! and Avios for those lucky Club members. Life is so sweet).
As all food is M&S, every flight must be stocked with enough for the return journey. An airbus A320 has around 150 tourist passengers and an aged Boeing 767 some 200+ , so food for 300 and 400+ passengers must be loaded on these two aircraft at LHR. Will there be enough space for a goodly selection for the return leg, or can I already hear the cries of “We only have £4 cheese sandwiches left with curling edges” or, worse, “Sorry, we’ve run out of all food” ? Over and above that seemingly distinct possibility, imagine the time it will take to dole out sustenance to over 200 hungry and thirsty customers between here and LHR when they must pay by credit or debit cards !
Despite all the nice words it is very unclear as to what BA is trying to achieve.
According to a recent Reuters report the switch to M&S food “…was driven by customer dissatisfaction with the current short-haul economy catering”. I support the dissatisfaction but why don’t BA simply improve the catering? Have customers asked that BA employ M&S to supply food, and have customers asked to be charged accordingly? I would very much doubt that.
The same report quotes BA’s CEO, Alex Cruz (whose previous experience was running the Spanish low-cost budget airline Vueling – better known as Ailing Vueling when its finances were in dire straits some years ago), as saying “[Customers] told us we are experts in flying and service, but when it comes to catering on short-haul flights, they want to choose from a wider range of premium products”. So, Mr. Cruz, why aren’t BA providing such a range themselves?
Another article reports that the deal with M&S and charging customers “….would allow (BA) to cut fares, making it look better value in comparison to Ryanair and easyJet, which have been taking a growing share of the market”.
Well now, that really is interesting, so let’s have a look at some of these “competing” fares going into February 2017 when BA will have started charging their long suffering tourist passengers for food and drink. Let’s see what airfare quotes we can get in February, by which time BA should have had plenty of time to cut fares and be more competitive.
On the LHR to LCA route we have BA and Aegean on a daily basis, from LGW to LCA we have easyJet and from Stansted (STD) to Paphos there is Ryanair. Aegean provide a hot meal and soft drinks and wine on their flights as standard and easyJet will continue to sell food and drink and thus be the same as BA. At the time of writing, BA on Thursday, February 17, 2017 are asking £126.51 including £5 for booking with a credit card (4 per cent of the fare) for a one way flight to LCA; Aegean ask £100.21, easyJet want £76.24 including a booked seat and 43p for booking with a credit card, whilst Ryanair will cost £82.99.
Well BA, where is the fare cutting that is enabled by you charging customers for refreshments? BA is 26 per cent more expensive than Aegean, 66 per cent more than easyJet and 52 per cent above Ryanair.
On the same day from LHR to Zurich, BA’s fare is a whopping 111 per cent above Ryanair (STD to Basel), and to Athens they are 26 per cent above Aegean who provide hot meals and beverages, and 66 per cent above easyJet.
In an e-mail to me dated October 11 BA state that “The move [to start charging for food and drink] comes following extensive customer research and feedback…” I have asked for details of such research but have received no response to date. I imagine “feedback” is a euphemism for “complaints” and I simply do not believe there was any “extensive customer research”.
To put it mildly and politely BA are being less than economical with the truth, or are they just incompetent? The fares do not seem to be reducing and are certainly far higher than easyJet and Ryanair whom BA say are the main reason they will charge for food and drink. So how on earth do BA think they are going to recapture the market they have lost and are losing? The simple answer is that they won’t. They will continue to slide downhill.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s the ‘quick buck syndrome’. With the drastic drop in oil prices BA have been saving a fortune over these past many months. As they have discovered that low-cost airlines typically make just under £2 per passenger from in-flight sales, a new world of cheap profits has opened up which they hope to grab, while maintaining the very familiar uncaring attitude to tourist class travelers within Europe; for the time being anyway.
Maybe, just maybe, BA will realise one day that good service with appropriate fares will attract and retain customers. They are failing on both aspects today, and will do even worse from January 11, 2017. I presume that on that date their slogan “To fly, to serve” will change to “You fly us, we screw you”?
Brian Lait is a retired chartered accountant living in Cyprus