From 11 January next year, anyone in economy on a short haul flight – which BA defines as five hours or less – won’t get the familiar complimentary snack and their choice of drinks from the trolley. Instead, they will be invited to buy from a range of Marks & Spencer snacks, ranging from a packet of crisps at £1 to a Ploughman’s sandwich at £3. They’ll also have to pay for drinks: a cup of tea will cost £2.30, a gin and tonic £6.
How do I pay?
Not by cash; only credit or debit cards will be accepted. However, if you’ve got an excess of Avios – BA’s frequent flyer currency – you can pay with those, using the BA app on the smartphone.
So if we’re paying for in-flight catering instead of getting it for free, will fares fall commensurately?
Not necessarily. At the prices being charged the move is not going to make a fortune for BA. Agreed, it will turn food and drink from a cost into a “revenue stream”. But the airline hopes it will actually make its offer more appealing, by offering passengers a better choice and quality of food. Its research shows that many passengers don’t value the free catering. In a ferociously cost-sensitive market, it seems it’s the headline fare that matters.
The move will also align BA with its sister airlines in the IAG conglomerate: Aer Lingus and the two Spanish airlines, Iberia and Vueling: at the moment if you buy a BA “codeshare” flight that’s operated by one of those airlines, you’ll have to pay for stuff, and conversely passengers who book with those airlines and happen to fly with BA find that they get food and drink. It’s a messy marketing message, which this move will solve.
But it could also get messy if people can’t immediately distinguish between BA long haul and short haul?
Yes. For most flights it will be obvious – if you’re flying to Asia, Africa or the Americas, that’ll be long haul, and to Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia and Europe’s Mediterranean nations, then you’re flying short haul. But there are some oddities: Moscow, which is a four-hour flight, is classed as a long-haul service, while Larnaca (500 miles further) is short haul.
What logistical implications are there for the cabin crew?
At present, on short flights such as Manchester or Newcastle to London or Heathrow to Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris, the time in the air when food and drink can be less than half-an-hour. At present that’s enough time to dole out a snack with a maximum choice of two items and serve drinks without the need to collect money. With passengers now choosing from a menu of a dozen or two items, and paying for drinks – not with cash but by plastic or frequent-flyer points – it’s going to get quite exciting on board. But of course some passengers will decide they don’t want anything if they’re paying for it, or bring their own on board, or even see if they can last for a couple of hours without eating or drinking anything.
What about people with bookings that they made on the basis of BA’s previous promise that: “Whenever and wherever you are travelling we offer a complimentary snack or meal and bar service.”
Tough. The airline is writing to such people, which include me, saying that if we were expecting free food and drink we should adjust our expectations.
Q How does this new policy compare with other European airlines?
All the budget airlines – EasyJet, Ryanair, Norwegian etc – charge for all food and drinks. And the “full-service” carriers are moving towards that model, but very slowly and without any consistency.
SAS Scandinavian Airlines charges for food and drink – but does provide free tea and coffee. Also in the north, Icelandair charges adults except for tea and coffee, but under 12s get a meal free. And that applies long-haul as well, as I discovered on the trip from Reykjavik to Anchorage in Alaska… coming home, I packed a picnic.
Air France and its subsidiary KLM, as well as Alitalia, provide free food and drink, and Aegean of Greece serves generous meals even on short flights.
Lufthansa still gives free food and drink on all services, as do its subsidiaries Austrian and Swiss but its subsidiary Brussels Airlines charges in Europe – unless you are connecting from a long-haul flight, in which case you get a free soft drink or coffee on production of the boarding pass.