In May I wrote about how British Airways was considering charging for food & drinks in short-haul economy. The airline’s current CEO, Alex Cruz, used to run Spanish low cost airline Vueling. He seems determined to use some of the strategies he learned there at British Airways.
Last month we learned that British Airways will begin selling packaged snacks in economy on longhaul flights, and now there are several reliable rumors that British Airways will announce the elimination of free food in short-haul economy. Instead they’ll offer a buy on board food service, in conjunction with retailer Marks & Spencer, which they’ve apparently struck a deal with.
While I know many people appreciate a complimentary snack, in practice the benefit to British Airways could greatly exceed just the cost savings from free food and the additional revenue from buy on board items. In practice they could also cut staffing levels on intra-Europe flights, since as it stands British Airways often staffs flights above minimums. The number of flight attendants needed to provide a buy on board service would be much lower than under the current system, where each passenger gets a free drink and snack.
The problem is that some suggest this will lead to lower airfare. It won’t. Per the Daily Mail:
BA has always distinguished itself from its budget rivals by including meals in ticket prices, and passengers may complain the quality airline is going downmarket.
But the deal would allow it to cut fares, making it look better value in comparison to Ryanair and easyJet, which have been taking a growing share of the market.
While some travellers say they prefer BA because they do not have to buy snacks, executives believe holidaymakers are increasingly prepared to pay for extras if ticket prices are lower.
This is, of course, absolute hogwash. When airlines have added fees — especially legacy airlines — we’ve almost never seen a corresponding drop in airfare. Airlines charge what they can get away with, and the reality is that most people won’t pay extra for a flight if it includes free snacks. Now, one could argue a snack contributes to the overall experience and with enough cuts people may choose to fly carriers like Easyjet and Ryanair. However, I’d say for the most part that’s already true.
Airlines eliminate services so they can price competitively and maximize profits, but there’s hardly a direct correlation between the elimination of free food and a reduction in airfare costs.
While I’ve heard from several reliable sources that the buy on board plan is set in stone, what remains to be seen is:
- Whether drinks will still be complimentary, or if they’ll be for sale as well
- Whether there are any changes to intra-Europe business class service; will British Airways instead just offer buy on board snacks for free to these passengers, or will they maintain a separate meal service?
Of course I don’t like to see service cuts, but at the same time I can hardly blame the major carriers for these kinds of changes, given the competition they face. The benefit isn’t just incremental revenue and cost savings on food, but long term it could lead to lower staffing levels as well, which saves them more money.
At the same time, while I don’t think anyone chooses British Airways exclusively for the free food, the less they do to differentiate themselves, the less of a reason there is for passengers to avoid ultra low cost carriers.
What do you make of British Airways soon switching to a buy on board model for short-haul flights?