British Airways Tests the Lower Bounds of a Full Service Carrier

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:

  • When US Airways began charging for water and soda, there was a revolt. It quickly reversed course. ( out of LAX, and that failed as well.)
  • United decided to remove free meals on flights from Washington/Dulles to Europe and start selling buy-on-board instead. That didn’t make it very far at all.

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.

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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 , 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.

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