PR dribble

Mar 12, 2017

British Airways ‘improves’ short haul flights with even tighter seating

Is British Airways telling us that it's going to be nothing more than a bigger low cost carrier?

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

If this looks tight, just wait until you are onboard one of them

While British Airways probably means ‘bugger all’ to most Australian flyers, the integrity of its messaging can be seen as another example of the contempt a growing number of airlines have for their customers in a game where costs can go down if passenger discomfort goes up.

To whit, this rather sad news story in the Evening Standard about it reducing legroom on short haul flights to less than that offered by Ryanair 737s, or down to the dimensions inside easyJet A319s.

Your reporter has already endured three short haul flights and four long haul sectors on Bloody Awful in recent years, and they were in supposedly premium cabins, and been painfully reminded of the rush, also apparent in Air France and Lufthansa, to punish those who take their claims to be full service carriers seriously.

The magnitude of the problem of blurring full service and low cost definitions of service hasn’t yet reached the same levels in this hemisphere as it has in Europe and soon-to-be Little Britain, but consumers in Australia need to be alert to the issues.

The first symptom of this scourge of jamming everyone in more tightly in avowedly full service carriers is to lie about what is happening.

This is the lie from British Airways as reported by the Evening Standard.

A BA spokesman said: “From next year we’re making a small increase in the number of seats on our A320 and A321 fleets so we can keep fares low.

“Customers fly with us because we offer quality and value in all areas.”

Since when has charging for meals (like low cost carriers) and matching or exceeding their levels of discomfort represent ‘quality and value in all areas’. It just puts BA on a par, or even less than par, with brands that have never claimed to be full service.

Telling customers up front that the airline is going to become more painful for normal sized adults and adolescents to endure, and become ready to sell them overpriced snack food that would never fit on a tray table the size of those that used to be normal in economy, would be the truth.

Given that these moves may signal the abandonment by BA of notions of full service over flights of less than five hour, an honest admission that it is just going to be another low cost carrier might actually lead to a better customer acceptance of this new reality.

The often discussed strength of full service carriers in their lounge and loyalty programs won’t necessarily work in the near future the way it has in the past. Visit a BA lounge in Heathrow and you may well prefer to escape to the less overcrowded pleasures of a higher end bar or bistro in the public areas of the terminal. It seems a bit fanciful to think of increasing the population of the loyalty lounges much further if the real estate they occupy  might yield better returns from other tenants.

If this is to be the way of the world in Europe, it will inevitably overtake air travel on a much larger scale in this part of the world.

Flying used to be something regular business travellers regarded as essential. With developments like this, such valuable customers might decide they can get by with slashing the amount of physical travel they do, and move more into the options being opened up by virtual reality communications tools.

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13 thoughts on “British Airways ‘improves’ short haul flights with even tighter seating

  1. [email protected]

    The evolution of transport!
    Airlines in Europe reduce the comfort level to the lowest common denominator. Meanwhile, the quality and speeds of railways in Europe have never been better. The only rider to that is the slow demise of the sleeping car train, a sad testimony to the power of bean counters.

  2. FlyLo

    “de minimis non curat lex”!

    Is a reduction of 1 inch in legroom on short-haul European flights really such a big issue?

    It’s the difference between the Qantas 737-800 seat pitch (30″) and a Jetstar A320/321 (29″). Neither is particularly comfortable but personally not a problem for flights lasting only a couple of hours.

    BA short-haul service has been gravitating towards the LCC model since the arrival of Willie Walsh in May 2005.

    No surprises in this at all as it mirrors Willie’s tenure as CEO of Aer Lingus in October 2001 when the airline was reconfigured into an LCC.

    The creation of IAG in January 2011 and the appointment of Willie Walsh as IAG’s CEO has only accelerated this process. I believe the performance of Vueling Airlines, a Spanish LCC which since April 2013, has been fully owned by IAG, has been used as the short-haul template for other IAG airlines (Aer Lingus, Iberia and British Airways).

    The rise of LCCs means that European Legacy Carriers can no longer rely on hub-and-spoke operations. Lufthansa has shifted nearly all of its European flying to its LCCs Germanwings and Eurowings. All Lufthansa Group flights from London (Heathrow) to Germany are by LCCs except the Frankfurt and Munich flights which continue the ‘hub-and-spoke’ concept.

    Air France and KLM are (less successfully in my view) seeking to transfer flying to their respective LCCs Hop! and Transavia.

    I travel often between London and continental Europe. Frequency of flights and convenience of airports are my major concern. London City Airport is by far my preferred departure point as I work in central London. It has no BA departure lounges and few amenities but it is easy to get to and quick to pass through. Tickets sold from London City are at a price premium during the week because of this convenience.

    BA CityFlyer has a fleet of about 20 Embraer aircraft (E170 and E190). I also fly a lot of Swiss (ancient Avro RJ 100’s) and Helvetic Airways (generally Embraer E190s). The service offered on these aircraft is quite basic but the convenience of departure and frequency of travel make it the airport of choice.

    BA short-haul is no more than (and in some people’s eyes, probably less than) easyJet but based at Heathrow.

    I recall Carolyn McCall CEO of easyJet lobbied for the third runway at Heathrow because she would like easyJet to fly from there.

    I don’t understand what is so wrong with offering convenience, frequency and a sustainable business model whether you are the CEO of Qantas, Ryanair, easyJet or British Airways.

    Lufthansa largely abandoned short-haul European flying to its LCC offshoots. BA is following the Aer Lingus model and will continue to do the flying itself. Have you recently flown short haul on Finnair, Austrian, SAS, TAP or any other European Legacy Carrier? None of them are much different to LCCs other than the convenience of the airports they fly from.

    LCCs such as Ryanair, easyJet, Norwegian Air Shuttle, Vueling, Wizz Air and Pegasus Airlines have transformed short-haul flying in Europe and could be in the early stages of transforming long-haul flying too.

    Without the changes being made by the European Legacy Airlines for short-haul flights, they would become an irrelevance.

    If a business is not based on a sustainable, profitable business platform it won’t survive. It seems to me the changes BA has implemented to its European short-haul network are all about long-term survival.

    This is in my view an entirely predictable and rational development.

    While extra leg-room and full service are always welcome, frequency and convenience of departing airport are more valuable to me.

    1. Dan Dair

      “Swiss (ancient Avro RJ 100’s)”
      Ancient and yet still efficient & effective at getting in & out of that tiny airport.!!

      (The main runway at KSA is almost as wide as LCY is long……
      ………not strictly true.!)

    2. Randall

      Is the difference between 30″ and 29″ inch a big deal? If you’re 5’10”, no. If you’re 6’3″, yes. And Vueling shouldn’t be anybodies model.

  3. Ben Sandilands

    If this is the case, and I think much of what you say is from my perspective correct, BA shouldn’t resort to weasel words but simply say, ‘This is going to hurt, but we’ll make more money, so get over it.’ Or ‘you’re pain, our gain.’
    Loosing an inch in width or seat pitch may not seem much, until bone meets hard plastic, or another hip bone. And it’s not just an inch, it was at least three inches in the BA and LH Euro business class seats in one hit, and I just don’t like crap being dressed up an an improvement. It’s dishonest. Tell the truth to the customer, and they will cope, lie to them and they will end up paying a bit more for the extra room seats on the LCCs, which in some instances, offer a space hard to get in the legacy carriers. BA has a choice in this, and how it communicates these changes will determine if it keeps customers or bleeds them to LCCs.

  4. comet

    It’s appalling, isn’t it?

    Obviously BA has calculated that most people have no idea of the seat pitch when they book a ticket. Most people don’t look it up.

    Then these Bull**** Artists try to bury it in the press release.

  5. Dan Dair

    IMO it’s self-evident that the European market for air travel has changed out of all recognition in the last 15-20 years.

    Legacy carriers have had to adapt to the fact that the Low-cost guys have not just gnawed at the corners, but have in many cases shoved them off their chairs & are sat at the table, eating their lunch.
    British Airways is a massive airline with massive overheads & the staff wages issues which have been an ongoing part of their long-term restructuring are testament to the fact that BA at least, has bit down hard on the bullet of Low-cost competition & wants to stay competitive across European short-haul.
    Unsurprisingly BA used to fly a loads of domestic UK routes but has ceded many of them to Low & Lower-cost codeshare partners, presumably to make all these issues ‘somebody else’s problem’.?

    I agree that BA are somewhat less than honest in how they are describing these current changes,
    but at the same time, does anyone really expect their marketing-department to say anything different.? That is exactly what a marketing-dept is for, to make a virtue out of a necessity.?

    What I think is more interesting is whether BA & the other legacy carriers which have moved towards LCC standards are also moving towards competitive-pricing with Low-cost carriers.?
    If BA are now flying with EasyJet seating, are they also priced at EasyJet prices.
    If they are not, then that’s where the real rip-off is.
    Charging a premium price but providing a low-cost service will probably give you great short-term profitability, but will quickly drive your customers into the hands of the Low-cost / low-service ‘honest’ airlines.?

  6. pieter

    Basically anywhere you go within Europe “our flying time today will be one hour and twenty-five minutes”, so most people don’t care too much about space, especially considering how the rates have come down in the last 2 decades. And a 4-hour railrip in 2nd class is not much more confortable or convenient, certainly not cheaper.
    With long haul flights it is an entirely different story though, and I wonder what PR departments must think about their average customer when they issue factually correct but enormously misleading dribble like this example–entertainment-system-aboard-777-200-fleet
    10 points (instead of 9) for anyone who can guess the one very noticeable aspect where they have been a bit economical with the truth.

  7. Tango

    Well in the end people do make their choices with their pocket book.

    What I don’t get is in Europe if you can take a train why would you take a plane?

    1. Dan Dair

      Whilst the flights are generally much quicker than the train,
      when you take into consideration how long you need to get to the airport before departure & the fact that most airports aren’t on the doorstep of the city they serve, the train is usually the best compromise.
      However, between UK & Europe it’s the other way around much of the time because the English Channel changes the game.
      London to Brussels or Paris direct by train (city centre to city centre) is brilliant and only a couple of hours. But if you don’t want either of those two cities or you’re not actually starting from somewhere near London, it’s virtually useless.!

  8. FlyLo

    Pieter, so KLM have gone 10 across in their 777-200s! All the ‘Flying Blue’ privileges would not make up for the long-haul discomfort!

    Dan Dair, I really like the Avro RJ100s! When they depart LCY it’s like taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier! I have not flown on the new Bombardier CS100 aircraft yet. I understand SWISS will be retiring the Avro’s as the new CS100s are delivered.

    Tango, train travel is great between certain city pairs like London to Paris. Within continental Europe train travel is good between the major business hubs. But for just about everywhere else, planes are faster and cheaper.

    Comet, I think most people travelling short-haul Europe from London are used to ‘tight’ seat pitch in economy. No European airline I know of is offering a roomy alternative. But as Pieter points out, the flying time is rarely longer than 90 minutes.

    I pity the people in economy on Qantas 737-800 aircraft suffering 30″ legroom on 5 hour flights from Perth to Singapore or 5 or 6 hour flights from Brisbane/ Sydney to Perth. I flew on VH-VWQ (a newly delivered Jetstar A321) from Melbourne to Sydney. This has even more than the 220 seats on Jetstar’s pre-loved older A321s. I had no problem with this aircraft on a short Melbourne to Sydney flight. The tightness of the seating reminded me of easyJet.

    however, I would find it most unpleasant to fly (say) to South East Asia on it. But I don’t doubt Jetstar will find customers to fill their aircraft. Their 787-8s are packed incredibly tightly but they seem to have no trouble selling seats.

    Western Europe is tiny in comparison to Australia. About the longest flight I take in Europe would be the equivalent of Melbourne to Brisbane.

    A lot of people commute by train for up to two hours each way (sometimes longer) to get to work in London in much greater discomfort than a 29″ seat pitch with many commuters standing the entire journey. So air travel has some way to go before it reaches this level of discomfort!

  9. comet

    In the old days we used to laugh at Ryanair for its tight seating.

    How times have turned, and nowadays legacy carriers like BA are worse. Why would anyone fly BA when they can get a cheaper ticket – with more room – on Ryanair?

    I wonder if there have ever been any evacuation tests performed on aircraft that are packed so tightly.

    1. FlyLo


      From your remarks, I take it you don’t live in Europe or fly European LCCs regularly. There is still a big divide between legacy carriers (like BA) and most European LCCs.

      People like me will fly on BA (or SAS) in preference to Ryanair because when for example, you fly to Stockholm, the plane lands at Arlanda airport (37 kms north of Stockholm) and not Västerås airport (about 110 kms to the west of Stockholm)!

      Look up Ryanair’s ‘Dusseldorf’ Weeze airport. The use of the term ‘Dusseldorf’ was blocked by a German court ruling on the grounds that it would mislead passengers (Weeze airport is closer to Dutch cities of Venlo, Nijmegen and Arnhem and the German city of Duisburg than it is to Dusseldorf) but this hasn’t stopped Ryanair from marketing the airport as Dusseldorf Weeze!

      There are numerous other examples. ‘Frankfurt’ Hahn (a former military airport) is 120 kms away from the city of Frankfurt! Warsaw Modlin airport (another former military airport) is located 40kms from Warsaw. BA flies to Warsaw Chopin airport (10 kms from the city centre with better transport links).

      BA’s proposed seating density on its short-haul narrow-body Airbus fleet is identical to easyJet’s existing seating density, a UK-based LCC with a fleet of 238 aircraft.

      With your evacuation test comment you cannot seriously be suggesting easyJet or BA would operate outside CAA and EASA regulations?

      For your information, Jetstar operates with the same 29″ seating density on its 72 aircraft. Do you have similar evacuation concerns with these aircraft?

      You can also add the following airlines which have at least some of their fleet configured with 29″ seating density:
      Thomas Cook Airlines
      Thai Airways (Airbus A320)
      Spring Airlines
      Iberia Express
      Tigerair Australia
      China Southern (737-300)
      Air India (A319)
      Air India Express (737-800)
      Vueling Airlines
      S7 Airlines (737-800)
      Peach Japan

      I’m sure there are many more examples.

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