No more free food on BA’s short haul flights – so what’s in store for Heathrow Terminal 5?

British Airways will no longer offer complimentary drinks and snacks on European services, so passengers will be looking to stock up elsewhere

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The Independent Travel

The first edition of the inflight magazine, High Life, contained a price list for inflight purchases. In 1973, the price of “Vermouths Sweet and Dry” on British European Airways flights was 10p.

In a story I wrote to mark the 40th anniversary of BA’s magazine, I speculated, “Perhaps we will return to the days when you must pay for ‘Minerals and Cola’,” and added “I bet they will cost more than 5p.”

It didn’t take too long. As The Independent predicted in May, and British Airways revealed this week, from 11 January next year the cheap seats will be more expensive for anyone who likes a drink (or a nibble) on board.

When I fly out to Brussels on 10 January, a gin and tonic is free (though since the flight is at 6.45am, I may decline). Flying back the next day, I will need to pay for my G&T.

Rather than the 5p that “minerals” cost in 1973, that tonic will cost £1.50, with the evil alcohol costing a further £4.50 – the same as a quarter bottle of wine. People can take their own alcohol on board, but are not allowed to drink any booze that is not served to them by the cabin crew.

Water, which is a much more sensible thing to drink, will cost a painful £1.80. But happily that is easily solved: I routinely take an empty bottle through security and ask staff at an “airside” bar to fill it, which they invariably do with a smile.

While the drinks trolley will look the same as ever, only more expensive, the food offer is very different. British Airways has recruited Marks & Spencer to provide a range of snacks. Having done a comparison this week I must say the quality is far better. BA kindly supplied me with the existing cheese-and-ham croissant, a sad and soggy item that is manufactured in Ireland of all places and needs to be transported over the Irish Sea before it even gets near a galley. And M&S offered a cheese ploughman’s sandwich, which was fresh and tasty, as you’d expect. The price of £3 represents a one-third uplift on the high street price, not at all bad for a sandwich that’s been uplifted to 30,000 feet. BA's budget rivals typically charge £4.50 for a sandwich.

Karen White tweeted that she is all in favour of replacing BA's current offering: “That wrap they hand out is like eating carpet underlay.” But here’s Jacqueline Crockford, saying she is “OK with this but wish the options were Pret rather than M&S”.

Pret a Manger, as you may have noticed, has a large presence airside at major UK airports. (M&S has a large presence, too, but it is landside, aimed more at returning travellers who need anything from a pint of milk to a miniature bottle of wine to steady their nerves on the Gatwick Express.)

Vendors of food at airports served by British Airways should see a surge in business: passengers either eating before they depart, or taking goodies on board. Almost all the UK’s airport terminals are prepared for this, because of the trend towards “buy on board” (or, in my miserly case, don’t buy on board). When Heathrow Terminal 2 was (re-)opened, attention was paid to this shift in behaviour. The London's Pride pub does a good trade in sandwiches for people to take on their journeys.

But what happens across at Terminal 5? It is Fortress BA, with British Airways operating almost all the flights from "T5". Our writer, Christopher Beanland, raised the question of whether its retail offer is fit for purpose. He says: “Currently there aren’t many food outlets, because most people wouldn’t bother buying snacks if they get them free on BA. But once they’re no longer free, will T5 need to add more places to buy food?”

I suspect the retail specialists at Heathrow are already on the case – and perhaps hoping that the “no free food” concept extends to flights longer than BA’s planned limit of five hours. Already Icelandair, which has a time-zone-busting flight from Reykjavik to Portland in Oregon (seven zones, eight hours), has dropped complimentary catering from long-haul services. Except, oddly, for passengers under 12, who still get a free meal – which, from what I have observed, is usually swiftly and surreptitiously devoured by their famished parents.