Simon Calder: Cash for check-in - British Airways joins the weight list

The man who pays his way

Seven years ago this month, Flybe broke with the tradition that an airline ticket was a travel permit for your possessions as well as yourself. Passengers paid a princely £2 extra to check in a bag. Ryanair followed suit but raised the stakes, claiming its luggage fees were to persuade passengers not to check bags, thus cutting handling costs and fuel burn. While easyJet initially insisted the free baggage allowance would stay, it soon ditched the policy and now charges a minimum of £9.

Now British Airways is cutting fares for short-haul economy passengers from Gatwick who agree to carry bags on board. The effect is to introduce a charge for baggage. The starting price is the same as easyJet: £9 per bag, per flight, to Amsterdam, Jersey and Turin. To Dubrovnik you pay £12, while the fee to Tunis is £15.

Soon the deal will apply to all economy passengers on BA's domestic and European network from Gatwick. "Those who still want to check in a bag will simply pay the same price they do now," promises the airline.

However much passengers squeal, it is a smart move for British Airways. In 2001, easyJet's London bases were Luton and Stansted. In the aftermath of 9/11, many slots at Gatwick became available – some surrendered by BA – and the low-cost carrier moved in. Today, Gatwick is easyJet's main base.

BA has been fighting a losing battle with easyJet at Gatwick ever since, chased off routes to Madrid, Toulouse and many other destinations. To compete, it has to cut fares. A good way to do that is to reward those who keep costs down by carrying on their own bags. BA's cabin allowance is more generous that its rivals: a big 23kg case plus a handbag or laptop. If a passenger changes their mind, they can add a bag online for £20. Turn up at the airport with an extra case, and you get charged £40. Very easyJet.

The big rival's verdict on BA's venture: "EasyJet still offers a better and simpler deal for passengers."

Sharm shambles

Ever since it took over British Caledonian a quarter-century ago, BA has had a problem at Gatwick – which has proved a chronically underperforming "Cinderella" operation to the ugly but profitable big sister of Heathrow.

You could write a book entitled Mad Strategies BA Has Tried at Gatwick, subtitled It Must Have Seemed a Good Idea at the Time. First, the Sussex airport became BA's "hub without the hubbub". A parallel route network was established to mirror Heathrow's. You could fly from LED to LAX – St Petersburg to Los Angeles – via either London airport. BA Gatwick even boasted a 26-minute minimum connecting time between flights, though this was not enough to lure passengers from other airlines. As losses mounted, the plan went up in smoke and the timetable was toast.

Next, as slots at Heathrow became scarce, Gatwick became a dumping ground for less profitable routes. "Let's move all our Latin American flights from Heathrow to Gatwick," went the cry from BA's HQ. The passengers didn't follow, so the flights moved back. Same idea, different part of the world – this time, East Africa. Again, all have returned to Heathrow.

Long-haul "premium leisure" flying to the Caribbean and Florida has proved more profitable, against intense competition from Virgin Atlantic. One US destination, Las Vegas, is now successfully served from both Heathrow and Gatwick. But other BA attempts to move holiday routes upmarket have flopped.

Someone also thought it was a good idea to take on easyJet's lean there-and-back operation to Sharm el-Sheikh. BA used a long-haul 777 with crew given several days off on Egypt's Red Sea coast. Costs were way out of line with revenues and the route was quickly scrapped.

Name game

With allocated seating, flexible tickets for business passengers and a network serving primary airports across Europe, easyJet looks as though it is turning itself into British Airways.

Now the converse is true, with BA emulating easyJet's baggage policy. Complimentary drinks and snacks are surely next for the chop. But BA does not want to risk the no-frills message seeping into its Heathrow heartland. A good way to differentiate the stripped-down, extra'd-up Gatwick operation is to choose a new name. My bet: baJet.

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