Simon Calder: Gimme gimme gimme...a meal after 10am
Saturday 01 August 2009
Can you hear the drums? While British Airways battles on in what its chief executive calls a "fight for survival", the airline's misfortunes are chiming with the songbook of Sweden's only supergroup.
Over the past few weeks a number of readers have expressed their alarm about the risk of industrial action by BA's cabin crew, whose talks with management have ended without agreement. These prospective passengers are booking on other airlines, in what I call the ABBA principle: Anybody But British Airways – the slogan for people who are worried that, should a strike begin, they couldn't escape if they wanted to.
Now, an SOS campaign may be about to start, after the airline announced that it will stop serving economy passengers what is euphemistically described as a meal on short-haul flights that depart after breakfast time.
Since intense competition began on domestic and European routes, those of us in the cheap seats on British Airways have watched with some dismay as the typical catering offering has diminished to a mere sandwich. Now even that is threatened, as the airline seeks to cut costs and waste – which is why some passengers may demand that BA "Save Our Sandwiches". But I doubt it.
The airline rightly recognises the importance of serving breakfast: early flights represent the cruellest form of air travel, with barely a chance to grab even a coffee on the high-stress journey to the departure gate.
On a recent BA flight from Gatwick, the complimentary meal had shrunk to a one-ounce pack of "Skybites", described as a "delicious premium mix of crunchy bites, fruits and seeds"; presumably designed to appeal to hamster class. The packet invited me to "fly, nibble, enjoy" – instructions that are open to misinterpretation. It seems that this snack may become the norm for any flight. Don't be afraid to ask for another; in the past, I have. If I had to do the same again I would, my friend.
Money, money, money – and in particular the need to staunch BA's losses – lies at the heart of the no-meals-on-wheels move. But where exactly will the £22m savings go? In a sense, passengers are paying the price for the airline's recklessness in launching business-class only flights between Amsterdam and New York on its OpenSkies subsidiary; after a year of burning shareholders' funds, the route will end in a fortnight. Another theory is that the cash is just what is needed to fill the gap between what cabin crew say they are prepared to surrender in terms of pay and conditions, and the changes demanded by BA management. More likely, though, is that cutting complimentary economy meals could reduce the complement of cabin crew on short-haul flights.
The name of the game, in the longer term? BA insists it has no plans to charge for meals and drinks, but I am not convinced. Already the traveller who books a British Airways flight to Madrid or Barcelona and has the misfortune to choose an Iberia-operated service (clue: the flight number begins 70) has to pay for refreshments. A merger between the British and Spanish flag-carriers seems increasingly likely. One of the first consequences will be the introduction of common service levels. I'd like to think that Iberia's standards would come up to BA's, but at a time when short-haul flying is increasingly commoditised that seems unlikely; indeed, BA's main short-haul rival at Heathrow, BMI, axed free food and drink for economy passengers on its European network four years ago today.
Which way to Norwich?
Here we go again: geographical uncertainty is the bane of a traveller's life, and the internet has made life trickier. A good agent can make sure that the traveller means Dhaka, Bangladesh rather than Dakar in Senegal, or that the airline ticket is for Dallas in Texas rather than Dulles, outside Washington DC.
Seven years ago, when long-haul online booking of flights was relatively new, a couple aiming for Australia's largest city ended up in the small town of Sydney, Nova Scotia. Since then, travellers whose grasp of spelling is as shaky as their sense of geography have found themselves booked to Parma in northern Italy rather than the Mallorcan capital, Palma. But now imprecision appears to have spread to our politicians. Last Saturday the London Labour MP, Emily Thornberry, had the dismal job of defending the party's defeat in the Norwich North by-election on Breakfast News. But the MP for Islington South and Finsbury told viewers that she had been energetically canvassing in Ipswich – an understandable slip, but not one likely to boost votes in Norfolk.
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