"Sit back, relax and enjoy your flight": this pre-departure recommendation from the captain has always rung hollow for anyone taller than 5ft 6in. Given the miserly economy-class "seat pitch" of 31in on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic long-haul flights, bagging an emergency-exit row has always been the only way to ensure a comfortable trip. For many years Virgin Atlantic has sold these seats for a flat £50, and now BA has adopted the same policy.
Some will see this as a welcome extension of customer choice, removing the anxiety of the pre-flight seat-allocation lottery. Others will regard it as another BA slither down a slope made extra-slippery by the likes of easyJet and Ryanair.
When the new policy takes effect, some of us in the cheap seats will be more equal than others. And BA (in common with other airlines) is filling a higher proportion of seats on its aircraft than ever, although not at profitable fares – so there are fewer empty seats to bid for. What could be next: charging for food and drink on short-haul flights? The airline says no. Other possible strategies include charging for luggage, or – as Ryanair does – forcing every passenger to check in online.
British Airways is in an extremely tough position. London – now the origin or destination of all BA routes – is the biggest aviation market on the planet but also the most competitive, with easyJet, Ryanair, BMI and Virgin Atlantic all based there. No other European airline faces such intense competition. And with a cost base way above its budget rivals, it has to tread a tricky course: offering a product for which people will pay a premium, but remaining competitive on price.
This coming week will be a momentous one for BA. On Tuesday, it launches an all-business-class service from London City to New York JFK, while on Thursday it abandons its Gatwick-New York link. Willie Walsh, the chief executive, will not sit back and relax until the airline's finances are shored up. Those £50 emergency-exit seats will help – and, from next month, at least some long-legged and well-heeled travellers will be enjoying the flight.