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British Airways' new 'Walk of Shame' boarding policy provokes furious reaction

The Man Who Pays His Way: Some economy passengers are less equal than other

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 22 November 2017 18:56 GMT
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British Airways introduces 'group boarding' system on all its flight

You’re only buying the flying: that's the deal when you book a Basic Economy ticket on British Airways. To qualify for BA’s lowest fares on domestic and European flights, you surrender the right to check in a bag and pre-select a seat. And, from 12 December, you'll be last to board the plane.

On that day, British Airways brings in a group-boarding system “to further improve the customer journey”. Your boarding pass will be marked with a group number between one and five. The priority enjoyed by elite-grade frequent flyers and business-class travellers, as well as families with young children, will continue. The significant change is in economy.

Up to midnight on 11 December, for boarding purposes, all BA’s economy passengers are created equal. But from the following morning, some will be less equal than others. Anyone who has a ticket from the cheapest category, Basic Economy, will be assigned to group five. They will be last to board, making what some have called a “Walk of Shame” along the aircraft aisle.

If “Walk of Shame” seems a touch emotive to describe an airline's move to reward higher-spending passengers, it is muted compared with some of the backlash, which even invoked the Bible.

“So the rich shall be first, and the poor last,” was one early response, adding: “With apologies to Matthew 20:16.”

Other helpful suggestions included: “Why not let the poor travel in the hold?”, along with: “I hope the attendants also ring bells and yell, ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’ as you board.”

A minority took an opposing view, wondering why anyone would want to be inside a cramped aircraft cabin for a moment longer than necessary? Martin tweeted that he is positively looking forward to boarding last and gloating that everyone else paid more: “I love the feeling of strolling on last saying ‘Hi, I’m here, we can leave now’, and then shattering the dreams of the person who thought they’d got an empty seat next to them.”

BA’s decision to end free food and drink on European flights in economy class, which came into effect earlier this year, generated similar passions.

Furious responses to straightforward commercial decisions might appear negative for British Airways. But in a market where short-haul air travel is so commoditised and competition so ferocious, I imagine BA will be heartened to see people care so much about its every move.

A flight I happen to be taking on 12 December, the first day of the new policy, illustrates the challenge facing the airline. Anyone with the good fortune to be travelling to Barcelona on that Tuesday morning is spoiled for choice. At 6.55am, an hour before sunrise, two Airbus A320s are scheduled to depart Gatwick simultaneously for the Catalan capital: BA2706 from South Terminal and easyJet flight 8571 from North Terminal. In an impressive feat of air-traffic coordination, they are both due to arrive at their respective gates at El Prat airport at 10am precisely.

Thankfully, it is a given that both BA's and easyJet's flight will be operated by friendly, professional crew and will arrive safely. So which to choose? Your favoured fare-comparison site will reveal that easyJet is cheapest at £33.99, with British Airways at £35.10; the fact that the pennies are relevant shows how absurdly fortunate we winter travellers are.

For anyone arriving at Gatwick by train, South Terminal is much more convenient than North. It is also closer to the runway, giving the BA jet a sporting chance of pole position in the morning outbound rush of departing Airbuses and Boeings. So I splashed out the extra £1.11 on British Airways. (To anyone booked on the rival easyJet service: fancy a double-or-quits wager of £1.11 on whose plane arrives first?)

As a fifth columnist, I will participate in BA’s new boarding process with interest. With everyone in group five having assigned seats towards the back of the plane and allowed only hand baggage, a stowage-related snarl-up cannot be ruled out. But whatever happens, it’s not caste-based – it’s cash-based.

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