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British Airways Squeezes Its Short-Haul Passengers – Back to the Future?

June 27, 2014



The other day, I flew back from Portugal after a short break with a bunch of fellow golfing nuts. It was the classic holiday flight. Stuffed in the middle row at the back of a British Airways Boeing 737 with a yowling baby in the row behind, my knees touching the seat in front. A two-and-a-half hour flight, delayed by an hour because a couple of Norwegians lost their passports in the departure lounge for the incoming flight and had to have their bags removed. At Gatwick, the bags took a good forty minutes to arrive, with the result that many of my mates, myself included, didn’t get home until the not-so-early hours.

Now, it seems, BA is planning to reduce the seat pitch for its business class short haul passengers, who will have to suffer only slightly less cramped conditions than the unfortunates in economy, despite having to pay up to three times the economy fare for the privilege. More about this in the excellent blog, Head For Points, where my wife gets all her smart tips about air travel.

I have form when it comes to complaining about airlines. You will find a number of posts on aviation under the Travel section. But the piece that best sums up my attitude towards flying economy short-haul is a whinging tome I wrote a couple of years ago in another blog:

I do a lot of flying – usually economy. The experience is never better than OK, often horrible, depending on how many cattle are in the class. The only flights I look forward to are in business, which happens only when someone else is paying or when I’m cashing in my air miles.

Yes, I know, I’m a spoilt brat. But part of the problem is that I’m a big spoilt brat. Not of the obese kind that pours itself, wobbling and sweating, into the seat and spills over into half of the precious space either side. While being tall is OK under most circumstances, it’s not OK in economy. Air stewardesses seem to have a mission to destroy my already-shattered knees by aiming their trollies at me with laser-guided precision.

I heave with malevolent envy whenever I see a short-legged passenger actually crossing her legs. How dare you have enough space to cross your legs, I think, when the passenger in front of me is lucky not to suffer an indentation in their back every time I try and force my restless legs into more comfortable position?

When I was young, every flight was an adventure. These days a “good flight” is the absence of pain.

Whenever I sit in an aisle seat, I need to make a decision. Depending on which knee was last crashed into by a trolley, do I want to be totally crippled, or just equally damaged in both knees?

Then there are babies. Full-on, yowling babies. The days when our own babies flew with us are buried deep in the mental archives. But I don’t remember them being half as loud or half as objectionable as the squalling infants of today.

Not to mention falling luggage. Actually, I nearly killed an unfortunate Chinese lady when my laptop fell out of its bag, dealt her a glancing blow and gouged a hole in itself against an armrest before crashing the floor. I was lucky. She just rubbed her head with a bewildered expression and accepted my profuse apologies. If she’d been from my country, I would have been at least a million dollars lighter. All those witnesses. A slam dunk. The miracle was that the laptop continued to work.

And bugs. Zillions of them. Expelled from hacking coughers. Coating every surface. I’m surprised the germs don’t eat each other as they’re waiting to attack us. Apart from flu, the king of the aircraft bugs is the norovirus. This is the one that causes you to project your lunch at anything within a ten foot radius, and leak from orifices too unpleasant to discuss in polite company – all at a moment’s notice. It’s also the scourge of the cruise liners. Not for nothing will you find more alcohol gel than alcohol on the love boats these days. Days of diarrhoea and vomiting on the high seas are no fun. So why do you suppose the airlines don’t do the same thing with their passengers? Quite simply because by the time you start throwing up, you’re already off the plane, and it could have come from anywhere, couldn’t it?

I could go on. Announcements that cut across the inflight movie at a critical moment. Drunken passengers who lurch down the aisle colliding with people on the way. Unusual fragrances emanating from people who haven’t changed their clothes for a week. Food that crumbles and slops all over you no matter how hard to try to keep your dinner to yourself against the best efforts of other people’s elbows, so that when you get up, bits shower off you as they would from a baby being lifted out of its high chair. Queues for the loos, assuming you can overcome the impenetrable barrier of trolleys crawling from your end to the malodorous “conveniences” fifty rows down the aircraft.

A couple of days ago I flew from Doha to London on a packed flight and was treated to the full symphony. Stereophonic babies. A trolley blow to the knee that I swear was delivered on purpose to discourage me from allowing any part of my anatomy to protrude into the aisle for the remainder of the flight. An officious steward who berated me for trespassing into the sacred space of business class to use the loo when the aisles in economy were blocked. Apparently one of the passengers complained. Quite right – let the starving eat cake. (Note to Qatar Airways: why do you display signs visible in economy directing you to vacant loos if you don’t want people to use them?)

Roll on the day when an airline – probably Ryanair, given their record of creative travel solutions – introduces Coffin Class. You give your passengers a near-fatal dose of tramadol, wrap them in sleeping bags, load them into converted coffins and forklift them into the hold along with the cats, dogs and reptiles. At the other end give them a shot of adrenaline and send them staggering into immigration.

Surely a better option than long hours on a packed cattle class flight. Spoilt – moi?

Even though British Airways will probably not be satisfied until its passengers have evolved into human flat packs, I wonder why people are still prepared to pay premium prices for short-haul business class tickets. Two hours of pain in a cramped economy seat is not great, but for most people it’s the only option.

Could it be that BA is not really interested in business passengers for its short flights, and plans to turn its European business into a slightly posher version of Ryanair? That would open up the intriguing possibility that the airline might eventually spin off the short-haul operation and be left with the long-haul business. In which case they could call the former British European Airways, and the latter BOAC.

A thought to stir the memories of moaning old comfort addicts like me.

From → Business, Travel, UK

  1. sarah permalink

    you are very funny…

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