Primera Air and the Emergence of Low-Cost Narrow Body Transatlantic Flights

A few weeks ago, I got a message from a friend. She was inquiring about this cheap ticket she’d found on Primera Air — a $300 round trip fare to England next summer. As Primera had recently announced routes from Boston to the English destinations of Birmingham and London Stansted, I knew the basics of the carrier, which I relayed to her. My advice was essentially this: you can’t go wrong for that price, but be warned: you’ll have to pay extra for pretty much everything aside from a seat and a carry-on bag. This didn’t deter her, and she (and her husband and in-laws) will be traveling on Primera next summer.

As is often the case when I have an interaction with a friend regarding plane ticket advice, I ended up thinking about this quite a bit more after the fact. I began to realize that we are entering a new era where airlines are beginning to use aircraft that were very much for short-haul flights on transatlantic routes, such as Primera using the Airbus A321neo (new engine option) on routes between the U.S and the U.K. Down the road, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a number of “smaller” cities — places where it wouldn’t have been economical for an airline to start long-haul flights — begin to acquire service to places across the pond.

The other thing I realized is that there seems to be some ambiguity around what it means to buy a transatlantic ticket on these low-cost carriers. As such, I figured it might make sense to dispel what it does include, what it doesn’t, and how you can work around (and hopefully avoid) the ancillary fees.

First things first, however — let’s have a look at how we got to this point.

Transatlantic Prices Have Gone Down

In the last few years, transatlantic flights have become exponentially cheaper. When I went to London in 2014 on British Airways, I paid a $952 round trip base fare ($1,034 total with window seat reservations), which was actually a pretty good price at the time. This spring, again going to London on British Airways, I paid a $505 round trip base fare, and $594.20 in total with window seat reservations. In two-and-a-half years, the price I paid — for the same route on the same carrier — dropped by more than $400.

There are a number of factors that have gone into this change, including Brexit, low fuel prices, and more efficient aircraft. However, there’s another factor that likely played a role: new competition from low-cost carriers.

With a number of round trip fares around $300, Norwegian Air Shuttle has made its name as the most well-known low-cost option between the U.S. and Europe. WOW Air and Icelandair have both made the Iceland Stopover quite popular, of course, and LEVEL emerged this year with cheap flights from Barcelona, too, but Norwegian really pioneered the emergence of the low-cost transatlantic sector.

This emergence has had a notable impact across the airline industry. Fearing market share loss, the legacy carriers have been forced to act. Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airlines Group (IAG), which is the parent company of legacy airlines such as Aer Lingus, British Airways, and Iberia, once scoffed at the threat of low-cost carriers on transatlantic routes. Walsh believed that four hours was the maximum that passengers would care to fly on a low-cost carrier, one which charged for bags, meals, and the like. However, Walsh has admitted that Norwegian has sent a clear message: people are willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort for the right price. Given that Aer Lingus and BA have dropped their ticket prices in transatlantic markets, and IAG launched LEVEL in March of this year, it’s evident that the impact of new competition undercutting the prices of the legacies has resulted in a new era — where the price of a ticket to France isn’t much different than going to Florida.

Primera, meanwhile, has been around for a few years, but has yet to launch its transatlantic operations, which are scheduled to begin in 2018. And while it doesn’t appear to want to match Norwegian in creating a low-cost transatlantic empire, it will certainly provide some extra competition on these transatlantic routes.

Narrow Body Transatlantic Flights Are Taking Off

Until this year, it was incredibly uncommon for any narrow body that wasn’t a Boeing 757 to be flying transatlantic. There were a few exceptions: Scandinavian Airlines flew its specially-configured 737-700 between Copenhagen and Boston, and Canadian carrier WestJet has started seasonal 737 services from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Dublin and London Gatwick. However, these were all unique cases in which either a specially-configured aircraft (the Scandinavian 737 has 86 seats, meaning it requires less fuel) or a unique distance (the distance from St. John’s to Dublin, for example, is only 2,042 miles — less than New York to LA).

This isn’t to say that narrow bodies like the new generation 737s (the -700, -800, and -900 models) and A321 aren’t capable of making it across the Atlantic between the U.S. and Europe. In fact, they quite often do so when an aircraft is delivered to an airline from the factory. jetBlue, for example, sometimes flies their A321s from Hamburg, Germany to Portland, Maine, a 3,538 mile journey, on delivery flights in order to stop and refuel on their way to having their cabins configured (TVs installed/etc.) in Greensboro, North Carolina.

When these planes did cross the ocean with passengers, however, they had long had to do so with payload restrictions. Norwegian, for example, could only have 150 passengers on board its 737-800, even though the aircraft has 186 seats. Add in the factor of headwinds, and you’ll see an aircraft with a 3,500 mile range (such as an A320) struggle to make it, say, 3,000 miles. Quite literally, the headwinds of the jetstream can take hundreds of miles off a plane’s range, which is why so many carriers avoided using “normal” short-haul planes on transatlantic routes even if they “technically” had the range to do it. Moreover, a related factor is that overhead costs (such as the cost of fuel and the high landing fees at major airports) had long made it imperative for airlines to use large planes (more seats = more passengers = more money) in order to ensure profitability.

This year, however, all of that changed. In June, Norwegian took delivery of its first 737 MAX 8, an improved 737 with improved aerodynamics, more efficient engines, and an improved range. This enabled the carrier to begin transatlantic service between Providence, Rhode Island and places like Cork, Ireland — free of payload restrictions. Of course, given that Norwegian has not yet taken delivery of all of the MAX aircraft it intends to use, some 737-800s are still operating payload-restricted transatlantic flights. However, the first Norwegian MAX made it clear: airlines can operate long-haul transatlantic flights on narrow body aircraft.

This isn’t to say that these flights won’t have their issues. As I’ve noted before, a number of westbound 757s — those battling headwinds from the jetstream — have been forced to divert short of their final destination to refuel in recent years. And while such incidents are much less likely for long-haul aircraft, narrow body planes will continue to occasionally suffer this fuel-burning fate during the winter. That being said, if the introduction of these planes on transatlantic routes can open a number of new destinations, I think the benefits will have outweighed the costs.

Primera: How does it compare?

While its flights will utilize an Airbus rather than Boeing, Primera will be the second low-cost carrier to enter the space from flying from the U.S. to the U.K. with non-payload restricted aircraft. Much like the 737 MAX, the A321neo is an upgrade on an aircraft that has been popular for years. And though a number of carriers thinking about entering the transatlantic market (such as jetBlue) are keen to wait for the A321LR — which will be even more suited to handle these long-haul flights — to come out, Primera has decided to take the plunge in becoming the first carrier to use an Airbus NEO aircraft on transatlantic flights.

As expected with narrow body aircraft, things may feel a bit tight — although the approximately 17 inches of seat width are pretty standard as far as economy goes, both for narrow body and wide body aircraft. Regarding pitch, Primera’s seats will have approximately 30 inches. This isn’t much, but it’s pretty much the same as the Norwegian 737s, and only an inch less than full-service legacies like Aer Lingus and British Airways. All told, it should be pretty much the same as what you’d experience on a domestic flight within the United States — not incredibly comfortable, but not unbearable by any means.

As far as amenities go, there will be no seatback TVs, but Wi-Fi will be available for a fee. The TVs are the one thing that I feel Primera is lacking — I’ve only ever flown on Norwegian’s 787s (both the 787-8 and 787-9), all of which have seatback TVs — although it should be noted that Norwegian’s 737 MAX 8 does not have TVs, either, so the like-for-like comparison is relatively similar.

As far as fees go, Primera has plenty of them. Here’s a quick summary of what it lists on its website (scroll to the bottom for transatlantic flights):

  • Seat selection from $39.99 per seat
  • Checked bags from $44.99 (max 23 kg/50 lbs.)
  • Meals from $39.99

For comparison, here’s a list of Norwegian’s fees:

  • Seat selection from $45 per seat
  • Checked bags from $45
  • Meals from $45
How do you avoid the fees?

As you can see, that cheap ticket can get a lot more expensive really quickly. Some of you might look at that list and understandably balk. However, there are a number of ways you can plan ahead and save money:

  • Buy a meal before your flight at the airport! I would much, much rather eat a nice meal at the airport than pay $45 for airline food. Even if you spend $25 on steak at TGI Friday’s, you’re still saving $20 versus buying a meal on the plane. And given you’ll be sitting for the next six or so hours, you’re not likely to get hungry!
  • Both Primera and Norwegian do (unlike, say, Spirit Airlines) give you one carry-on bag with the purchase of your ticket. A larger number of rolling suitcases (also called roller-boards) can fit in the overhead lockers — so pack as densely as you can.
  • Determine whether you feel you need that window or aisle seat (or, if you’re traveling with company, determine whether you need to sit next to each other). I, personally, prefer a window, so that extra money is worth it to me — but many don’t care.
Know what you’re getting into

My words of advice to my friend went something like this: that’s an excellent price, by all means go for it, but just don’t be surprised that this might be a bit “different” than your previous transatlantic flights. She acknowledged as much, and was able to get a solid deal.

Ultimately, that’s what it boils down to. In some cases, people book these really cheap tickets to Europe, thinking they just beat the system and got an absolute steal. Depending on your preferences, this may be true, as you wouldn’t have had a choice whether or not to pay (bundled in your ticket) for a meal, baggage, and the like a few years ago. However, some are quite surprised when they have to pay for bags, meal, and seat selection, and feel like they got ripped off. Again, that may be an understandable feeling if you thought you were paying $300 for something that ends up costing you (all amenities included) over $500.

That being said, there are ways to avoid fees while still making the most of your experience. Pack light (or “tight”), have a nice meal before you get on the plane, and, if possible, try to be flexible about where you sit. Of course, I’m certainly not one to talk on that last fragment, as I prefer the window seat, but I am willing to pay that extra money because it is worth it to me. That, ultimately, is what it boils down to — determine what you believe is worth paying, and you’ll likely have a much more fun and predictable journey.

A Turndown in Transcon Fares: Permanent or Passing?

Recently, I’ve mentioned the great deals on transatlantic flights that I’ve gotten to a few different people. Almost every time, people say “(the deal you got going to Europe) is cheaper than going to California.”

While I’ve heard those various replies, it wasn’t until recently that I started to think about what they were saying. After all, transcontinental flights have historically run well in excess of $300 round trip, particularly those to California.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at flights between Boston and Los Angeles, which has generally run cheaper than places like San Francisco, Portland, OR, or Seattle. I was quite surprised to find a number of flights not only well under $300, but closer to the $250 range.

Factors at Play

So what has spurred this recent downturn in fares?

There are a number of different things that spur these types of trends, but one of them seems to be the recent introduction of basic economy classes with American legacy carriers like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines.

Though I wrote a piece about the emergence of these fare classes (a year ago to the day!), particularly United’s, one of the major goals of these programs isn’t to “give consumers choice,” as airlines would like you to believe. Rather, it’s to encourage people to pay more to get the same service that they received before.

Perhaps, then, the downturn in transcontinental fares can partly be attributed to the introduction of basic economy classes. However, it’s not just American, Delta, and United who are selling sub-$300 round trips on transcons: jetBlue and Virgin America have both slashed their prices to the point where even flights less than a month out are running in that price range.

b6-fare-bos-lax
A trip from December 6 to December 10 would cost $237, which is well below traditional norms.

This is particularly surprising, as jetBlue and Virgin America have been known to have economy transcon products that are superior to the aforementioned American legacy carriers. Moreover, neither has implemented a basic economy class (derisively called “economy minus”), so you’d think that they would still be able to charge a (relative) premium.

Looking Ahead

While these recent developments are certainly good for the average traveler looking to escape to the West Coast, this isn’t to say that transcontinental fares will stay low permanently. Additionally, while international flights are (generally) further in distance and have their own unique requirements that can drive prices up comparable to domestic flights, and while the U.S. domestic airspace already contains budget airlines like Spirit and Frontier, the arrival of carriers like Norwegian Air Shuttle and WOW Air have certainly put downward pressure on a number of transatlantic markets. As a result, any fluctuation could well put these transcon fares back above the routes they’re currently cheaper than.

Moreover, fares are not made to be identical or stagnant, as, for example, a market with less competition and a high number of business travelers is likely to have a higher base fare at any given time. After all, from a business standpoint, why charge less when people will pay more? Airlines are businesses, and businesses aim to maximize profits, so they’ll do their best to get the maximum “willingness to pay” out of their customers. If that willingness is “up” in a certain place, it’s reasonable to assume that the prices will adjust accordingly.

Despite all the pessimism in the preceding two paragraphs, there’s certainly much to be optimistic about. With the ever-increasing affordability of air travel, particularly to destinations far away, the American public can continue to look forward to newfound travel opportunities both near and far.

LATAM to Launch Route Between Boston and São Paulo

Last month, LATAM Brasil announced its intention to begin service to Boston Logan (BOS) from São Paulo Guarulhos (GRU). On Wednesday, the airline published its schedule, revealing four weekly round trip flights between Brazil’s largest city and the hub of New England.

The Details

LATAM will fly Boeing 767s on this route. The aircraft will leave GRU at 11:55 p.m. on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, arriving at BOS at 9:10 a.m. the following mornings. The return flights will depart BOS on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 6:05 p.m., arriving at GRU at 5:25 the following mornings.

Generally, international long-haul routes departing from the U.S. leave in the afternoon or early evening. Thus, as expected, the flight will be departing at the same time as a number of other international flights. However, unlike the majority of international flights arriving at Logan, the flight from São Paulo arriving early in the morning. As a result, those passengers won’t be stuck in customs lines as long as those arriving in the afternoon. So while a red-eye flight isn’t the best of times, at least the lines upon landing won’t be as severe.

Another interesting point: unlike long-haul flights between North America and Europe, where one leg (westbound) is significantly longer than the other (eastbound), the difference between the two legs of this flight don’t vary that much in terms of flight time, as it’s a north-south flight. As a result, there is not that much variance between the impact from the jetstream, which flows from west to east. The GRU-BOS leg will take 10 hours, 15 minutes, while BOS-GRU will be 10 hours, 20 minutes.

Reaction

This announcement comes on the heels of Colombian carrier Avianca launching Boston-Bogota in June of this year. That route was Logan’s first non-stop to South America and, to this point, it has done well. Massport CEO Thomas Glynn has been eager to land a flight to Brazil for a while, no pun intended. As such, this is a major coup.

Boston has seen a number of new international routes launched in recent years. While such an influx of new capacity can sometimes yield underwhelming returns, that isn’t the case in Boston. Hopefully, LATAM will be as successful as recent entrants into the various Boston markets.

Westbound Inconvenience: Why 757s are prone to transatlantic fuel stops

You’re flying along, looking out at the sky, and everything seems to be going smoothly. Suddenly, the captain comes on and makes an announcement, saying something along the lines of “we’re going to be diverting due to weather at our destination.” A collective groan falls over the cabin, and the plane begins an unexpected descent.

Having been on two different diverted flights, I’ve had this experience firsthand. And while I do enjoy the opportunity to add another landing (and takeoff) to my flight log, I can’t say I enjoy having my routine interrupted. Particularly when it comes to travel, I don’t like surprises — I prefer things to be predictable. Of course, this isn’t something you can prevent, so I’ve learned to get with it, whatever happens. Both of the diversions I’ve encountered have been due to weather. However, while it is the cause of a significant number of diversions, weather isn’t the only culprit: security issues, mechanical anomalies, and fuel are a few of the many causes that can send people to places they hadn’t planned on going.

Transatlantic Fuel Stops Fuel the Fire

Fuel, in particular, has caused a number of diversions in recent years — particularly with Boeing 757s flying westbound transatlantic flights. As the largest narrowbody aircraft, the 757 has a range of around 4,400 miles, which makes it comfortably suitable for transatlantic operations. A number of different medium-range, “thin” routes which wouldn’t be profitable with a widebody aircraft are possible thanks to the 757. Indeed, it makes a number of routes possible in similar fashion to the way the Boeing 787 makes long, “thin” routes more than just a pipe dream.

However, the 757 has also drawn the ire of a number of transatlantic travelers — particularly in the winter months. During that time, the headwinds of the jetstream are at their strongest, meaning that planes need more fuel than usual to compensate. And while widebodies generally don’t have an issue with this, the 757 doesn’t have the same fuel capacity that those larger planes do. Their range is usually good enough to make a transatlantic crossing without much issue, but they are much more prone to fuel diversions than their larger counterparts.

This frustration was the subject of a 2015 piece on Mashable, titled Why choosing the right airplane type is crucial in the wintertime. There are a number of other pieces, too, on the subject, including a piece in the Wall Street Journal, but those are behind a paywall. Regardless, the Mashable piece raises a number of interesting points, particularly that many simply choose the cheapest flight, regardless of other factors. This can be a dangerous game to play — and, in the case of a business traveler who needs to be somewhere at a given time, it can mean missing an obligation. Of course, that’s a dramatization, but I think my point is clear.

Not All Flights Are Equal

Some flights are more prone to diversions than others. For example, a sector that is around 3,000 miles in length, such as Aer Lingus’ Shannon, Ireland to Boston route (2,891 miles), does not see an incredible number of diversions. Start talking about routes in the neighborhood of 4,000 miles, however, and it’s a different story. This summer, AA203, a flight from Amsterdam to Philadelphia (3,715 miles) diverted to Bangor, ME a number of times. This fall, AA55, which goes from Manchester, England to Chicago O’Hare (3,826 miles) stops in Bangor with some regularity.

Sometimes, the carrier realizes before the flight that it isn’t able to make it on a full tank, and informs passengers of the impending disruption. And while it’s a nice gesture, as diversion-related surprises are not fun for most passengers, I can imagine it’s incredibly frustrating to be told of an impending diversion, whether in the air or on the ground.

Use Your Judgement

I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from flying transatlantic on a 757. On a number of routes, it’s the only aircraft that makes service viable — and for those routes, I would say absolutely take it. Moreover, the chance of having a fuel stop are far from a sure thing. That said, if there are other options at a comparable price when you are traveling, I might encourage you to think twice before taking a westbound 757 in the winter.

Azores Airlines: You’ll get there, but it might take a few days

In the United States, Spirit Airlines has developed a reputation of being the most “bare bones” carrier in the skies. Fees for carry-on bags, snacks and drinks (even water!), and extensive delays have deterred a large number of passengers, myself included. Yet there is another, lesser-known European carrier with a presence (albeit a small one) in the U.S. whose service (or lack thereof) has also become notable: Azores Airlines — formerly known as SATA Internacional — the flagship carrier of the Azores islands.

The Azores

Located off the coast of Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the Azores are becoming a popular destination for tourists. The incredibly blue water, mild temperatures, and picturesque mountains rising out of the ocean is really quite phenomenal — and those observations are coming from someone who’s never been.

While the (occasionally cheap) fares may attract some to travel on Azores in order to get to this archipelago, there are reasons to be leery — mainly that Azores has a well-documented reputation of shoddy service.

The Incident

Back in June, passengers were unable to fly for days after a ground vehicle struck an Azores plane at Boston Logan, resulting in cancellation of that day’s flight to Ponta Delgada. While it doesn’t appear that Azores was responsible for the collision, one woman described of waiting “three, maybe four” days in the airport. Since Azores didn’t have its contingency plan in place enabling passengers to utilize local hotels, Massport was forced to provide cots for passengers to sleep on in the airport — hardly the safest accommodations, not to mention uncomfortable.

Another passenger said he was continuously told “come back tomorrow,” with scarce information on the flight itself. To add insult to injury, he was forced to pay for transportation to and from his hotel. His view on the incident reveals a galling disconnect and lack of communication from the carrier:

“All these people that are lined up, it is just pure frustration,” Cabral said. “You can’t go to the bathroom; you have to wait in line. No one comes out and manages anything. We don’t believe anything that is being said at this point and time. It is disappointing. We have lost hotels, we have lost appointments, we have lost connecting flights, and we have no idea what we are going to get in return. We don’t know what is going to happen when we get to the front of the line. This is an exercise in futility. It’s an embarrassment, and I really think that something should be done.”

Azores’ Response

For its part, Azores did issue a public statement about the incident after the fact:

“A series of technical issues took out two [aircraft in our] long-range fleet, causing difficulty from Boston to Portugal. Our team has tried to get local airport officials to inform impacted passengers [of the situation].”

A statement is better than saying nothing, in this case, but it was insufficient in my opinion. Particularly, I had to laugh at the use of the word “difficulty.” It seemed to be almost as tone-deaf of a statement as United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz initially using the word “re-accommodate” to describe what happened to Dr. David Dao in April of this year in a memo to his employees.

More importantly, it speaks to the disconnect that occurred between Azores and Massport; evidently, Azores thought Massport would handle communication about the situation, when that is — as the carrier — firmly Azores’ responsibility. Moreover, it’s Azores’ responsibility — not Massport’s — to ensure passengers have appropriate accommodations. Evidently that didn’t happen.

There’s an interesting review of Azores’ “premium” offering from One Mile at a Time. Though this review is merely a subjective take on an Azores flight — and the author is admittedly fascinated by the prospect of flying on an Airbus A310 — an aircraft type that has, these days, mostly been relegated to performing cargo operations — he did express his disappointment in the level of service throughout the review.

Alternatives

For those who are interested in exploring the Azores, there are other travel options. Air Transat, a low-cost carrier based in Canada, operates flights from a number of Canadian cities to Ponta Delgada. Additionally, passengers can fly to Lisbon on airlines like TAP Portugal and then take a connecting flight (albeit going to mainland Europe only to travel back over the ocean seems a bit redundant). And recently, Delta Air Lines announced it would begin service between New York JFK and Ponta Delgada in 2018, giving Americans a new link to these islands.

Of course, there are people who have enjoyed their experience on Azores, according to this list of carrier reviews on SKYTRAX. Moreover, even the “good” carriers are subject to having dissatisfied customers. And ultimately, I haven’t flown Azores, so your experience may well have been different than my perception if you’ve tried the carrier out. However, as a SKYTRAX two-star carrier, Azores is rated the same as Spirit, and you might know how I feel about Spirit if you’ve read my aforementioned blog post. Come next year, there will be a new non stop option for those looking to get from the United States to the Azores (and back, of course).

The Iceland Stopover: Geysers, low-cost airfares, and more

In the last year or so, I’ve seen a number of my friends venture to Iceland. The unique culture, incredible geysers, and surprisingly hospitable climate are certainly all factors that draw people to this European nation which sits in the North Atlantic. However, one unique thing about Iceland that many have come to experience in recent years is the advent of something called the Iceland Stopover.

What is the Iceland Stopover?

Though Iceland has always been somewhat of an interesting locale for Americans to visit, it has become increasingly visited during recent years. Part of that, certainly, is due to the Icleandic government attempting to boost tourism (albeit this has caused some problems, according to the country’s inhabitants). Yet also playing a role is the increased utilization of Iceland as a stopover destination for passengers traveling to Europe.

For a number of years, Icelandair has provided convenient one-stop service between North America and Europe through Reykjavik, the Icelandic capitol. In addition to giving holidaymakers an option to visit Iceland, this was a particularly prudent move when traveling transatlantic on nonstop flights was incredibly expensive, as these one-stop hops could often be cheaper than their non stop counterparts. However, the real impact has been felt since WOW Air’s launch in 2012 (and that carrier’s own introduction of a stopover option). Couple that with a general downward trend in airline ticket prices, and the “Iceland stopover” has become increasingly popular in the last half-decade or so.

Take a look at the image below. As you can see, there are a number of low-cost European destinations available from Boston when taking WOW through Iceland.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Of course, this doesn’t make the Iceland stopover preferable for all. For one, carriers like Norwegian Air Shuttle have come in and disrupted a variety of transatlantic markets with ridiculous sub-$300 round trip fares — for non-stop flights. Moreover, a number of legacy carriers have posted some pretty incredible deals as well, so the impetus is on WOW and Icelandair to continue to make the case for the viability of the stopover.

That said, it would appear that some still posses a strong desire to visit this North Atlantic outpost. Anecdotally speaking, the daughter of one of my father’s friends recently utilized the Iceland stopover en route to Ireland. While she spent an enjoyable week in the latter, she wished she had spent the majority of her vacation time in Iceland. Additionally, with the aforementioned attempts to boost tourism, Iceland is gaining more and more notoriety, and will likely be a desirable place to visit — whether for a stopover or a vacation in its own right — for years to come.

Flying is Cheaper Than Ever Before – at the Cost of Comfort: Why airlines are cutting legroom, food, and more

There is perhaps nothing in the world that is simultaneously admired yet scorned as the experience of flying.

Excuse my romanticism here for a minute, but I think it’s worth recounting just how exceptional flight is. The fact that we have an invention which can weigh over a million pounds, travel near the speed of sound, and have the endurance to travel halfway around the world is remarkable. Trips that once took weeks, even months, can now be conquered in a number of hours – though that number is greatly variable, as Austin is closer to Boston than Australia, for example. Even so, this is astonishing.

In past decades, flying was a luxury. Comfortable seats and high-class meals were the tenets of an exclusive experience. Of course, the price tag on a plane ticket made it something that could only be afforded by the wealthy – but for those who had the means, the end was worth it.

How the Times Change

Fast-forward to the early 2000s. From TWA to Trump Shuttle (yes, a real carrier), airlines had come and gone over the century before. As the 2000s came along, people were much more likely to be ranting about the perception of being treated poorly going through security checkpoints, at the gate, or on the plane. And while September 11th certainly had a significant, negative impact on airlines, one that took years to overcome, the cost-cutting had already started: for the most part, airlines were no longer serving meals, and the era of ancillary revenue (fees for things that would have been standard 50 years ago) had started.

Who knew olives were so expensive?

There are certain carriers that are synonymous with charging for the majority of amenities. I’ve joked that Spirit Airlines, for example, charges for everything except oxygen, as it even charges those who want an in-flight bottle of water. Norwegian Air Shuttle, meanwhile, has become known for charging for meals – something once unthinkable for those traveling on transatlantic flights. Regardless of whether these actions have precedent or not, these carriers have begun to develop reputations for being extremely stingy with what they provide to customers in their respective markets.

To be fair, it’s not just the “budget” carriers that are cutting costs – the legacies are equally culpable, especially in the United States. A famous tale about carriers “penny pinching”: former American Airlines CEO Robert “Bob” Crandall found that he could save the airline in excess of $100,000 per year by removing olives from the salads served in coach (predictably, he kept the olives in the first-class salads).

That’s an extreme example, of course, but carriers are always finding ways to cut costs. Generally, it’s the people flying coach that have to bear the brunt of the reductions in service. For decades, no American carrier served complimentary meals in economy class on domestic flights, and – despite that trend being bucked by American and Delta earlier this year – currently the only way to get a complimentary economy meal is to be on certain transcontinental flights. Ultimately, if you’re lucky enough to be served a free meal on one of those flights, you’re in the minority – the majority of passengers flying domestic economy within the U.S. will not get a free meal (for the time being).

A Rock and a Hard Place

I have no problem admitting that I’m a British Airways fan. From the Union Jack tail and Speedmarque to the majestic combination of the two on the carrier’s Boeing 747-400, I can name numerous reasons that I like the flag carrier of the United Kingdom. I even had yet another excellent experience flying BOS-LHR-BOS on BA back in April.

However, I am not afraid to say that, in my view, the carrier has made a number of mis-steps in its effort to cut costs. The decision to start charging for food (albeit food from Marks and Spencer, a high-quality brand) on intra-Europe flights was, at best, a slight reduction in service to cut costs. At worst, it was the first step of a long-respected carrier losing its reputation as a customer service darling.

More than Meals

It’s not just the food that has passengers questioning the quality of Britain’s flag carrier. Since CEO Alex Cruz, the former head of Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling, took over in 2016, many have alleged that Cruz – along with Willie Walsh (CEO of parent company IAG and former BA CEO) – is trying to turn the carrier into a low-cost carrier of sorts, as a litany of “customer-unfriendly” changes are in the works in both the premium and economy classes. In addition to removing the second meal on westbound long-haul flights, he sounded out the possibility of charging for meals on long-haul flights in the future – a possibility that BA adamantly denied was on the cards at the time, but nevertheless one that upset passengers.

I’ve certainly been critical of Cruz since he’s come in. Additionally, I don’t think that running a low-cost carrier like Vueling is necessarily great preparation for running one of the world’s most venerable brands.

At the same time, I can somewhat understand why he’s making these (admittedly undesirable) changes. After all, new, low-cost carriers like Norwegian and WOW Air have begun putting pressure on transatlantic carriers to cut their prices in order to stay competitive. For example, when Norwegian can sell a JFK-LGW ticket for $300, it certainly makes one think twice about shelling out $600+ to fly JFK-LHR on one of the legacies, even if it means paying for checked bags or eating at the airport restaurant to save some money.

It certainly doesn’t provide the same allure as flying Emirates, but, as of this writing, British Airways is still listed as a SKYTRAX four-star airline – one star better than any of the American legacy carriers in American, Delta, and United. Yet amidst a number of recent complaints about the experiences in both the premium and economy classes, many would say that BA is not making it easy to justify paying extra for an allegedly less-than-stellar experience. The challenge for BA will be to balance its cost-cutting measures with improvements in passenger experience – improvements that will enable passengers to justify paying a premium to fly “the World’s Favourite Airline.”

Consumers Drive the Market

Food and amenities aren’t the only thing that airlines are cutting. Aside from staffing reductions, perhaps the most controversial cuts in the airline industry have been to something that directly impacts the comfort of (most) passengers: legroom.

That’s right: carriers – including American Airlines – are reconfiguring planes to hold more seats, which ultimately reduces the amount of legroom that each passenger is entitled to. In fact, Spirit of all carriers is giving American a run for its money. Just to underline how notable this is, Spirit is the same carrier whose planes are so crammed that its seats can’t be reclined (the carrier calls them “pre-reclined” – which, however disingenuous, is a brilliant turn of phrase, I must say).

Why would American do this to itself? United President Scott Kirby – who formerly held the same role at American – put it simply:

“Seat pitch has come down…because that’s what customers voted with their wallets that they wanted. … [E]very time airlines put more seat pitch on, customers choose the lowest price. Customers have to be willing to pay if they want more seat pitch. And the evidence is that they aren’t willing to.”

I have to say that I have some reservations about Kirby’s oversimplified supply-and-demand equation, as I don’t believe that load factors would suffer as much as he might claim if ticket prices were raised as a result of more legroom. Yet as much as we might hate to admit it, he is (mostly) right. These days, it’s all about finding the lowest price – although those low prices are more due to low oil prices and increasingly fuel-efficient aircraft rather than the benevolence of airlines.

Even so, I am as guilty of this as any: I almost always go for the cheapest ticket, as it is much easier to justify spending a sub-$100 amount to fly somewhere for a weekend versus shelling out $200+ but having more legroom. The unfortunate reality is that the current trend will likely continue: as we continue to demand cheaper prices, airlines will continue to shrink legroom to stay competitive.

On a lighter note, there is one thing you can do to combat experiencing ever-shrinking legroom: fly on my favorite American carrier – jetBlue!