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!

Hump Day Fare Hacks: October 19, 2016

Norwegian Index for October 19, 2016: 292.0

The Norwegian Index matched its all-time low, but the real story of the week is the legacy carriers.

Yesterday, I discovered that BOS-LHR had hit the lowest I’d ever seen, at $499.96 on British Airways. However, that wasn’t even the most incredible legacy deal that I found this week, as there were three even cheaper: JFK-CDG on American ($357), BOS-MUC on Lufthansa ($489), and JFK-MXP and EWR-MXP on Delta, Emirates, and United ($496).

In addition to Brexit, there are myriad factors playing into the emergence of this new reality. For one, low-cost carriers like Norwegian are certainly increasing competition on routes, affecting a number of markets in ways never seen before. Another change is that fuel prices have fallen significantly in the last year, making it cheaper for planes to fly. Moreover, airlines are implementing more fuel-efficient aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which will help carriers realize both short-term and long-term fuel savings.

Though I’m not sure if the drop in prices is primarily due to positive changes such as a decrease in operating expenses, or (from the airlines’ perspective) negative changes such as competition from Norwegian, WOW Air, et al, one thing is for certain: travelers are the ones to benefit.

Note: All routes profiled are based on a 7-day round trip (departing and arriving the same day a week apart), unless otherwise noted. That said, I strongly encourage you to play with a variety of dates and trip lengths and see what you can find.

BOSTON

Boston – Amsterdam

Leave on:

  • January (2017) 5, 11-24, 27-30
  • February (2017) 2, 4-16, 20, 21, 24-28
  • March (2017) 1, 4-9, 11-25, 28-31
  • April (2017) 3-6

Carrier: Delta Air Lines
Price: $548

Thoughts: Flights between the U.S. and Amsterdam have traditionally been very expensive. And while the New York flights to the Dutch capital were the first to decrease in price, it appears that BOS-AMS is following suit.

Boston – London Gatwick

Leave on:

  • December 4
  • January (2017) 15, 16, 18, 20, 22, 23, 25, 27, 29, 30
  • February (2017) 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, 20, 22, 26, 27
  • March (2017) 1, 6, 20, 22

Carrier: Norwegian Air Shuttle
Price: $324

Thoughts: A new low-water mark for this route. It doesn’t have the same number of dates as the route profiled below, but it’s an exceptional price for those looking to score a deal.

Boston – London Heathrow

Leave on:

  • November 16, 22-24, 26-30
  • December 1-8, 12, 13, 18, 30, 31
  • January (2017) 5-31
  • February (2017) 1, 2, 6-28
  • March (2017) 1-24

Carrier: British Airways
Price: $499.96

Thoughts: Normally I round up to the nearest dollar, as that’s what Google Flights generally does, but BOS-LHR being less than $500 round trip is such a low price that it absolutely had to be conveyed in its exact form.

Boston – Munich

Leave on:

  • January (2017) 17-31
  • February (2017) 1, 2, 4-15, 21-28
  • March (2017) 1-3, 6-9, 13-18, 24, 25, 31

Carrier: Lufthansa
Price: $489

Thoughts: I was pretty pessimistic on the potential longevity of this price last week ($490), but it’s gone down by a dollar, so what do I know?

Boston – Paris

Leave on:

  • November 16, 21, 23, 26-30
  • December 1-8, 11-13
  • January (2017) 9-12, 15-17, 19-24, 26-31
  • February (2017) 20, 21, 23-28
  • March (2017) 1, 2, 5
  • April (2017) 5, 6

Carrier: Air France
Price: $551

Thoughts: Another lower-than-normal price by a legacy carrier on a traditionally expensive route.

NEW YORK

New York JFK – London Heathrow

Leave on:

  • January (2017) 21, 28
  • February (2017) 4, 11, 18, 25
  • March (2017) 4, 11, 18

Carriers: Delta Air Lines, Virgin Atlantic Airways
Price: $514

Thoughts: While this week does represent a shift in the available dates for the lowest price, there are still a number of April and May dates for even cheaper than last week’s lowest price. Things are looking good, New Yorkers.

New York JFK and Newark – Milan

Leave on:

  • October 26
  • November 2, 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, 23, 29, 30
  • December 6, 7, 13

Carriers: Delta Air Lines (JFK), Emirates (JFK), United Airlines (EWR)
Price: $496

Thoughts: If it was just Emirates offering this fare, I’d say that it was likely a fare sale, as it’s extremely rare for the world’s #1 airline (according to Skytrax) to charge so little. But since three carriers are offering the fare, it may well be a shift in the market.

Note: Not all three airlines will necessarily be offering that fare for all of those dates. However, those are the dates when flights between New York (including EWR) and Milan are running for $496 round trip.

New York JFK – Oslo

Leave on:

  • February (2017) 5, 7

Carrier: Norwegian Air Shuttle
Price: $282

Thoughts: I would anticipate that the number of available dates will expand in due course.

New York JFK – Paris

Leave on:

  • January (2017) 17-27, 30, 31
  • February (2017) 1-3, 5-11, 13-15, 20-28
  • March (2017) 6, 8, 15, 22, 28, 29

Carrier: American Airlines
Price: $357

Thoughts: Having put forth the lowest price I’d ever seen American charge for a transatlantic route last week ($433), the carrier went and lowered the price by a further $76, beating the pants off of even Norwegian. I believe “floored” is the term that best describes my reaction.

New York JFK – Stockholm

Leave on:

  • February (2017) 3, 6

Carrier: Norwegian Air Shuttle
Price: $285

Thoughts: The same sentiment expressed in the JFK-OSL deal applies here.

On Hold: The A380 won’t be coming to Boston in February as previously planned

Just over three weeks ago, I wrote about how British Airways had planned to introduce the Airbus A380 on its BOS-LHR route in February of 2017. However, this morning I was surprised to learn that the A380 is no longer scheduled to arrive in Boston on February 3, 2017.

Though there’s no conclusive information (press release or public-facing memo) from either BA or Massport, thus far, I’ll outline what I do know:

  • Prior to the schedule change, the LHR-LAX and LAX-LHR routes — which normally see two A380s per day each way — were scheduled to have one A380 swapped out for a Boeing 747 Thursday – Sunday between February 2 and March 12.
  • As such, one of the two 747s operating LHR-BOS and BOS-LHR would instead fly LHR-LAX and LAX-LHR between those dates.
  • A Google Flights search revealed that LHR-LAX and LAX-LHR are indeed back to two A380s between February 2 and March 12.

After inquiring further, it appears that the A380-capable gates that are under construction in Terminal E will not be built in time for the scheduled start. While there has been veritable progress made toward building these gates, it appears that the project will take longer to complete than projected. And though I’m tempted to avoid making any premature judgments, I can’t help but think that this bears a lot of similarities to the infamous “Big Dig” construction project, which took twice as long as anticipated and cost twice as much as budgeted.

It’s too early to tell for sure what the real story is. Furthermore, it’s possible that, logistically permitting, BA may still send the A380 at some point next year. And with airline schedules and timetables subject to change quite often, we might even see a few more twists in the plot.

Regardless of who is ultimately responsible, one thing is for sure: this delay is not good press for any of the parties on this side of the pond that are involved.