The next shift in keeping costs low

There has already been a backlash following the ‘cuts’ imposed by British Airways, likened to the kind of service you would get with a low-cost carrier, but in reality, it is an airline keeping a competitive advantage in multiple markets.

Yes, the shift to buy-on-board food on domestic and European flights for those in economy wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms. I had a different view at the time, with the belief that the opportunity to purchase something from a wide menu is better than a cup of tea and a biscuit. That is a view that I still hold, and although the menu has now been ‘enhanced’, a term that BA loves which effectively means degraded, is still something that offers choice.

The other shift has been towards densification of aircraft, that is putting more seats in the same amount of space, and that is something that a customer notices. It not always legroom though, the common metric touted, but as we will see at Gatwick on the 777 fleet, putting an extra seat in the row. The move from a 3-3-3 configuration in economy to a 3-4-3, along with more World Traveller Plus (Premium Economy) seats and the removal of First gives the airline a cost base they can effectively compete with Norwegian (low-cost long haul) out of Gatwick. The same is happening in the short-haul fleet, with many of the A320’s now flying with 174 seats, just 6 short of the standard dense configuration.

So those are things you notice, but there are plenty of other ways an airline can save money, sometimes without you even noticing. Over the years thanks to Ryanair pioneering mandatory online check-in to save money (taking out the need to have banks of staff waiting to print a boarding pass), people have now been conditioned that this is the just standard practice now, even for the mainstream airlines. Taking that a step further is what easyJet is calling ‘Auto Bag Drop’ or ABD for short, where if you are travelling with a piece of hold luggage, you will be able to check it in yourself at the airport, reducing staffing levels even further. EasyJet currently has the largest in Europe at the moment, and British Airways inherited their smaller version when they moved terminals in January at Gatwick. This ‘automation’ is going to be rolled out at Heathrow as well with 24 new bag drops.

As seen as a trial over the summer, automatic boarding gates at Heathrow for domestic flights are to speed up the boarding process. According to the British Airways presentation at the Capital Markets Day, there are a total of 9 gates which reduce boarding times by a third. As long as they strictly enforce the boarding system of Club/Executive Club/Families and disabled on first, I can’t see there being too many complaints, but I’m sure there will be some from the back. They announced that this will be shortly rolled out to international flights as well soon.

Digital is also an important part of ‘automation’, encouraging customers to do more through technology. A new app and website are going to allow customers to have greater control over their booking with improved ways to cancel, rebook and upgrade – which will assist the company in times of crisis such as mass cancellations through weather or strikes. As I have found myself, the new system will even rebook a flight for you if your original flight is cancelled, allowing airport ground staff to concentrate on customer service and not firefighting.

Not all automation will be seen from a customer’s point of view though. A new ‘Mototok’ push-back system replaces the old truck style vehicle, and they are trialling a new robotic baggage system, all designed around the dispatch of an aircraft more efficient.

The use of technology to improve the experience, while lowering cost at the same time is a nirvana for airlines. The more which can be automated or streamlined, and increase efficiency is a win for all concerned. This really isn’t something to be scared about this time but embraced as the new way of travelling through airports and air travel.

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