REVIEW: British Airways "Buy On Board"
A few months back, British Airways (BA) made the decision to stop offering a complimentary snack and beverage on board their short haul flights in mid-january. The previous free offerings were often quite basic and uninspired - perhaps half an egg salad sandwich and a mini can of Coke. While humble and often times rather bland, they were a tiny bit of hospitality many expect to find on European flag carriers. While the concept of "buy on board" is quite well established in the North American market and isn't unknown in Europe, many of BA's contemporaries in Europe still do offer a complimentary snack and beverage on short flights. So it's a bit of a change.
When BA announced the changes, they noted they were making them due to customer demand for higher quality items and additional options when dining on board. If you asked BA, customers had asked to pay for these items. The travel community and aviation reporters collectively threw their heads back and provided BA with hearty belly laughs.
Yeah, you're charging people for food because they asked for it. Got it. Okay, yes, sure thing.
As a happy coincidence, I happened to take a flight from Lisbon to London Heathrow a few weeks ago with BA, about a month after implementation of the new service standard. Lisbon - London is definitely one of the short haul routes that transitioned over to "buy on board" service in mid-January, so I figured I might as well take a gander at the menu and perhaps purchase a few items to get a feel for what was being offered.
Right after take off an announcement was made explaining that snack and beverage items were available for purchase and that the flight attendants would be making their way through the aisle momentarily to take orders for items. They noted that purchase was through credit card or British Airways Avios only, so if you brought cash you can put it away. That's a no-go here.
Menus were available in every seat back pocket so it's easy for passengers to peruse their options and make a selection.
As you can see, BA has partnered with British company Mark & Spencer (M&S) on their menu.
Snack options range from candy bars and cookies to breakfast-oriented meals, to sandwiches and salads.
Tea on offer is from Twinings, coffee by Java Republic, and hot chocolate by Cadbury. As you can see, strong representation by British-associated brands.
And of course a selection of beers, wines, and champagnes/sparkling wines.
Prices were a bit more than I would want to pay for any of the items on the menu, but not so high that I immediately thought "Yeah, that's gonna be a hard pass for me" upon laying eyes. And as you can see, prices are listed in British pounds or Avios. If you have spare Avios sitting around your account that you have zero use for, sure, go ahead and use them here. But they're better used on other options vs. burning them on an overpriced mini-bottle of apple juice.
I have to admit the ordering process confused me a bit. The flight attendants pulled a cart out and did indeed make their way down the aisle like a standard service, however, it appears there's a limited selection of items on the actual cart. Two people worked the cart and another flight attendant walked down the aisle ahead of the cart seeing if anyone wanted to place an order. Very few people opted to place an order (I counted four on my flight and I was in the second to last row of the plane with no one behind me - literally the last passenger) so it was only a few minutes before the "scout" flight attendant reached me. I noted that I wanted to order the Aberdeen angus beef & red onion chutney bloomer, harissa chicken & couscous salad, and a Vita coconut water.
Upon hearing my order, the flight attendant told me "We have all of those things today, but none of them is on the cart. I'll get them out of the galley for you." She disappeared into the back of the plane and came back with a credit card machine where I paid for my items and was asked to sign a receipt as I did not have a European pin-activated card.
During this time the flight attendants on the cart slowly made their way down the aisle and seemed to ask passengers a second time whether they'd like to buy something to drink or eat. Odd.
Once I had paid, my "scout" attendant slipped back into the galley and came back in a minute with my items.
If you're the observant sort, you'll notice two things.
My Vita coconut water looks awfully similar to a Coca Cola
There's bottle of water on my tray that I did not order.
Turns out my curse of never being understood by the British continues to plague me and my request for "coconut water" ended up being heard as "coke". I'm not sure why I can get by in every other country in the world with my English but in the UK everyone stares at me like I'm speaking with a mouth full of marbles. I pointed out the miscommunication to the flight attendant which gave her a good laugh but also required her to inform me that coconut water wasn't available on today's flight. So a Coke it was going to be, as I wasn't too invested in the drink to begin with and didn't feel like opening the menu again to select an alternative.
Also, apparently either my sandwich or my salad came with a complimentary bottled water. It was never clarified for me which it was, but it did come in handy later after I put it into my backpack forgetting I needed to re-clear security at London Heathrow, causing my backpack to be pulled aside and searched for explosives. Yay for absentminded travel!
Now, about the actual meals.
The salad was served chilled and it was surprisingly hardy - quite a bit of weigh to the package which means it was a sizable portion. It's not going to win any awards for presentation but on an airplane does anyone really care what it looks like? The yogurt dressing was slopped into a corner of the container, which was slightly problematic as tossing the ingredients was a bit complicated with how shallow the bowl was compared to how much food was inside it. I managed though.
Flavor-wise things were decent. I thought it was an okay meal. To be honest, it's what I would expect from a free airline meal, except this time I had to pay for it. I didn't regret eating it, but I wouldn't look for it again the next time I'm on a British Airways short haul flight (which will be in July).
The beef and onion sandwich was also pretty sizable. Not an anemic shadow of a real sandwich but a robust handful of meal. Good marks on that front.
The tomatoes inside the sandwich were plentiful and sliced thick. Bread was a bit soggy but that happens with a packaged product, so I'm not really faulting them too hard for that. There was multiple slices of the angus beef inside the sandwich, so they didn't skimp in that arena either. The red onion chutney was quite flavorful, and it really pulled through to hit the dulled tastebuds in my mouth at 35,000 ft. Great marks here - I would definitely buy this one again.
So at the end of the day the things that stood out to me were the fact that the ordering process wasn't particularly clear and the food ranged from acceptable to good. Though confusing, the ordering process was friendly and pretty efficient, so I won't downgrade them on that front either. The problem with all this is that the price and quality of items offered wasn't cheaper nor better than what you can typically buy in the terminal at most airports these flights would be departing from. If the experience, prices, and food quality I experienced on this flight are generally representative of what you can expect time after time - I don't see any advantage or reason to purchase on the plane vs in the terminal where chances are you'll have a wider selection of similarly priced items of equal or better quality.
Obviously this isn't a comprehensive look at every item on the menu, but hopefully it gives you a bit of an idea of what to expect when in the air with BA on short flights. So the next time you're in the air with BA remember to bring cash, slowly pronounce the words "coconut water", and perhaps pass on the couscous and get a double of the angus beef. Happy travels!