Industry experts have warned that British Airways’ (BA) decision to reduce in-flight perks and slash legroom to compete with budget carriers could put its elite status at risk.

Britain’s flag carrier, which serves the Caribbean, has been told that its new business model, which has brought it closer to traditionally cheaper brands like EasyJet and Ryanair, is damaging the company’s reputation.

The airline recently struck a deal with retail giant Marks & Spencer to charge passengers for food for the first time, a move which angered loyal customers who are used to complimentary food and drink on all of its flights.

BA is also planning to narrow the gap between seats from 30 inches to 29 on some of its aircraft, which is less than that of Ryanair and the same as EasyJet’s.

The reduction is designed to make space for an extra two rows of seats to carry 12 more passengers. It means that carriers including Flybe, Norwegian and Wizz Air will now all have more legroom than BA but the industry standard legroom of 31 or 32 inches will still apply on BA’s long-haul planes.

A BA spokesman said: “From next year, we’re making a small increase to the number of seats on our A320 and A321 fleet so we can keep fares low. Customers fly with us because we offer quality and value in all areas.”

BA has been warned that squeezing bigger profits risked removing one of the last differences between the airline and its no-frills rivals, however.

The global creative officer at the branding consultancy Landor, Peter Knapp, told The Times: “Along with the removal of free meals on short-haul flights there is little for the economy traveller to choose between when comparing BA to its value-focused competitors.

“BA needs to be careful of how their brand image will fare following these announcements. The worst-case scenario is for their brand to devolve, losing their elite status as Britain’s flag carrier as it cuts the services that help it stand out in a highly competitive marketplace.”

Max Kingsley-Jones, of aviation magazine Flight Global, said the latest decision was in response to growing competition on short-haul routes from budget operators.

“BA is seeing declining fares and it has had to adapt,” he said. “We’ve already seen it with the decision to offer hand luggage-only fares.”

He added that BA has a “hard core” of customers because of its connections at Heathrow and its loyalty programme.

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