Thursday, July 27, 2017

What Do We Want From An Airline?

Having been chained, day and night, to a computer in Mallorca for the last seven years, a recent flight seemed like something of an adventure. Unfamiliarity had bred a lack of contempt. Not that I ever had any contempt for Ryanair, easyJet or indeed any other airline.

One's contempt monitor threatened to be activated by the hour spent in the aircraft on the tarmac in Palma. If it had to be any airline, then it was of course Ryanair, although in the inefficiency stakes it should really have been Vueling. One was prepared to take the pilot at his word that the slot with air-traffic control was missed because of the delay to the incoming flight.

The hour's wait wasn't, to be fair, overtaxing or uncomfortable. There again, I was well armed with liquid (water). Not everyone was by any means. Many was the complaint that they should have been giving out free bottles rather than charging three euros a pop. From my perspective, it wasn't a reason to be contemptuous, though it did make me think that I hadn't been missing anything since 2010. 

Prior to the unfortunate announcement by the pilot, there had been the episode with actually getting onto the plane. I certainly couldn't recall it ever having taken so long (which must have been a contributory factor where air-traffic control was concerned). Why was the queue so long and slow? This became clearer the nearer the plane got. Passengers' luggage was being taken from them, tagged and deposited outside to be placed in the hold.

I, who had checked in a modest-sized suitcase, was both curious and baffled. In the airport departures it had become evident that there were all these people with suitcases. Not huge ones, but suitcases nonetheless. They had these cases, only for some of them (not all of them) to be divested of them.

I had of course totally overlooked the fact that one can take luggage on board, so long - in theory - that is no more than ten kilos. This is all part of what Ryanair's Neil Sorahan (chief financial officer) describes as the airline's niceness. Even had I been aware of this generosity, I wouldn't have availed myself of it. Dragging a case (even of modest size) around departures? You must be kidding. To hell with that: here, charge the credit card for the hold luggage.

What one presumes happened was that someone had calculated just how much luggage was destined to go on board. I say presume; I have no idea. But having not paid for hold luggage, a whole bunch of passengers still had to put up with waiting at the reclaim. What was I saying about inefficiency?

Despite the niceness, Ryanair's Sorahan has been less nice where some passengers are concerned. The airline's niceness has rebounded on it. Passengers, in his words, "are taking the piss". On-board luggage can and does exceed ten kilos. People coming with the "kitchen sink" could make the airline change its policy. Then, he adds, there are two-year-olds wheeling a bag onto the plane. Really? Two-year-olds manoeuvring ten kilos, even if they are on wheels?

But it does seem as if the niceness policy has got out of hand, while the nonsense of transferring luggage just as people are about to enter the plane is, well, nonsense.

In this era of low-cost travel, what do people want from an airline? Everything it appears. Cheapness creates demand for ever more cheapness, be it lugging oversize cases onto the plane or free water. The mass-production nature of the low-cost operation brings its downsides; inevitably, it does. The exercise is fundamentally about getting from A to B in the least expensive way possible: expense to both passenger and airline. Accordingly, not everything can be had. A one hundred per cent satisfaction rate, and certainly on a consistent basis, is not achievable.

Such satisfaction becomes ever more difficult to attain when one factors in the sheer scale of low-cost flights. The UK provides over a third of all low-cost passengers in and out of Spain: getting on for eight million of them who vastly exceed the numbers anywhere else. The Spanish bridle somewhat at the knowledge that a) there is so much low-cost travel, b) Ryanair, easyjet and Vueling (part of IAG) account for more than 60% of it, c) these three airlines account for a third of all international passengers.

This is condemned for contributing to "low-cost tourists". It may well do, but it also contributes to a highly buoyant tourism economy, and about the only Spanish-owned airline of any note that has been left standing - Air Europa - is now trying to play low-cost catch-up.

It is mass-production, commodity travel. It's nice because it's cheap. There would be way more complaints if it weren't.

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