I use low-cost airlines a lot. Aside from the obvious attraction of being able to zip across Europe for minimal cost there is a huge choice of destinations, they are convenient and, as long as you avoid the heinous Ryanair, using them is relatively civilised.
So travelling back to England is usually a doddle; easyJet from Copenhagen Kastrup is a simple matter of turning up and boarding before arriving at Stansted and being whisked away to our country retreat. We like to fly late as it avoids breaking up the day too much and, in the evening, Kastrup gets sleepy so it’s quiet and has a comfortable atmosphere. As airports go, it’s a nice place. This time, however, the minions at French air traffic control were showing solidarity with the oppressed workers who were busily reclaiming the streets – and burning a few cars in the process – so we expected delays and a longer than normal evening at the airport.
And so it turned out; the flight was notified as being an hour late and we pondered what to do over a glass of more-than-passable Aussie merlot while we watched everything begin to wind down around us. The guys from Joe and the Juice told us, should we want one of their excellent coffees, to order early as they were closing dead on nine so as to be able to make the dash to Larry’s Bar [O’leary’s to the uninitiated] and watch Barcelona entertain FC Copenhagen in the champions’ league. So the slack was taken up with a take-out cappuccino from Joe’s, a large Carl’s Special at Larry’s and a couple of Lionel Messi goals against the committed but well-out-of-their-depth local boys.
Stansted is always something of a nightmare experience; when it’s good it’s just about OK but when it’s bad it is simply horrendous so the anticipation of arriving there fills me with anguish. I dislike the crowds, I hate having to walk through the wind and rain from the aircraft and then climb steps to get to the top of the down escalator [how absolutely dumb is that?]; I hate the indifference of the staff who appear to have no understanding of the fact that we, the customers, are paying for their mobile phone subscriptions and I hate and the rudeness of the security personnel. It is the epicentre of low-cost airlines – a travel hub for the unwashed and unprepared – and low-cost airlines are unsurpassed in unsettling their customers. I’ve written previously about my aversion to Ryanair but easyJet, despite coming from the same economic stable, is not the same at all. In fact, our experience of these people going way back to when they were Go, an offshoot of British Airways, has been consistently pretty good. When Go commenced operations you could buy a mug of freshly-pressed cafetiere coffee from smiling, polite cabin staff. Well, life being what it is, the cafetieres have gone together with some of the happy countenances but, by and large, easyJet remains professional, polite and smiling.
It’s clear that there are pressures in making an airline profitable these days and that can make life miserable for customers [now there’s a word that has changed in its usage] and cabin crew alike. When I travel on a low-cost airline I feel as though I’m trapped in a macabre dance emanating from their need to get as much money out of me as they can and my desire to travel for as little cost as possible. So they impose efficiencies or additional fees and I resent their being cheap; a sort of love/hate affair that neither can leave but which both view with distaste. In such an awkward relationship it’s easy to get out of step and for one partner to stand on the other’s foot. It makes for an uneasy truce and it takes so little for the suppressed irritation on either side of the jet-way to surface. Our delayed flight gave an already-tired crew less time than usual but it gave the passengers more; more time to misplace boarding cards; more time to separate from colleagues and family members; more time to wander off and be late at the gate as we boarded. And of course there was some fallout – a young guy who was travelling with a single piece of hand baggage couldn’t find room in the overhead locker for it and was told that it would need to be carried in the hold. Fees, procedures and low-cost airline rules legislate towards customers carrying only hand-baggage. In fact, you pay extra if you do have a bag to go into the hold so, if you want to expedite your journey, minimise the cost and make the airline happy you do just what he did, you travel with hand baggage. Having his bag stowed in the hold would mean that he’d have to deal with the circus at Stansted so he made the unforgivable mistake of telling the cabin crew that the situation – and the airline – was stupid. I think he was probably correct in thinking that but a stewardess took offence, told the captain he was abusive and the guy was sent packing. To add nonsense to an already farcical situation they even called the police whilst he politely apologised and handed over his bag for stowing. His pleading didn’t work and he was returned under police escort to the somnolent Kastrup, his flight and the cost of it forfeited.
I wasn’t party to the words the stewardess and passenger exchanged but I don’t condone any form of abuse towards staff so one might say that he should have been more circumspect. She, however, didn’t actually say that he had been personally abusive to her, but she was tired and less than enthusiastic after dealing with lost boarding cards, wandering children and customers who had been delayed for over an hour so there was probably a requirement for drawn breaths and compromise on both sides. On balance it seemed unfair and unreasonable to dump him so I hope he appealed and has been compensated.
But this had me wondering about why travelling with low-cost airlines is such a pain. There always seems to be a level of dissatisfaction and, frequently, an incident or two. Yes, the fare is low but then again the service provided is minimal. It should be a fair trade but in reality the low-cost experience is, for the most part, uncomfortable and getting worse. Get there early and you still have to deal with the unseemly rush for a seat and might be separated from your family or children. If you are unlucky, you might find that you have nowhere to store the single bag you’re carrying. If it’s Ryanair, you can frequently add less-than-intelligible rudeness, too. The stewardess told us later that there wouldn’t be sufficient storage in the cabin if every passenger wanted to travel with hand baggage but low-cost airlines encourage us to do just that, so more customers travel with hand baggage that carries all their worldly goods. These carriers won’t allocate seats and suggest that this is because passengers would arrive at the gate more casually, thereby delaying flights. I haven’t been able to find any research – or anecdotal evidence – confirming this but crew forums suggest that the ‘passenger experience’ is made worse because of it. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that a sad-faced bean-counter somewhere thinks non-allocation of seats will encourage the purchase of ‘speedy boarding’ and that, together with charging fees for bags, profitability will increase. Of course, how that all affects the ‘passenger experience’ is not his concern, is it?
It seems that the rules governing the low-cost airline experience are sculpted with the single aim of extracting as much income as possible from the individual by bridging the gap between the putative low fares charged and those of conventional carriers. The consequence is that the experience is plain awful. Is this an indication of a flawed business model or is easyJet less honest than Ryanair, who in my personal experience is openly contemptuous of its customers? Perhaps cheap is just rotten.
Of course I’ll continue to use easyJet whilst the low-cost sun shines but I look forward to the day when aviation fuel has a sales tax added to it, when reference to a carbon footprint actually means something and the real cost of flying is described in terms that don’t include ‘low’.