The emergence of ‘no frills’ airlines has opened up the world to us all but although the monetary cost may be low, the cheapened experience has taken its toll on what was once a glamorous industry. This may or may not be a bad thing, but it has certainly changed the face of international travel forever. Many column inches and plenty of ink has already been spent by better observers than I on the woes of budget airlines. Entire books have been devoted to them and their CEOs but often I don’t agree with such lamentations. In my view budget or no frills airlines don’t actually have any shortcomings as the reality is they never promised anything other than a seat. The problem is often not with an airline, but with our own preconceived idea of air travel from yesteryear.
The marketing campaigns sell us the magic but the days have long gone where travellers wore their best clothes, luggage matched and the airline staff seemed genuinely pleased to have you on board. Some of us remember a time when the crew were courteous and helpful supplying endless complimentary drinks and snacks, appearing to care that you ‘enjoyed your trip’ even if they were actually faking it. When you eventually landed at the destination you were happy to join in the spontaneous round of applause for the pilot and the crew; a thank you of sorts. How things have changed, even in my lifetime. These days there is little to applaud.
Catching a Ryanair flight has all the glamour of catching a bus. It’s cheap, you pay extra for everything and they’ll happily drop you at a remote airport in the middle of the night, miles from the city you wanted to visit. It’s hard to complain though when you’ve only paid a couple a quid and even with the taxi ride factored in, it is still good value. They never over-promise and it’s all about getting you there safely and cheaply, if not luxuriously. Earlier this year I took a flight with a relatively new budget carrier from Cork called Sky Europe and it was great. For what I paid for a return flight I expected to be handed some feathers at check-in and told to make my own way there! I paid more for a return train ticket to Dublin last weekend than for that flight. I was impressed. The staff were very pleasant and overall it was extremely comfortable.
The real problem arises with Aer Lingus. Our national carrier, our world recognised brand has also become a budget airline. The costs have gone down but unfortunately they still operate under the illusion that they offer a better service than the others. Their only advantage is that perhaps they fly into more recognisable airports but that’s where the difference ends. This week I flew to mainland Europe with Aer Lingus. I shouldn’t have expected anything better but I did. I’ve been on Aer Lingus flights since the change but this time I just noticed it all a little more. Like Ryanair and Sky Europe I was ‘sold’ a cup of coffee, I was charged for wanting to bring more than a pair of knickers with me for a five day trip, in that each piece of luggage has to be paid for as an extra. You can pay for this online when you book your trip, but if you decide to pay at the airport you are penalised further by having to pay six euro more per item. On the flight I barely had the cup of coffee I bought in front of me when a rather unfriendly steward started to roam the aisle shouting `’rubbish? rubbish?” I was tempted to say ‘You’re right, it is!’, but thought better of it. Within minutes of the rubbish collection he was back, this time selling perfume and overpriced plastic replica aeroplanes and branded pens. It was sky shopping time, perhaps I should have been more excited. When the sky shopping was over we were offered international calling cards at a very ‘reasonable price’ which would make it easier for all of us to phone home and tell everyone what the weather was like! The mobile phone has surely killed sales of calling cards on most flights. I hope they are not working on commission.
The years of marketing have worked too well on me perhaps and I expect a superior experience with Aer Lingus but you just don’t get it. Airlines and indeed airports are now solely geared towards making profits regardless of the customer. Airports have become retail meccas and, have no doubt about it, many of an airline’s rules are about you spending extra time at the airport spending extra money there in the process. I believe that not being able to carry liquids through to departures has as much to do with sales of bottled water in the departure lounge as it does with any real security threat. Suddenly all retail areas in airport departure lounges have fully stocked fridges filled with premium brand bottled waters. Think about the increased sales of water in airports worldwide since this little ban has been introduced. Because they ask you to check in a minimum of two hours before your flight this ensures that you have plenty of time for shopping and spending. The next time you use an airport see how much you spend between parking, eating and shopping before you even leave the country. Hanging around airports is an expensive business. There is the common perception that those good airport people provide shops, restaurants and other services to keep us entertained. Unfortunately they want your money – they really don’t care too much about your travel experience. If people only browsed through the shops and never actually bought anything they would be shut down very quickly. As a traveller your end of the bargain is to spend money and their job is to find as many different ways as possible to get it out of you.
The glamour and excitement is gone, nobody really cares or even pretends to care anymore. There was a time when the airport and the plane was actually part of the excitement of a holiday or trip, now it is just a necessary evil in the process. There is more to do at airports these days but it is tinged with an almost tangible cynicism and we, as passengers, have played our own part in the general erosion of what was once fun. Travelling is another wonderful and amazing privilege that we now take very much for granted. Somebody should set up an airline with happy, passionate staff, free cups of coffee and snacks and three less seats on the plane so that every adult could have room for their knees and not just those on the exit rows. (They make you sit in a cramped, confined area for a few hours and expect a pair of flight socks to compensate!) We may have to pay a little extra at the start of the trip, but you won’t be fleeced throughout it.
In the meantime if you are, like most of us, travelling economy class then lower your expectations and expect nothing but a seat and general rudeness. You will then be pleasantly surprised if anything better than that happens. Any day now I am expecting to be handed those feathers!