Margaret and Dick   


July '09: The friendly skies of Ryanair

Dick and I had flown Ryanair once before and the memory was still fresh.  We were in line at the London Stansted airport, and the gentleman in front of us had several extra bags.  “That will be £150 (then about $280) for the bags, sir.”  The man stood stupified, wondering how a low-fare trip could have become so expensive.  Forewarned is forearmed, and we were not to be caught unawares.

We rarely check bags and I always travel light, but packing for our trip to Dublin was proving a challenge.  One carry-on, period, with a strict weight limit.  I stepped on and off the scale with my daypack and jettisoned items in sequence.  The Teva sandals went first, then reading material, then lotion and hair conditioner.  Normal tops were exchanged for featherweight high-tech fabrics.  The camera (3 lbs) was definitely coming with me.  “Higgins, you’d better come down and start facing this issue,” I hollered upstairs.  Finally I hit target:  9.5 lbs, just a half-pound below the limit, for safety.  Dick watched, amused.  “Margaret, the weight limit is ten kilos (22 lbs), not ten pounds.” 

Ryanair is, I fear, the future of air travel.  You pay for exactly what you get.  The basic fares can be astonishing:  in the early days of the Carcassonne-Stansted route, promotional fares of 10€ were not uncommon.  But flier beware of the extras.

Miss your connection?  Too bad.  Originally that seat would have flown empty at your expense.  Now I believe you can pay (plenty) for making a change.  Complain to customer service?  Good luck – customer service reps are few, and you’ll be paying up to 0.85€/minute while you wait.  Checking baggage?  There is now a strict limit of 15 kg (33 lbs) for the total of your two checked bags – 10€ and 20€, respectively – and the excess baggage fee is 15€/kg (about $10/lb).  Forget to print your boarding pass at home?  Pony up – that will be 40€ each, please.  Want your best pick of the (unassigned) seats?  10€ for “Priority Q” boarding.  There are no seatback pouches.  Need a barf bag?  I bet it will cost you.  Seats do not recline.  Passengers board and deplane on an aluminum stepladder that flies with the plane.  On board, you can purchase newspapers, coffee/tea, snacks, Ryanair lottery tickets, or travel souvenirs.  Ryanair has polled passengers about their willingness to sit on stools, and most were receptive to the idea.  An earlier plan to charge for the use of toilets has been scrapped, we hear.

No passenger should be surprised by these charges.  Dick, who had purchased our tickets online, received increasingly menacing emails beginning a month before our flight outlining rules for check-in, boarding passes, carry-ons, etc.  Ignore these at your peril!

I have no doubt that the next oil shock will have Ryanair weighing passengers and charging for excess, er, corporal baggage.  And why not?  Why should a skinny vegetarian subsidize my last gastrofest dinner?  Other airlines will be pressured to do the same as passengers with broader aspect ratios shift away from Ryanair and drive up their fuel costs. 

And yet we like Ryanair.  Strict carry-on limits mean the cabin isn’t choked with stuff and aisles aren’t full of passengers cramming carry-ons into the overhead bins.  No assigned seats mean boarding is efficient.  The lack of a jetway means no waiting for a jetway.  The lack of seatback pouches and meal service means no cleaning crew between flights.  Turnaround is at lightning speed.  Upon landing at your destination, the PA system trumpets (literally), “Welcome!  You have arrived on another on-time flight with Ryanair!” and their boasting is well-founded.  The airline flies late-model planes.  The company appears to be doing well in this most difficult period for airlines.  (N.B. This is not a stock recommendation.)

Ryanair is coming to a city near you.  It changed the tourist landscape here in the Aude valley when tiny Carcassonne was added to its route map and hordes of Brits gained cheap access to sunny vacations.  Now nearing saturation of the European market, it’s already flying to Chicago.  Can China be far behind?

I love the service provided by Delta, and I bask in the benefits of being a frequent flyer.  Delta is likely to get all of my business on any route it serves.  But full-service airlines are taking note of the success of the Ryanair formula and making changes accordingly.  The golden age of air travel is over.  Our experience with Ryanair helps me get comfortable with changes that will be necessary to keep airlines financially sound.  Just keep getting me where I want to go!

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