Friday, August 02, 2013

Baggage handling strike

And so we make it to August. Suits are being replaced by shorts, Paris is clearing out faster than a torpedoed bathtub, and the British press are so desperate for front page shockers that Simon Cowell fathering a child by another man's wife warrants the full splash treatment. All in all, a good time to go on holiday and, preferably like the French, not return until September's dappled sunlight begins to form longer shadows.

The Great Getaway also means that all the main motorways to southern France are choked by northern Europeans in copiously packed estate cars. The French themselves are recognisable by the plumes of cigarette smoke spewing from half-cracked windows; the Belgians by the fact they will be tailgating the car in front so closely its driver will be able to perform a full retinal scan on Brer Belg using just his rear-view mirror; the Dutch will be identified by the enormous tent-bearing roof box as they head for the great outdoors, rather than anything with indoor plumbing and a lift; the Germans? Well there are no Germans heading south as they're on the Dutch and Spanish beaches already; which just leaves the Brits, who will be smugly cruising in their Jags, heading for Tuscany with a straw fedora perched pretentiously on the rear parcel shelf.

Everyone else will be travelling by plane. Sensible people will be flying with a reputable airline that delivers them on time to the city they are intending to travel to. Less sensible people will be flying with Ryanair. Ryanair will, by reputation, also deliver them on time, but not necessarily to the airport most closely associated with the destination. It's along the lines of being dropped off on Jupiter and then having to catch a bus to Saturn.

This, as we know from boorish proclamations, is because Ryanair believes in delivering "value" to the traveller. It will fly you to Paris, like everyone else, but will land you at "Paris-Beauvais", which is in fact 98km from the centre of Paris, requiring you to take a €100 taxi. And when you add on things like €30 for an infant and €20 for an infant car seat or cot, €15 to reserve a seat or €10 to board first, €3 for a portion of microwaved chips, €4.50 for a "premium sandwich" and €2.50 for a 250ml can of Pepsi, that "€19" flight to Paris (that actually became €70 when you booked both legs...) starts to look like a very bad deal indeed, when compared to flying 'full fare' with, say, Air France (Heathrow-Charles De Gaulle return, €109 with a €16 return fare to and from the airport by train).

Of course, buying a drink or getting the seat of your choice are all options. But paying extra for an infant who would otherwise be strapped in with a parent? That's just gouging. Ryanair even, somewhat patronisingly, offers tips on "How Do I Avoid Paying Optional Fees?", which includes such suggestions as "Checked Baggage Fee -  is avoidable by simply travelling with no checked baggage". Brilliant.

This brings me to the latest declaration from the airline's loathsome CEO, Michael O'Leary: in addition, this week, to apparently asking pilots to fly slower to conserve fuel, the Irishman has declared war on luggage.

O'Leary has had a thing about luggage for a while, regarding bags as simply a burden on profit margins due to the fact they burn more fuel, and by the fact processing baggage adds time (and money) to the turnaround time of aircraft that could otherwise be in the air with fare-paying passengers.

This summer, Ryanair has raised its charges for putting bags in the holds of its Boeing 737s by a further €20, a move O'Leary justified by saying: "We don't want the bags. We will keep increasing charges until we get rid of [hold] bags."

Well excuse me. But unless you are in a hurry to flee a war zone, most people like to pack a suitcase for a trip abroad so that they have, you know, clothes, shoes, underwear, toothbrushes and all the other items you can't leave several hundred miles away at home.

Even for a weekend, I'd prefer not to go out for dinner in the clothes I'd been wearing since the taxi arrived at dawn. I get it that some people can make do with the same T-shirt and bikini for an entire month of backpacking through Thailand, but the beauty of civilisation is that hotels function much the same as your home, and even "informal" restaurants appreciate it when their patrons bathe and wear relatively recently laundered clothing.

Restricting carry-on luggage, on the other hand, is, in my view a good thing: travel, in my opinion, generally brings out the worst in people. Which is why, when queuing to board a flight these days, your queue will include a small fleet of wheeled suitcases gripped by fellow passengers who believe they have as much right to fill up an overhead locker as you have (and slow down the boarding process along the way).

But hold luggage - which may take a little longer to deliver but at least is loaded by someone who won't delay the flight (unless they go on strike, of course) - is surely a good thing. And what will O'Leary fill the empty holds of his 737s if they don't have baggage - people?

Taking a pop at Ryanair's business model is both easy and tiresome. Easy, because it goes out of its way to annoy anyone dumb enough to care. Like me. And tiresome, because its belligerence knows no bounds.

If you go into business running an airline, most of the premise is providing a customer service or, as marketing people increasingly like to say, an "experience". I don't mind anyone making money on it, and if you believe in the free market, you pay your money and make your choice.

I just object to paying money for something which is supposed to be cheap, only to get a worse service than if I was paying a premium. Which is why I'm happy to pay for an airline that treats you as a customer buying a service, rather than a piece of cargo given the privilege of riding in a seat.

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