Simon Calder: It's Ryanair's world, we just fly in it


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The Independent Online

Until this week, there was one sure way to get a free cup of tea out of Ryanair: present yourself as a journalist at one of the airline's press conferences. But as the price of aviation fuel soars and the appetite for travel dwindles, the media's hot drinks have been replaced by tap water (still more than you would get on a Ryanair flight).

Paying passengers on Europe's biggest airline may, in any case, need to moderate their fluid intake if Ryanair's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, gets his way. He is pressing Boeing, which makes all his planes, to certify his 737s for 195 passengers: six more than at present. The space would come not from squeezing the rows closer, but by removing the two rear toilets on some shorter flights – leaving passengers to queue for the one remaining "lav".

I fly more on Ryanair than any other airline because its fares tend to be lower and its punctuality better than the alternatives. But the experience is not without stress: pity the Ryanair passenger who fails scrupulously to observe the rules on printing out a boarding pass, exceeds the cabin baggage limits or arrives late at the boarding gate. Nevertheless, if you manage to cross these hurdles – as 75 million people will this year – the overwhelming likelihood is you will get a punctual flight operated safely by friendly, professional crew. Which, in a world where short-haul travel is rightly viewed as a commodity, is the best you can expect.

Yet, to venture in polite society that Ryanair has done more than any other airline to broaden horizons, liberate ambitions and bring people together is often enough to trigger a torrent of outrage, as though one has expressed admiration for the leadership style of Josef Stalin.

Which brings us back, in a way, to Michael O'Leary. He wants to change your behaviour: to persuade you to pay for the trip with a strange and exotic pre-paid Mastercard; to travel only with 10kg (and not a molecule more) of cabin baggage; and to exercise appropriate bladder management before a flight. There is one sure way to avoid your behaviour being modified and to insure against infuriation with Ryanair: don't fly with the airline. At present, there are many ways to avoid it.

As the aviation industry consolidates and Ryanair becomes ever more dominant, finding alternatives may not be so easy in future.

Ryanair flies nearly three times as many passengers internationally as British Airways.

And, as travellers hoping to fly to the Croatian city of Zadar and Girona in Spain are discovering this month, it would rather axe routes and ground planes than fly them at a loss – leaving property owners aghast as they scrabble for seats to the distant airports of Split and Barcelona.

Individual routes – like tea – are prone to disappear overnight. But get over it: most of us are flying – and living – in a no-frills world.