Consuming Issues: Ryanair: it's cheap, not cheerful

Hidden credit card charges, extra payments for "fees/taxes", frequent delays, poor customer service, airports that turn out to be miles from the destination – not many people have a good word to say about Ryanair. Which is odd, given that it is now Europe's biggest, and therefore most popular, airline.

Perhaps the reason for the reticence is that air passengers have become blasé at the prospect of flying at 30,000ft for less than the cost of a DVD box set. Perhaps it's because they don't like admitting the reason they are flying Ryanair is money (a topic the airline has no embarrassment shouting about).

Some 58.5 million people flew with Ryanair in the 12 months to March, paying a total of £2.9bn for tickets, charges, on-board lotto cards and over-priced snacks and drinks – €50 per flight. But regardless of its other drawbacks, Ryanair's cheapness is not something to be sniffed at by anyone who remembers the expense and indifferent service of the old state monopolies. Flights that cost dozens of pounds on Ryanair cost hundreds of pounds on those lazy national carriers in the 1990s before the skies were liberalised.

Admittedly, there are plenty of reasons to dislike Ryanair. The service is undeniably basic; there are lots of irritating booking extras; the £100 charge for amending a passenger name is particularly egregious.

Then there's the charmlessness of Michael O'Leary, the chief executive, and his arrogant disdain of decent organisations such as the Advertising Standards Authority and bullying of municipal airports seeking to upgrade facilities. Needless to say, Ryanair air stewards aren't paid much.

And then there's the overwhelming environmental case against mass air travel. Planes emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases, so much so that the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research forecasts that air travel will take up the UK's entire "sustainable" carbon quota by 2050 unless something changes.

But let's assume you fly infrequently, generally holidaying at home more rather than weekending in Barcelona or jetting to Venice for a drink at Harry's Bar – and that you need to fly somewhere, for business, a wedding or keyhole surgery. Despite all the carping, there are two good reasons why you should choose Ryanair.

The first is that its early reputation for delays is no longer deserved – its flights are usually punctual. According to flightontime.info, in the first three months of this year, Ryanair was 18th out of 35 airlines flying from British airport for delays: 80 per cent of flights landed within 15 minutes of schedule.

The second – and far the most important – is price. Despite the addition of the £5 credit card charge and the extra charge for "fees/taxes", Ryanair's fares are astonishingly good value. You can't accuse it of complacency. Last week it was advertising flights, tomorrow, from Stansted to Turin for £42 and from Manchester to Marseille for £64.

And this is where it's been clever; stripping down the unnecessary costs of flying to a cheap core. It recently introduced online check-in, requiring customers to confirm attendance on the flight and print out tickets at home (beware, you'll be hit for £10 each way if you bowl up to the airport expecting to check-in).

If you want anything above this minimum, you'll have to pay – often handsomely. The charge for stowing luggage in the hold is £10 a bag. A can of Kopparberg pear cider onboard is £5.40. A 500ml bottle of water £2.70.

The reason why Ryanair decants passengers miles from city centres is because regional hub airports are cheap; that's why the fares are so low. That's why Ryanair doesn't want to pay baggage handlers, why its staff are low-paid and why it has introduced online check-in.

For its last full financial year, largely because of fuel costs, the penny-pinching "Low Fares Airline" made €105m after tax – a profit margin of 3 per cent.

If you have to fly, you can hardly get better value than that. And that means you have more money to spend at your destination.

Heroes & Villains

Hero: Apple

Which?, the consumer campaign group, scored the computer giant's products highly for reliability. According to the number of repairs needed by customers, Apple came top of the league for desktops, and equal second for laptops, behind Toshiba.

Which? readers also gave Apple the highest overall customer score, 94 per cent for desktops and 93 per cent for laptops, well above ratings for competitors.

Only one other company scored above the 70s, Sony, which scored 80. But such quality comes at a cost. "Apple tops the reliability chart, but you'll pay £900 for a full-featured Mac and £2,500 for a top-of-the-range one," says Which? Computer.

Villain: Shoe Zone, Isle of Wight

Hundreds of pairs of shoes but no shoelaces. Most of the big shoe chains don't stock shoelaces, presumably because they would rather sell new shoes than make good old ones.

In this new age of thrift, are these shops missing a trick? How many customers seeking new laces would spot a gleaming new pair of shoes and buy them? The rest of us would be spared the increasingly difficult task of hunting laces, an endangered species on the high street.

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