Simon Calder: No scrum for the XV flying to 'Munich West'
Saturday 23 May 2009
Fifteen: the degrees of longitude corresponding to a one-hour zone as you make your way around the planet; the name of Jamie Oliver's "global social enterprise brand" which now has restaurants in London, Cornwall, Amsterdam and Melbourne; and the number of passengers on flight FR2406 on Tuesday.
Anyone who succumbed to Ryanair's invitation to pay an extra few pounds for Priority Boarding for this flight from Stansted to "Munich West" would have felt foolish when they reached to the gate. Fifteen happens to be the complement for a Rugby Union side, but there was no sign of the usual boarding scrum. We ambled on board and chose the dozen seats to which, in the absence of other takers, each of us was entitled; I took rows 15 and 16, A to F inclusive. A couple of seats remained for each of the crew – for once, underworked. And one was left over for any Ryanair executive contemplating the 8 per cent "load factor" and the stain of red ink on the airline's accounts. Not as bleak as British Airways' losses revealed yesterday, perhaps, but still as dismal as the clouds that smothered Essex before the Boeing 737 broke through into the morning sun.
One of the more hopeless French airlines, Air Liberté, had a short-lived link from Gatwick to Paris in the early 1990s. Because its Fokker 100 aircraft offered leather seats and ample legroom, the airline used the questionable slogan "It's all business class on this Fokker" to promote its £99 return fare.
My as-close-as-Ryanair-gets-to-business-class experience cost a lot less than £99; £3.40, including taxes, fees and charges. Ryanair was about £17 down on the deal when I boarded, and its finances remained unimpressive when I declined the opportunity to pay £3 for an inflight bottle of water. A fellow passenger who booked only the previous day paid £30. The total fare take could hardly have topped £300, which would not even pay for the air-traffic control charges on the 80-minute hop to the final frontier of Bavaria.
Why should so few people choose to board a plane with 189 seats? Fifteen plausible reasons present themselves, starting with:
1. It's Tuesday, traditionally the day when planes are emptiest.
2. The route is a new one, and it always takes time to build traffic.
3. If "Munich (West)" were any further west, it would no longer be in Bavaria. Anyone with a desire to travel to Munich and in possession of a map would realise that Aer Lingus, British Airways, easyJet and Lufthansa adopt the useful policy of flying to the Bavarian capital's airport, not to a town 70 miles away.
And the list ends with:
15. Could it be that Memmingen, the actual location for "Munich (West)" is the most unpopular place in Europe?
I was about to find out.
Memmingen airport is notable for several things: it is the first I have seen with a log cabin adjacent to the terminal that serves as a cheery bierkeller; with a giant yogurt pot (celebrating a local dairy firm); and with a rather forlorn woman holding a big sign reading "Bus to Munich €18 – follow me". No one did. It had become clear from the window of row 16 (and 15) that the airport was an easy walk from the town. So I strode out into the bright Bavarian morning, through meadows sprinkled with flowers and augmented by birdlife, the pastoral bliss only briefly interrupted by the returning flight.
The middle of Memmingen is a treat for the soul. It grew rich on the salt trade, with graceful inns such as the Gasthof zum Schwanen created in the 16th century. This was also the era when the world's first known charter of human rights was conceived in the town, snappily entitled The Just and Fundamental Articles of All the Peasantry and Tenants of Spiritual and Temporal Powers by Whom They Think Themselves Oppressed; not believed to be a reference to Ryanair passengers.
At the town's heart is the fine facade of a renaissance town hall. Beneath its curvaceous gables a flourishing market was taking place, at which I found the only trace of conflict in this serene stadt: Spargelzeit. Intense competition flourished between vendors of asparagus, which is at its prime right now. But the only weapons in evidence were the asparagus spears on sale, €8 per kilo.
An early summer's day drifts dreamily by in Memmingen. Ornate frescoes bring colour to street corners, while even the bus shelters are decorated with maple leaves. The mighty gothic St Martin's church boasts a 500-year-old choir, whose elaborate carving provides the ideal harmonious finale for a visit.
The oompah may not have faded from this cheerful corner of Bavaria, but back at the airport, the meadow was being patrolled by a wheeling eagle. As prospective passengers opt out of flying, expect the aviation giants to swoop on enfeebled prey.
Mexico makes waves again
Mexico is safe again for British travellers: that was the Foreign Office's conclusion last Friday evening. It no longer warns against travel to the country at the centre of the swine flu outbreak. To fill thousands of unsold aircraft seats and hotel beds, tour operators are cutting prices to el hueso (the bone). So, if you are tempted by our Complete Guide to Mexican Shores, you can find some formidable bargains if you are prepared to leave soon. Fly tomorrow on Thomas Cook from Manchester to Cancún, and the price for 10 all-inclusive nights at the four-star Sandos Caracol is an astonishing £473.
Not to be sneezed at: two years ago, I paid that much for a return flight alone. But the firm may wish to alter its online promise that visitors to Mexico will discover "a bullish, confident country with a booming economy, lively tourist industry and a new found swagger".
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