The Man Who Pays His Way: Existentialism aboard the longest no-frills flight in Europe
Saturday 01 December 2007
If you subscribe to the Sartrean view that "Hell is other people", do not book yourself aboard Ryanair flight 3153. This particular departure is, as far as I can tell, the longest flight to or from the UK by a short-haul, no-frills airline.
Forget your hour-long hop from anywhere in the UK to Dublin or Amsterdam, or the two-hour trip that takes you to an alluring city such as Nice, Milan or Prague: Tenerife to East Midlands airport is the longest haul in the short-haul book. The Boeing 737 is scheduled to take four hours and 10 minutes to get from the eastern Atlantic to the East Midlands about the time it takes to travel by train from Glasgow or Edinburgh to London.
Adverse winds (such as those that blew on Tuesday afternoon) can extend the flight time even further. So we 189 passengers spent close on five hours between boarding in the bright sunshine of the Canaries and disembarking in the damp gloom of the East Midlands.
So, would a low fare (I paid 33) lure you on board? Perhaps that depends on how your travel-comfort index is calibrated. I have endured plenty of more arduous journeys, such as charter flights between Gatwick and Turkey, and overnight second-class buses in Thailand. Compared with those, FR3153 was a pleasure.
Unlike a Central American bus, the Boeing's "load factor" was just 100 per cent, rather than several times the seating capacity (you know the old joke: how many people can you get on a Nicaraguan bus? Two more). I was about the last passenger to board, and seat 5F was the only empty place on the plane.
The legroom was reasonable, and there was no risk of the back of seat 4F intruding into my personal space because the seats do not recline (or "decline", as one of the Spanish staff touchingly put it). The friendly, professional cabin crew sold a range of what were said to be "delicious drinks and snacks", an assertion I declined to test. Inflight entertainment took the form of fine views of the coast of Portugal and the mountains of northern Spain, either side of which I pretended to work on this column.
Perhaps, though, you prefer a full-service airline or even business class. You can spend significantly more on the Club Europe cabin of a GB Airways' Airbus for the four-hour flight between Tenerife and Gatwick. Indeed, many of the high-and-mighty figures at this week's Travel Convention in Tenerife filled the business-class cabins. The trouble is, starting next summer, travellers between the UK and the Canaries will no longer enjoy the luxury of choice. Next year, easyJet takes over GB Airways, and has vowed to erase business class, along with all the other frills such as assigned seating and complimentary catering.
"Save our business class" may not be a slogan that resonates in the popular imagination in quite the same way as "Save our school" or "Save our hospital". But the campaign by some well-heeled individuals in the Canaries to retain a separate cabin at the front of the plane deserves public sympathy.
First, one size doesn't fit all. Some passengers have particular reasons for wanting a more spacious cabin: they may be taller or wider than the average passenger, or have a medical condition that requires extra legroom or a particular seat.
Next, the UK economy could suffer. Many business travellers demand Club class as a matter of course. If property developers and well-heeled expatriates are unable to shuttle between London and Tenerife in a business-class cabin, then they may well adjust their travel plans to exclude the UK capital. It will still be possible to fly between Tenerife and Britain in business class on the Spanish airline Iberia, but this demands a change of planes in Madrid and a vastly extended journey. The Spanish capital will begin to replace London as the global hub for high-spenders from the Canaries.
Perhaps you have little sympathy with the people who exercise their economic right to turn left when they get on a plane, rather than right with the rest of us. Well, bear in mind that the business-class passenger tends to subsidise those in the cheap seats. By paying a multiple of the lowest fare for a little more comfort and classier catering, they help to keep economy fares economical.
If Tenerife to London is such an important route, though, then surely another airline will step in to offer a business-class service? In theory, that is how the market should work; in practice, as travellers to many European destinations have found, airlines rarely compete head-to-head with Ryanair for long.
The real no-frills experience turned out to begin at East Midlands airport. The bus to the nearest railway station, Loughborough, ran late. As I shivered on the platform while waiting for a delayed train, I listened to an interviewee on Radio 4's PM programme defending above-average fare increases for rail travellers across Britain because the service is getting so much better.
Once on board the train, at last I found a frill. One privilege for rail travellers is the tradition of complimentary tea and coffee for all passengers on the lines between London, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield. But East Midlands Trains, which took over the franchise from Midland Mainline last month, has decided to withdraw the courtesy from next weekend. Man may be condemned to be free, as Sartre maintained, but tea and coffee clearly isn't.
Promote thine enemy
Ryanair's inflight magazine has gone through several incarnations over the years. It began as nothing more than a shopping catalogue, then turned into a bizarre publication whose editorial content focused on minority-interest events in locations even more obscure than the average Ryanair destination. The latest manifestation is a glossy, classy publication whose excellent design has won prizes.
Airlines are understandably picky about the contents of their inflight magazines, wishing to publish nothing that could undermine their business or bolster their rivals'. Accordingly, Ryanair publishes reliability statistics that show its competitors in an unfavourable light. Yet the magazine is remarkably open-minded about its advertising. The current edition carries a full-page advertisement for the city of Warsaw, keen to attract Christmas visitors to the Polish capital. Readers are encouraged to go online to find out more. Which site would that be? None other than easyJet.com.
The previous issue went one better. In a full-page ad, the train operator GNER denigrates the airport experience. "That hour or so from check-in to boarding just whizzed by," reads the sarcastic slogan over a dismal image of passengers in a long queue at an airport that might just be Stansted. "With a GNER train to London, there's no check-in queue. You just turn up and hop on."
Top marks to the train operator for coming up with the wheeze, and to Ryanair for accepting the ad which ends with the magic words "No hidden taxes or charges".
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