Simon Calder: Commotion all the way – it's the price you have to pay

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The Independent Travel

A cacophony from beginning to end: that was my experience on last Sunday's Ryanair flight from Cork to Stansted. Fair enough, the safety briefing needs to be good and audible – and if there is one benefit from the Qantas incident last weekend, in which a 747 made an emergency landing at Manila, it will be that people pay more attention to the workings of the oxygen masks and locations of exits. But once in flight, the full noisy panoply of "ancillaries" came into effect.

Ryanair's relatively dwindling fortunes were revealed to the world this week. The Irish airline – which flies more passengers internationally than any other carrier – saw its profits between April and June fall to barely £1 per passenger. The business of ferrying you and I around Europe is a massive loss-leader; what makes money for the airline are all the added extras. From that £2 cup of instant coffee via "duty-free" sales (which aren't) to Stansted Express tickets and lottery scratchcards, inflight sales are vital to the fortunes every low-cost airlines.

On-board purchases are, of course, optional – but the din that accompanies the high-altitude commerce is not. Neither is the high-volume fanfare that is played whenever a Ryanair flight arrives ahead of schedule.

Keep reminding yourself that the commotion is a necessary adjunct to a cheap ticket; I bought my flight the day before, at a price that happens to match exactly the average Ryanair fare: €42 (£35).

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Smoking was banned aboard Ryanair flights in the early Nineties, enhancing the cabin environment but enraging some nicotine addicts. The absence of tobacco and the presence of alcohol is a recurring theme among "air rage" incidents, including the recent unwholesome episode in which an XL Airways jet from Kos to Manchester was diverted to Frankfurt. Two British women who were allegedly drunk and behaving in an abusive and threatening manner were arrested on arrival at the German airport – but promptly released without penalty. A police officer was reported as saying they had no money.

Airlines talk tough about disruptive behaviour – understandably so, given the dangers posed to both passengers and crew. You might imagine that they would coordinate their policies on perpetrators of air rage, bluntly to make sure offenders are not allowed on aircraft in future. Several years ago they tried to create a no-fly list of people considered dangerous because of their past behaviour. The attempt failed because of concerns about data protection. Accordingly, the two women who had disrupted and delayed the flight to Manchester managed to buy tickets on a later flight to Britain – hardly a disincentive to anyone tempted to get rowdy or violent. But XL Airways may seek to recover the cost of the diversion (around £16,000, much of it for fuel) from the two women, which could be more of a deterrent.

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Cathay pacific suffered an expensive delay last Sunday evening. The 6.20pm flight from Heathrow to Hong Kong was late off the stand. Nothing unusual – except that missing the slot triggered a three-hour delay. My spy in the economy cabin says the captain told his passengers: "The Chinese government is testing rockets tonight in the airspace we have to fly through."

Apparently all flights below 78,000ft were banned, which would not be a problem for Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space mission, but proved insurmountable for the airliners.

My impeccably reliable source continued: "So here we all are – held on the plane on the ground at Heathrow, after being pulled out of the take-off line and driven back to the stand." Yet unlike many of the delays at Heathrow, this one appears to have been dealt with well.

"The captain explained immediately what was happening. Right at the start he said it might be a three-hour delay, and he's been updating us every 15 minutes."

Being stuck aboard a packed plane for an extra 180 minutes before a 12-hour flight may sound punishing, but there was no air rage.

"They opened the plane doors because it was hot at the back, and then rolled out the booze and dinner. It was like one of those American diners based in a camper vans – except it was Heathrow and a Boeing 747."

"I'm on the plane"

The French are big on respect. Aboard a high-speed TGV, I took a call on my mobile. While I talked at 180 words per minute and 186 miles per hour, the woman in the next seat looked at me disapprovingly, and pointed to the end of the carriage.

I duly walked to the vestibule, phone clamped to my ear, and found a veritable phonefest under way.

On French Railways, respect manifests itself in the consensus that no one wants to hear one end of a telephone conversation. It is de rigueur for mobile phone users to retreat from the carriage and converse in the company of fellow téléphonistes. On planes, though, there is nowhere to hide.

This month the long-promised introduction of inflight mobile use is due to begin on Ryanair flights between the UK and Dublin. The airline will not say how much a call will cost, but I predict at least £1 a minute.

Even at this price I fear there will be takers. But anyone who cannot afford to be out of contact for an hour should sort their life out before they get on the plane.

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