Is there a bad-news story more likely to warm out hearts than Ryanair’s second profit warning in two months? It’s surely proof, if any were needed, that being made to feel less important than livestock is a streak of masochism too far, even for Britons. Airline competition in Europe has driven down prices at other airlines and passengers are voting with their feet (soon to be announced as the only body-part they don’t have to pay an additional fee to take on board a Ryanair plane).
Ryanair’s Chief Financial Officer, Howard Millar, blames the poor numbers on the fact that passengers are only booking discount fares, which comes as a surprise to me, since I thought that was the only kind Ryanair offered. Hasn’t their business model always been to offer 1p flights, plus fees for having hand luggage, hold luggage, the desire for a seat, oxygen requirements and any self-esteem whatsoever? Total cost of flight: £200. Or you could just pay £200 to another carrier, and not be made to feel that a plane crash somewhere over the Irish Sea would be a blessed release.
Nothing has democritised air travel more than low-cost flights. In my childhood, the idea of flying off on holiday seemed impossibly luxurious. Maybe Joan Collins would do it, in between episodes of Dynasty, but not real people. But for all the virtues of cheap flights, one of the problems is that they have lulled us into thinking that flying is a practical, fun way to travel.
One of the arguments for HS2 is that people would use it instead of flying between London and Manchester, which honestly seems to me a less sensible mode of transport between those two locations than walking. Why would anyone ever choose to fly a distance that you can cover in 140 minutes by train? Even if you aren’t afraid of flying, the hassle of getting to an airport, going through security, hiking to your gate, discovering it’s a bit windy so the planes are grounded, wishing you were dead, correcting yourself and wishing everyone else was dead: it’s an exhausting business. And that’s before you land in a field somewhere and pay the same price as a Manchester-London train ticket to get from the airport to actual London.
Fly Ryanair, and in addition to the irritation of printing out your own boarding pass (which will be covered in pictures that gobble ink, for no reason except the obvious – Michael O’Leary must have some kind of printer-cartridge business on the side) you also do it knowing that your money is going to a company that doesn’t even try to veil its contempt for its customers. We may blanch at the all-American “Have a nice day”, but even fake civility is something.
The one revenue category where Ryanair is flourishing is onboard spending. Say what you like about air travel: nothing dulls the pain of it like neat gin (except two more gins), and that is something Ryanair’s passengers understand perfectly well.