Philip Hensher: I am a customer. So don't treat me like an employee

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The Independent Online

Ryanair are past masters at extracting money from their customers for the most unlikely things. Having been forced by public disdain to stop charging their disabled customers for the use of a wheelchair when on the ground, they now charge all their customers in order to pay for this essential service.

I do hope that covers their costs. They charge if you use a credit card to book. An insurance surcharge of £3.47 per passenger has, it has been suggested, been used to beef up the airline's profits. They charge you automatically for travel insurance, unless you opt out. They charge you one sum for checking in a bag up to 15kg. They start charging you extra for every kilogram over this ridiculously low allowance.

Their latest wheeze to make money in surprising ways, however, applies to their customers. If you propose to check in at the airport, you will be charged £2 for the privilege. The only way to avoid charges altogether will be to print out your own itinerary, check in automatically and, as has been the case for some time, carry only hand baggage. If you want the airline's help for any of these, you will have to pay for them. Services which used to be considered as part of the basic service supplied by the airline are now the responsibility of the customer.

In Thomas Friedman's enormously influential book The World Is Flat, he remarks on the way that the internet and technology have enabled companies to shrug off large parts of their service, and, in effect, turn their customers into their employees. Not just unpaid employees, either, but employees who are actually paying for the privilege of working for the company.

The phenomenon of what Lynne Truss has called the "unacceptable transfer of effort" is on the increase in the service industries. On a tiny scale, there is the Starbucks delivery system. You order your coffee, pay for it, and then have to walk to the far end of the counter to collect it from another employee who has no idea who has ordered what. It's clearly there for the convenience of their systems, and nothing else.

Exeter, the local council where I live part of the time in Devon, is extremely keen on recycling, to the point of prosecuting householders who mix their rubbish. They will not accept glass in general rubbish. Fair enough. On the other hand, the only arrangements they have made for the disposal of glass bottles is a bottle-bank a 10-minute walk away if, like me, you have no car. Highly convenient for them, no doubt, to shrug off a responsibility they used to carry.

At many banks, now, if you are paying in cheques, you are encouraged to use some super-duper cheque-scanning machines. Except that, in nine cases out of 10, the machines don't work. So you have to go to the counter anyway. The bank, in the first thrill of possessing the cheque-scanning machines, has closed two out of three counters; the queues stretch to the crack of doom.

Many customers believe that the normal services, in many cases, have been deliberately reduced to encourage customers to take up self-service options. Customers of Home Depot in America, which pioneered self-service check-outs, have accused branches of deliberately allowing long lines to stretch out so that customers are pushed towards doing all the work themselves.

Whether that's true or not, the self-service checkout has already arrived here, and very useful it is – for the supermarket. For the customer, the task of scanning everything, of weighing loose produce, of bagging everything up, doesn't make life easier. Unless you have one item of shopping, and the queues elsewhere are long, there is really no incentive at all to use the self-service checkout. The only reason it is there is to save money for the wretched supermarket.

Many companies argue that this transfer of effort allows for not just a saving of their money, but of customer's time. Nonsense. How many times has one telephoned a company, followed through a lengthy menu of options – designed to rid the world of intelligent, trained operatives who can analyse and deal with a problem – only then to find oneself at the business end of 40 minutes of Vivaldi? The only saving here has been in employment costs, which have been invisibly shifted on to the poor customer.

Ryanair's drives for efficiency, like those of most companies, are not costless. The costs which used to be borne by the company are simply shifted on to the poor customer, in terms of time and effort. In the simplest terms, Ryanair's tickets can be so cheap because they don't fly you to where they claim they do. British Airways will fly you to Hamburg. Ryanair's flights to Hamburg will fly you to Lübeck, and you will have to bear the costs of transporting yourself the 60-odd kilometers. That is an obvious transfer of cost, but avoiding the £2 check-in charge or the bag-check charge incurs costs, too. The one thing the company is determined about is that they are not going to incur that cost.

Let's resist the tendency while we can, by not using delivery companies which demand that we surrender half a day of our economically useful time at their convenience, not incompetently attempting to swipe our own cabbages through supermarket check-outs, and not, repeat not, flying Ryanair. If they started a cruise company, you'd be instructed to bring your own oars, and then charged when they registered as excess baggage.

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