My Ryanair flight to Frankfurt leaves on Friday at midday from London Stansted airport. Slightly annoying, because that means I have to take a full day off work. But I don’t really have a choice, as that’s the only flight of the day.
The bus ticket is £6 and the journey lasts an hour. So far so good.
This is not my first time, so I come prepared: I checked in online, printed my boarding pass and I only have one small suitcase as carry-on luggage, plus a see-through plastic bag for my cosmetics packed in containers of 100 ml or less. It is important to get this right: if I forget to print my boarding pass, having it reprinted at the airport will set me back £70. One piece of checked-in luggage would cost £50 or so.
I arrive at the airport an hour and a half ahead of the flight, slightly less than the recommended 2 hours. With no luggage to check in, I throw away my water bottle, remove my belt and jacket, and head to security. There I subject myself to the usual humiliating procedure of taking out my electronic devices, removing my shoes and being groped by a (female) security agent. Then I have to do the same all over again because I had forgotten to remove my Kindle from the bag. Strangely, this time the detector doesn’t beep and there is no groping.
Then the wait commences. Stansted airport is undergoing refurbishment, so many sections are closed and I have to step over legs and backpacks of my fellow passengers for whom there weren’t enough seats.
Theoretically boarding closes at 12.30, but nobody shows any signs of surprise when it hasn’t even begun at 12.45. A crowd waits patiently at the gate, eager to get on and claim the best (window? aisle?) seat. Everyone has a suitcase or a backpack in tow, the biggest they could get away with without having to check it in. Once we board, everyone will be fighting over space in the overhead lockers. The unlucky ones will end up with luggage occupying their leg space. Children scream, couples fight, there isn’t enough oxygen and there definitely isn’t a toilet in sight.
Half an hour later, we have finally boarded. I squeeze into the middle seat, my knees almost touching my chin even though I’m only just over 5 feet tall. There is no pocket in the back of the seat in front of me, so I have to hold my book on my lap, next to my jacket for which there wasn’t room in the lockers. Good job that the seats don’t incline, or the person in front of me would be literally lying on top of me.
I switch off and daydream as a flat recorded voice explains security procedures in English and then in German. I always bring my earplugs on a Ryanair flight to block out the constant stream of announcements, greetings and, most of all, ads. Buy a drink, buy a burger, buy duty free perfume, buy a scratch card, book a car, buy, buy, buy…
It is very obvious that we left late, but when we touch the ground in Frankfurt, we are miraculously on time, which is announced triumphantly by a pre-recorded jingle. Who would think that last year 90% of Ryanair flights were on time? How is that possible? Well, there is nothing like a little trick. In reality the flight only lasts about 50 minutes, but the official time communicated to passengers is about 1.5 hours. Voila, that’s how a late flight can arrive on time or even ahead of schedule. I disembark feeling slightly violated and hating everyone around me, a sentiment that I suspect is shared by most Ryanair passengers.
So I’m in Frankfurt. Or am I really? On the map Frankfurt Hahn airport is closer to Luxembourg and to France than to Frankfurt am Main. It takes 2 hours to get to the actual city. I left home at 10 am and I reach Frankfurt at 7 pm, 9 hours later. That’s longer than flying from London to New York. It would have probably taken one third of that by train. But I’ve arrived and now I have a day and a half in Germany before I have to do this all over again.
If this all sounds awful, it’s because it really is awful. Flying Ryanair means you have to watch out when you buy your ticket so that you don’t accidentally buy extra insurance, rent a car or pay a fortune for a credit card transaction. Everything is extra: receiving a confirmation by text, bringing a suitcase, having an allocated seat, or priority boarding. You will have to get to a remote airport in the middle of nowhere and wait for hours in a crowd. Then you’ll be crammed into a small uncomfortable seat where you will try to ignore people trying to sell you more stuff. The Ryanair experience is unpleasant at the least and sometimes it can be downright humiliating.
So why do I, and millions of others, put up with Ryanair? Well, the ticket to Frankfurt only cost me £35. Let’s face it, cheap tickets are the main attraction here. People may hate Ryanair, but they certainly love cheap tickets. Or rather, tickets that are sometimes cheap. I once paid £450 to fly from the UK to Poland. On another occasion I missed a Lufthansa plane and inquired about a last minute Ryanair flight and the price quoted was an eye-watering 1000 euros. Of course I politely declined the latter, but I did pay the former. You see, Ryanair is the only airline that flies direct from London to my hometown in Poland. Any other flight would have taken me via Munch or Warsaw. It was Christmas and I was in a rush to get home. There was a time when I lived in Paris that I was so fed up with the so-called low cost airlines that I started flying Lufthansa with a stopover in Germany. But when I moved to London convenience won and now I fly Ryanair three or four times a year.
The good stuff about Ryanair is that with a bit of foresight and flexibility you can grab a real bargain and see Europe on a budget. It’s a great option for students or anyone with lots of time and little cash. It flies to places no one else is interested in. For instance, you can fly Ryanair from Rzeszow in Poland (WTF, you say?) to East Midlands. If you want to. Ryanair doesn’t do it out of the kindness of its heart though. It forces massive subsidies from small local airports for the privilege of hosting its planes.
The dark side of Ryanair is the appalling customer experience, unclear pricing (lots of hidden costs) and an absolute lack of customer service. Ever tried calling Ryanair? If you manage to find a number to call in the first place, you will pay a fortune while you’re on hold and you will most likely give up before getting through to an actual human operator. Flights are notoriously late, despite what the company claims. If a flight is cancelled or delayed, you are on your own.
Ryanair treats its customers like cattle, but staff get no better treatment. Pilots and flight attendants get hardly any rest between flights, as a plane should be in the air, not on the ground – on the ground it costs rather than makes money. So an incoming plane has only minutes before it must leave again. I don’t know how much truth there is to it, but some sources clam Ryanair pilots have to pay for water on board. And what happens if they have no change on them? I get cranky and distracted when I’m thirsty, but I don’t hold the lives of hundreds of people in my hands… Add bad pay and a ban on trade unions and you will have a picture of Ryanair as an employer.
Then there is the enormous environmental cost of cheap flying. £35 per ticket is only a tiny fraction of the cost of burning non-renewable fossil fuels and generating carbon emissions. Ryanair knows full well that soon someone will have to pay the price. Its business model is, however, based on short-term profits. Pocket the money now, because soon cheap oil will become history and that will be the definite end of low cost flying. Ryanair is not sustainable and it knows it. It actually makes profit from being extremely unsustainable.
My Ryanair plane back to London lands at Stansted at 11.45 pm. At 20 past midnight on what is already Monday morning I break down and fork out £50 for a taxi home. It turns out after all that there is no such thing as a 30-quid plane ticket.
Photo credits: freefoto.com, Creative Commons