Low cost airlines
I recently spent a week in Brittany (see various postings here, staying with friends who live in the city of Quimper, which at the south west end of the Brittany peninsula, just before you get to the final southern tip.
I’ve stayed with these friends before, and on every trip before this latest one, I’ve flown Ryanair from Stansted to Brest, Brest being about an hour by car north of Quimper. But the bad news is that Brest airport has recently constructed a swanky new Norman Foster type building, with lots of sloping glass and metal struts everywhere and a general absence of rectangles. Somewhere in among all these new arrangements, there was a fight with Ryanair, the upshot of which was that Ryanair no long does flights from Stansted to Brest. Strangely, though, Ryanair still does flights from Brest to Marseilles.
I’m guessing that this either has to do with money or with time, or perhaps a bit of both. Maybe Brest airport wants to be paid more, or Brest itself wants to pay less, for Ryanair flights to and from London. Or, the new airport arrangements mean that Ryanair can’t turn its planes around as quickly as it used to be able to.
Also, you can’t help suspecting that perhaps Brest built itself a posh new airport terminal because it wants a better class of persons to come to Brest from London, and from many other classy spots, and the dribble of Ryanair riff-raff to stay away. Maybe some day soon there will again be flights Brest/London flights, but more expensive ones, containing richer and better dressed persons. But those are just guesses.
Anyway, whatever may have caused the Brest/London Ryanair flights to end, for this latest visit I had to go from Stansted to Dinard, which is the airport of the port city of Saint Malo, which is at the other end of the Brittany peninsula, to its north west, about four hours drive from Quimper. Very tiresome. My hosts kindly collected me from there on the way. And on the way back, I and Mrs Host were both going to London, so we went by train from Quimper to Saint Malo (changing at Rennes), and then took a bus to Dinard and a taxi from Dinard to the airport itself. All very cumbersome.
It did give us a chance to wander about in Saint Malo, which was good, and I got to go by train in France, which I’ve not done for decades, unless you count Eurotunnel trips to Belgium, Germany, etc.
While we relaxed in the small bar at Dinard airport, Mrs Host and I agreed about how agreeable these small airports are, compared to huge designer cattle shed airports like Stansted, and such as Brest seems now to want to be. Mrs Host reminisced about a cheep and delightfully informal flight she once took from a tiny airfield in Kent, to a similar airport not very near to Paris, for about £45 in about 1990, in a propeller driven plane. Our preference was confirmed hideously when we got to Stansted, at about eleven o’clock at night, to find ourselves at the back of a vast hoard of incomers to London, waiting while too few people indolently looked at everyone’s passport. Were they seeking a terroristic pin? If so, we were the haystack. It was bank queue hell multiplied by a hundred. Actually, it was over rather sooner than it at first looked like it would be, but first impressions were deeply unpleasant, and are hard to forget.
This experience makes me think that the long-term future of air travel is lots of small airports rather than a few big ones. The big ones can’t get any bigger, or nastier. And the bigger the big airport planes (I’m thinking A380) get, the naster it will get to use these airports.
Dinard airport, meanwhile, was a delight. It’s not quite just the one shed. An architect was involved at some point in making the ugly boxy building where you congregate, but this feels more like a railway station than an airport, and what is more a railway station that is quite a bit smaller and more relaxed than, say, Rennes railway station. Dinard airport is small, and shows no sign of wanting to get any bigger.
Indeed, if that bar we relaxed in is anything to go by, they positively glory in their smallness. There are pictures there of old airplanes, with propellers, and of people in goggles posing in black and white or sepia in front of byplanes. There were things like this ...:
… and this:
Boeing having bet their farm on the Dreamliner, a two engined go-anywhere improvement on the now ubiquitous Boeing 737 (which is what Ryanair now uses for most of its flights, including all my Brittany trips). Airbus have bet their farm on the A380, a four engine enlargement of the Boeing 747.
In the short run, maybe Airbus have a point. If the current question is: How can we get more cattle through the big cattle shed airports?, then the A380 may well be the answer. And if the question is: How can we give more legroom to more money-no-object globetrotters, trotting globally from one huge financial centre to another?, ditto.
But what if, in the longer run, the question turns into: What’s the best way to get little clumps of people, inexpensively, from a small airport somewhere in the world but nowhere in particular (like Dinard or for that matter Quimper, which also has a small railway station type airport) to another small airport somewhere else in the world, for the tiny number of people who want that particular journey, yet who don’t want to be treated too much like a herd of cattle?
Maybe if you run the air passenger business, and run airports, the first two questions are what you now obsess about. But speaking as a passenger, I can tell you that I greatly prefer the latter question.
I want a Dreamliner world, rather than an A380 world.
I see that I have blogged here before about this great commercial Confrontation Of Our Time. In that earlier posting I quoted someone saying this:
How would you like to line up at customs having just gotten off the back of the second or third A-380 to arrive? Would passport control take longer than the flight?
Exactly. What I feared was going to happen at Stansted on the night I passed through this week, would happen, at a truly mega-airport like Heathrow, for real.
I could ramble ever onwards, but instead I will say: over to Michael Jennings for more detailed answers to all of my questions, and for many more facts to back up or contradict my speculations.
So says Bruno Waterfield:
The European Commission on Monday unveiled a “single European transport area” aimed at enforcing “a profound shift in transport patterns for passengers” by 2050.
The plan also envisages an end to cheap holiday flights from Britain to southern Europe with a target that over 50 per cent of all journeys above 186 miles should be by rail.
Top of the EU’s list to cut climate change emissions is a target of “zero” for the number of petrol and diesel-driven cars and lorries in the EU’s future cities.
Siim Kallas, the EU transport commission, insisted that Brussels directives and new taxation of fuel would be used to force people out of their cars and onto “alternative” means of transport.
“That means no more conventionally fuelled cars in our city centres,” he said. “Action will follow, legislation, real action to change behaviour.”
A bunch of people who think that’s mad respond by saying that that’s mad. Maybe it is, but how will the anti-maddists stop it? That argument hasn’t worked all the times it’s been tried before.
The trouble with the “that’s mad” argument is that it doesn’t lay a finger on the “yes but wouldn’t it be nice?” argument. Opponents of the EU look like grumpy believers in surrendering to “reality”. The EU, meanwhile, comes across as boldly changing mere “reality” to something nicer. So, the real argument is: would this actually be nicer?
My argument against might go something like this: it sounds nice, but it would drain all the life out of cities and turn them into museums, rather as the centre of Paris already has been turned into a museum, in that case by not allowing any new buildings other than Presidential follies like the glass pyramid thingy or the Pompidou Centre. London, in contrast, is a living, growing place, all over.
But then again, although the Kallas plan would drain much of the life out of London that is now there, life of other sorts would move in. It might indeed be quite nice. For some, like tourists and tourist crap shop owners, street marketeers, electric motor makers, paving stone makers, road demolishers, etc. etc.
I look forward to comments from fellow TBloggers explaining why this really is a mad plan.
The Indy gets its priorities straight:
Warning: some swearing.
Historically, state owned or state favoured airlines have very good at getting governments and even international law to protect them from competition. As monopolists often do, the airlines often justified their protection from competition by arguing what an important public service they were providing.
Approximately, “We fly to all these remote, out of the way places which are otherwise difficult to travel to, and if we had to face competition on our other, more major routes, we would not be able to afford to cross-subsidise our loss-making, but vitally socially necessary minor routes.
This argument was basically as big a load of crap as it sounds, but government often bought it, and thus we ended up with with restrictions on the number of airlines that could (say) fly between London and New York, and also often actual restrictions preventing low fares, in order that the profitable routes could be made more profitable, to supposedly allow cross-subsidies to occur.
Even when the single market came into being in 1993, state owned and favoured airlines obtained one last favour; the single market did not fully apply to aviation until April 1997. Only then could any EU airline fly any route it wanted to within the EU. However, after that, things changed rapidly. Mainly, this was the growth of the discount airlines, the obsessive compulsive leader of which was Ryanair.
The discount airlines figured out that short haul aviation is basically a different business to long haul aviation, and basically figured out that if you cut all the frills and just provide transport, cut costs ferociously, unbundle all the other services, charge fares that are highly variable depending on the flexibility of the passenger (and which can be very cheap), and always more or less fill the plane, you can make money on just about any route.
Even amongst discount airlines, Ryanair is something of a sociopath. As is often the case with highly successful companies that reflect the vision of a single man, it is probably better to say that Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary is something of a sociopath. He is willing to outrage, offend, and piss off his own customers, governments, the BBC, and just about everyone, but he has been so willing to try almost anything that his airline is the one that figures out what innovations work and what don’t. Other discount airlines follow a little way behind, and are more pleasant to fly on. When O’Leary is no longer in charge of Ryanair it will no doubt turn into something more like Easyjet or Wizzair, as it really takes something extraordinary at the top to maintain an attitude like Ryanair’s. (It is easier to be nicer to people). For now it is the company that demonstrates just how low it is possible to make the cost base of an airline.
However, I have a point to make. At present, I am in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. Ryanair have been flying here from London for about a month. There have never been direct flights from Plovdiv to London before, and there have been few direct flights from Plovdiv to anywhere. However, the city has a runway, and has recently built a terminal, and that is all you need. The flight over here was packed with Bulgarians who were happy that they no longer had to travel via Sofia to get here. Several people over the last couple of days have commented how good it is that they now have direct flights.
Ryanair’s route map is something extraordinary. The airline flies to all kinds of places that bureaucrats would have missed back in the days when they were choosing routes that would be flown to and cross-subsidised on the basis that “social responsibility” required this. (It also flies a lot of domestic routes in Germany and Italy in particular, countries in which protected national airlines have traditionally served their people poorly with high fares and inadequate services) Not only has it been proved that a genuine free market will support routes where it has traditionally been argued that some kind of subsidy was necessary, but it has also been proved that a free market will find routes that can be made profitable, that few people even thought might be able to support air services.
Long haul routes are also being deregulated. The argument about how these cross-subsidise loss making but important routes is not heard much any more. For that, Michael O’Leary has my thanks.
A new low-cost airline charges by weight—including passenger and luggage.
Well, not really. But it seems like quite a good idea. I always get charged for an extra kilo or two of baggage when I fly on Ryanair—it’s just impossible to pack everything in 18kg. Why should people get to carry extra fat for free?
Last week Michael Jennings and I sat down in a Central London café to record a podcast on low cost airlines. Here’s my favourite bit.
We talked about how the low cost airlines operate, the lengths they go to to cuts costs, and the lengths they don’t go to, the situation before deregulation (bizarre as well as amazing) and how the low-cost way is now starting to spread to Asia.
Listeners will notice there’s quite a lot of hubub in the background. I can only hope it’s not too distracting.
Oh, and there’s an odd bit of distortion as the microphone saturates.
Which makes me think that this ban probably has little to do with the facts of the case and far more to do with power politics. Ryanair is an upstart not only for what it does but also for what it (and its boss, Michael O’Leary) says. For some time I’ve thought that “they” would eventually “get” Ryanair. This could be part of that process.
I noticed this story on the front page of someone else’s newspaper on the tube today. The Office of Fair Trading wants airlines to include “taxes, fuel fees and other charges” in their advertised prices.
They should definitely announce the taxes loudly and boldly. It’s always good to make people very aware of how much tax they’re paying. I’m not sure I understand “fuel fees”, though, any more than I would tomato sauce fees when buying baked beans. The point seems somewhat moot anyway, given that airlines always tell you the total price before you agree to fly. Unless the government back-dates a tax that is…
You’ve got to admire RyanAir and particularly boss, Michael O’Leary’s attitude to all things political. He is a true hero-capitalist.
Unfortunately, in the long run I reckon the hyper-sensitive Lilliputians who run this world will eventually get him. Maybe they’ll lean on the shareholders. Maybe they’ll legislate his business into bankruptcy. Maybe they’ll find him guilty on one of their nebulous statutes so written that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. We shall see.
But it’ll be fun in the meantime.
Jackie D goes for Virgin Atlantic:
I just booked a flight on Virgin Atlantic, and every step of the booking process was full of overtures to book an upgrade to Premium Economy, because now you get your own dedicated cabin, better seat, etc. Except you don’t, not necessarily: They’re only just rolling out the new, improved Premium Economy service, and it is only available on a few flights. “Read the fine print,” you grumble. Actually, there is no fine print involved. Virgin Atlantic is flat-out lying to people . . .
It would all be a total scam were it not for the fact that Virgin’s basic non-Preimium service is pretty good. Maybe they are losing money on that, which is why they want people to pay quite a lot more for very little more.
All of which makes no sense whatever to me. RyanAir to France is my limit these days. Sit in a flying armpit for three hours, pay RyanAir about ten quid, and various governments another thirty, for RyanAir Cattletruck Class. That’s air travel for me. Actually, I quite like RyanAir, provided I can sit by a window and take stupid photos of the engines, and slightly more sensible ones of Channel Islands, the Millau Viaduct etc.
Anyway, on this Virgin thing, Adriana is apparently the source on this, and she must blog about it Very Soon, according to Jackie.
Brian MicklethwaitDave Barry has a rather alarming Atlanta Airport Update today:
So I'm waiting to get on the plane, and the pilots arrive at the gate, and as they walk past, one of them says to the other - this is a direct quote - "Hey, it flew in, it'll fly out."That's it. That's his entire posting. As I say, rather alarming.
I was a bit surprised that the RyanAir plane that took me home from Brest to Luton a few weeks back had just been taking a load of people from Luton to Brest. If the Luton to Brest bit was delayed, so was Brest back to Luton. No maintenance, and hardly any cleaning. I suppose they do enough maintenance for about five trips, at night.
That A380 image