The budget airline model on the whole has been great for travel and has opened up the world to millions of backpackers and gap year travellers, but it isn’t always a good thing. There is a dark side to those low, low prices, and those flights for £10 across Europe are not always the bargain they may seem to be on the surface. So should travellers still fly budget airlines? Or is there a better option?
With the exception of the much maligned Ryanair, who I really can’t stand for a variety of reasons, I generally love budget airlines. They have allowed me to explore parts of the world major carriers don’t get to and do so at a reasonable, sometimes pretty cheap price too.
Or at least I used to.
For many years now airlines such as EasyJet, Lion Air and Air Asia have managed to balance that ultra budget model with a relatively reasonable service. No one expects a first class service and everyone understands you get what you pay for, but the service and the flight is often still reasonably tolerable and is a reasonable compromise for the price you are paying.
But in recent years the no frills model has become not just a race to the bottom but a wholescale freefall through the depths of hell, with carriers like United and Ryanair leading the charge and sticking two fingers up at passengers rights and even the limits of what can – or should – be considered reasonable to boot.
Let’s be fair, the low fares are worth it, right?
The chance to hop around Europe or south East Asia for less than £50 is a great thing. Or at least it has been. It has opened up air travel like never before and should – in theory at least – be lauded.
The big problem is that theory and practice are two very different things, and now you almost never end up paying that ultra low fare that is being advertised. You either end up paying far more in ‘fees’ for things that you think should be included in your ticket price but aren’t, you know, little things like being able to fit in your seat, sit next to your partner on a romantic flight to Paris, arriving at an airport within 50 miles of the place you want to be or be able to carry more than the clothes on your back and a toothbrush, or you end up getting a bad service and complaining about it because let’s face it, service has taken an absolute nose dive and plane travel in the age of the add on fee ticket has become an absolute chore, not a pleasure.
So either way you end up getting what you paid for, and in the case of budget airlines that isn’t much at all. You almost always end up paying a lot more than you originally thought with a budget fare with all the fees and charges, a lot of the time the same as or more than full service airlines.
So given that, more often than not isn’t it just better to pay a little more to begin with for a full carrier service?
That is what flying has been reduced to now, and I am no longer just content to get somewhere as cheaply as possible. The lack of services and no frills I can deal with, and in fact have been happy to do so for many years, but the increasingly punitive treatment, the uncertainty of getting to my destination on time, if at all, the seemingly endless nickle and diming, it has to end somewhere.
How can budget airlines even afford to sell tickets so low?
Well they can’t. It’s really that simple.
The unpackaging of the flight experience has allowed these low cost carriers to give flights at prices that seem unrealistic, and to an extent that is what they are.
Just think about the cost of running an airline for a moment. On any given flight the airline will obviously have to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of that plane. They will have to pay for the fuel, which isn’t cheap, the wages for at least two or sometimes three pilots depending on the flight and a number of flight attendants. They will be paying for all the food and drink that is carried on board. They will have to pay passenger duty and transportation tax, customs fees, airport fees and a dozen other types of fees and taxes.
That means at those ultra low prices you see advertised, the airlines won’t be making any profit at all, and the fact is that airlines in general don’t make much profit from the ticket sales alone. So how do they make money off them at all?
The ‘extra’ fees.
The infamous ‘extras’.
Budget airlines are now seemingly charging for every little service, and the once funny ‘joke’ of Ryanair’s Michael O Leary charging you to pee is now much less of a laughing matter and a very serious reality.
Fees for excess baggage, fees for checking in, and the fines for not doing so in the exact way the fine print says you have to, fees for a meal or a drink on board, fees for checking your luggage in the hold, or for bringing it on as carry on for that matter, fees for choosing your seat or even sitting together. Fees for every single little thing. Things that up until now, many people thought were – or should be – included in the price of their ticket. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
The big draw of these extras – for airlines at least – is that for many of them they don’t even have to pay taxes or fees in the same way they would if they were part of an all in ticket, so in effect they are getting two extra incomes for the price of one.
Even the larger carriers do this to some extent by charging for priority boarding, credit cards and loyalty programmes and so on.
I was never a huge fan of the buffet style ticket menu’s but I did understand the need for them and could accept them with a few heavy caveats. I mean I have always joked that since I have mostly travelled carry on only I should be getting money off my ticket price anyway.
And I did take advantage of these low fares, a lot. At first these savings made sense. By cutting out fat travel agent fees and selling direct, by charging for excessive luggage, doing away with business class, packing each plane to its maximum and increasing turnaround time, they would max out profits.
By making most of the little things passengers once took for granted, food, drink, luggage and so on optional extras, those passengers who weren’t interested in those things could pay less. So far so good, well, okay at the very least.
But the big problem is that now many budget airlines are going too far, passengers are starting to learn that they don’t have an automatic right to certain things when they buy their ticket, certain airlines are openly treating customers with contempt, the push against what people perceive as normal and reasonable is being stretched to its limits and some of the bigger airlines like British Airways are starting to follow suit in this race to the bottom.
You get what you pay for.
As I said earlier, you always end up getting what you pay for, and if you are gullible enough to believe Ryanair can really afford to sell you flights for a tenner then you really can’t have high expectations of what you are getting.
The big problem is airlines are now vastly and constantly redefining what is considered basic, and passengers are not reading the terms and conditions of what they are actually buying.
Think that you should be able to take a bag on board with you? Think that it is common sense that if you book two seats for say you and a partner that they should be together? Think that the price of your ticket means that you are entitled to anything at all?
Read the actual terms and conditions of your ticket and you will find that the airlines have slowly eroded any passenger ‘perks’, even those that should by all rights be common sense and a given expectation for any flight.
Just look at the Ryanair fiasco where they have been found to be purposely splitting passengers up in order to force them to pay to choose seats. Of course they blame a random ‘algorithm’ but this has been debunked many times no matter how often their employees stick to the script. This is completely immoral, they have faced a huge backlash for it and it has caused countless passengers numerous problems.
But just look at the terms and conditions, Ryanair are not obligated in any way to sit you and your party together, because they have stated so in their terms and conditions. You agreed to those terms when you bought the ticket, even if it was buried on page 3,467 of the fine print.
But just because airlines can impose conditions and restrictions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. At least not all of the time, or for everything.
The terms of flying are getting worse.
This is the huge problem that is facing air travel at the moment, the constant restrictions and conditions airlines are imposing on passengers are at the point of being punitive, and the airlines aren’t rushing to give us any decent service for our custom anytime soon.
And of course it is an airlines right to add any terms and conditions it wishes to your ticket purchase. They have absolute dictatorial control in that little tin can in the sky, and if you want to fly there really isn’t much you can do. Or is there?
Many passengers are starting to push back against what they see as an extreme erosion of airline standards and what can be seen as reasonable expectations of service and amenities when they travel.
In a time were seat pitch is shrinking to the point that the average sized person struggles to fit in their seats, where passenger complaints are skyrocketing and overall satisfaction is at an all time low, where flying is becoming a chore rather than a pleasure, the once reasonable ‘al a carte’ ticket model is now being more scrutinized than ever before. And passengers aren’t happy.
Whereas once the basic fees for privileges such as boarding early or paying extra for oversized luggage may have seemed perfectly reasonable, airlines such as Ryanair are now pushing this model to the extreme.
Extra fees for sitting together on a flight and using underhand tactics to otherwise separate passengers if they don’t pay, the always controversial name change fees, the boarding pass print fee (and the fines – sorry ‘fee’ – that is imposed if the print is of a quality they deem as ‘bad’ or is missing the final page with the ads on or any other spurious reason), not checking in online, the huge mark ups on in flight food and drink, the infamous Pound to Euro parity rate, flight change fees even if the airline has denied you boarding (I’m looking at you again Ryanair!)
And it isn’t just the fees, it is the eroding of conditions that are forcing passengers to pay for them too, such as making the ‘excess’ baggage allowance so small that many passengers are caught out with average sized bags, the restrictions on carry on luggage unless of course you pay a fee, the constantly shrinking seat pitch and size of airline seats then the extra fees for sitting in ‘premium’ seats that used to be the size you got as standard, the ‘priority boarding’ that includes so many categories, types of traveller and people who bought it you may actually end up in the shorter queue if you don’t purchase it, you’ll just board last, and have no room for your hand luggage.
Many of these ‘optional’ fees can easily be seen as nickle and diming the customer and completely unnecessary, especially when they are hidden or perceived to be a trick or a con, and it is this extreme level of that is frankly pissing a lot of people off.
Airlines are a business, plain and simple, most passengers do get that, and although their profits are healthy overall and their shareholders are happy, passengers aren’t. Passenger complaints are up, satisfaction is nosediving. And that is a huge problem.
So are the budget airlines really worth it?
No, not really. Or at the very least not always, and neither are any of the major carriers such as British Airways that are following the budget airlines in a race to the bottom.
And this is genuinely painful for me to say, because I love travel, I love flying, and some airlines are still getting it right. Air Asia is a budget carrier that shows the budget ‘fee for everything’ model can work without sacrificing too much in terms of service, and there are major full service carriers such as Singapore Airlines or Emirates that are maintaining generally decent levels of service without the price of a ticket
But then there is the other extreme, airlines like Ryanair and British Airways, which are making flying a punitive chore and are ruining the whole deal for everyone. You can’t just keep pushing the lengths of bad service or underhanded fees to the extremes without some pushback, and it is these airlines that are making flying with them not worth the ultra budget fares they are advertising.
Now there is of course an exception to this rule, if you are simply hopping from one destination to the other for an hour or so, and you are aware of and can avoid many of the fee traps by being savvy and doing your homework, then saving money on a lower fare is a good option. Take advantage while you can and deny the airline any of their extra fees.
But with ticket prices of larger carriers with ‘all in’ fares comparable to these budget carriers once all the ‘add ons’ have been included, and with a significant upgrade in quality of experience and service you really have to ask yourself are these budget airlines really worth it?
You have to ask what type of flight you actually want, one that will get you to your destination at a reasonable price with reasonable service and the luxury of not having to worry if your luggage can come with you intact or your wallet will take a massive hit with surprise add on’s? Or do you want the cheapest fare and the hassle, the nickle and diming and the most derisive service that comes with it?
The once reasonable tiered ticket pricing model has now been pushed to an extreme and has become the banner behind which the falling standards in what the industry is being defined by, and that is why budget airlines are on the whole now not worth the low fares they are advertising.
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