If you've ever traveled around Europe, then you're familiar with Ryanair. The Irish low cost airline has a fleet of 300 Boeing 737-800s, and gets thousands of people from European point A to European point B every day.
Although Ryanair isn't known for luxury — the seats don't recline, there's no in-flight magazine (unless you want to buy one), and the flight attendants are constantly hawking everything from smokeless cigarettes to "Girls of Ryanair" calendars — its planes do have cushioned seats and seatbelts.
But if Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary has his way, the last ten rows of his planes will be available to budget minded customers who don't mind standing during the flight as long as they get a cheaper ticket. His standing room only scheme doesn't jive with European safety regulations, but O'Leary has made it pretty clear that he thinks the regulations, and the people who make them, are idiotic.
O'Leary, a CEO known for speaking his profanity laced mind, posits that if one of his planes crashes, everyone will die anyway, so what's the point of wearing a seatbelt? He claims that because today's aircraft landings are almost always smooth, standing passenger safety is as simple as holding onto a grab handle. Any idiot can figure that out, and if they can't, well, O'Leary has no patience for morons. That's why his company charges passengers who forget to print their boarding passes at home $76 — because they're stupid.
But the bottom line is the bottom line. O'Leary's position is that flying is a mode of transportation, nothing more, and that it should be as bare bones and cost as little as possible. Here's what he told The Telegraph:
The problem with aviation is that for 50 years it's been populated by people who think it's this wondrous sexual experience; that it's like James Bond and wonderful and we'll all be flying first class when really it's just a bleeding bus with wings.
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His business model appears to be working; Ryanair posted a 10 percent gain in the first half of this year alone.
But as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. The Ryanair passenger experience begins with the company's obfuscatory website. As you navigate a number of confusing boxes, the site tries again and again to sell you things — text notifications, priority boarding, an assigned seat, luggage that they guarantee will be accepted by their staff (*unless they decide it's not acceptable), and, of course, accidental death and dismemberment insurance (in case that standing room only grab handle doesn't work.
When you arrive at the airport, the checkin clerks are often surly, and have an eagle eye out for anything they can charge extra for. We already covered the boarding pass mistake fee, but if you're bag is more than 15 kg (which, when you're traveling, isn't a lot), you have to pay an extra $64. Then it's off to the waiting area, where you will stand in a long line as soon as the gate opens, waiting for the flight crew to herd everyone onto the plane.
Inside the plane, the line disolves into a complete clusterfuck as people climb over one another to get at the blue vinyl-padded, yellow plastic-backed seats which, of course, don't recline and aren't assigned in any particular order. The overhead luggage bins are painted a light yellow that makes the plastic look like it's been left in the sun for a few years, and the flight crew wear these blue and yellow uniforms that make them look like a cross between hot dog stand employees and orderlies at a Florida mental hospital whose federal funding has been cut. They sell you food, magazines, calendars, water, and everything else you can think of.
O'Leary also wants to charge customers to use the onboard lavatories, and I wouldn't be surprised if pressurized breathing air cost extra pretty soon, too. I never got a chance to ask, but when the flight attendant — a very stern-looking young Irish woman who scolded me for taking pictures — passed by with the "Ryanair Girls Gone Wild" calendar, or whatever it was, I wondered if you could pay to have sex with flight attendants, too. Hell, for most of the flight, they're standing around doing nothing. Might as well put 'em to work for the company during their idle moments.
But Ryanair makes money because it's a necessary evil. At the end of the day, it's better to pay $80 for a really crappy three hour flight than pay $300 for a really nice one with napkins and cocktails and politeness and all that stuff you don't really need. O'Leary puts it best:
You want to spend that money on a nice hotel, apartment or restaurant. You don't want to piss it all away at the airport or on the airline.
Photo credit: Associated Press; Benjamin Preston