Why do they do it? The facts about budget airlines

February 10, 2011

You can bet your bottom Euro on the fact that the European Commission, which has a Transport Commissioner to police airlines, will have either something or plenty to say about this morning’s report of a passenger mutiny aboard a Ryanair flight leaving the Canary Islands for Belgium.

More than 100 passengers were refused boarding after they started a scuffle when one or a number of them were told by a Ryanair gate agent they would be charged extra for oversized carry-on luggage, according to various reports.

Almost laughably, Ryanair issued a statement denying there had been a mutiny when the agreed facts suggest that is exactly what happened.

Just another day in the life of Ryanair, Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier, which is the most complained-about airline in the world by some margin.

Australia has three carriers that started life as low-cost airlines (LCCs) and it’s no coincidence that the one that adheres religiously to the Ryanair model is also the most complained-about.

But there’s no doubt that Tiger Airways is also the cheapest airline in the Australian market. Its biggest problem has been in overcoming the perception that it’s sneaky, greedy and unreliable.

Jetstar still calls itself a low-cost carrier, although it does pay more than lip service to the concept of customer service and breaks a key low-cost rule by offering international connections and codeshares.

Virgin Blue, on the other hand, is rapidly becoming a low-cost full-service airline that, by its own declaration, aims to be all things to all people: you can still get a cheap fare with no-frills service, but it will soon launch a dedicated domestic business class up the front of the plane, as well as premium economy.

Because LCCs are such a large part of the Australian travel experience, it seems to me it’s time to list my immutable facts of low-cost travel:

1.  Two competitors are better than a monopoly, but it takes three or more to tango: In air travel, you can align the cheapest fare you have to pay with the number of competitors on the route you wish to travel.

It was only when we got to four competing brands on Australian domestic routes that we knew that, at any time of the year, you could be guaranteed an affordable fare.

Where Qantas competes only with Virgin Blue and its own LCC Jetstar, fares generally are noticeably higher, just as Coles + Woolworths + IGA is an expensive farce.

2. Low-cost airlines like Ryanair and Tiger are not going to stop trying to price-gouge people for “ancillary” fees anytime soon because it’s in their DNA: cheap headline fares with lots of “optional” extras.

We need the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in our corner to watch them like a hawk; consumer laws have been greatly tightened and we should be cheering because it makes it difficult for all sorts of travel providers to be sneaky and greedy. Jetstar, Virgin Blue and even Qantas charge ancillary fees, but they’re much less greedy as a rule.

However, I have also used Tiger and will continue to do so.

3. The later in the day it gets, the more likely a low-cost airline is to be running late. Generally speaking, in most months, Tiger and Jetstar generally are the worst and second-worst for punctuality, although Virgin Blue also had a shocker in 2010. Airline system problems get worse as the day progresses; low-cost airlines scrimp the most on things like the number of ground-handling and customer service staff, factors that can and do cause planes to run late.

As a rule, you’re taking a risk in getting to your destination if you fly on an LCC out of Sydney anywhere near the 11pm curfew.

4. The cheaper the ticket, the less likely it is you’ll be flying at a time of day that suits you. The worst sin in the LCC business is to have a crew scheduled to spend nights in expensive commercial accommodation.

So schedules are therefore designed to produce the best length of shift for crews to allow them to achieve their maximum permitted annual working hours (for pilots, that’s around 1000 flying hours) while leaving from and returning to a home crew base each day.

So an LCC Melbourne-Cairns or Melbourne-Alice Springs and return service will rarely leave at the most convenient time for leisure travellers, say 8.30-10am; it will be either very early morning or mid-afternoon or evening to achieve the crew rostering that’s most convenient (and cheapest) for the airline.

To get the best schedules, you will generally have to fly Qantas, which is the most prolific in overnighting crews away from home.

I’m sure you have your own rules of travelling, so tell us what they are. Are you prepared to put up with the fees and potential delays of an LCC to get that cheap headline fare? Post a comment below.

Go to the article in The Sydney Morning Herald

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