Ryanair pushes the boundary

Ryanair is not one new to controversy. But give it credit for pushing the boundary to continually trying to reshape the flying experience – from proposing to charge for the use of the aircraft loo (see Singapore Airlines to charge for use of aircraft loo? Apr 2, 2009) to considering vertical seating (see Standing room only up in the air, Jul 23, 2010).

And now, Ryanair threatens to turn away passengers arriving at check-in without their pre-printed boarding pass instead of the current practice of charging those passengers who forget or do not bother a fee which a Spanish court has ruled is illegal. According to judge Barbara Maria Cordoba Ardao, the airline was breaking international law by imposing the fee, which Ryanair duly refuted and said without it, it would only add to the cost of having to recruit handling agents for the task.

It has been two years since the budget carrier abolished the traditional mode of airport check-in.

It would be difficult to fault Ryanair when in the competition many airlines – not just budget but also full-service airlines – have begun charging for what once were integral or complimentary services but now become add-ons. Examples include a fee for paper tickets, ticket reissue, online assistance, and hold baggage entitlement. There is of course the ever-escalating fuel surcharge which has been redefined as being less an operating cost to the airline than a tax to the passenger.

Ryanair’s belligerent run-in with aviation authorities over the constitution of fair practices is not unfamiliar. Following a past incident and in spite of the ensuing controversy, the airline now adds a “wheelchair” surcharge to the fare for disabled passengers. Budget carriers, for reasons of physical constraints, the lack of facilities (and the added costs for providing them) and the tight turnaround time, are reluctant to transport passengers who require special assistance. Imposing a surcharge – fairly or unfairly – may be a way to discourage their patronage.

It may even be difficult to fault Ryanair for being not customer-friendly and not practicing what most airlines generally do in the customer care department. It should be recognized that while many other budget start-ups have veered away from the budget model – perhaps perilously – in trying to emulate full-service airlines, what Ryanair is doing is staying true to the original no-frills model and pushing it to the limits to reduce operating costs. Presumably that’s what its brand of market would want.

Air travel does not have to be the way it has been. Consider on-line booking and self-check-in. Consumers are increasingly being empowered to take on functions that would save airline resources. While the market should decide how Ryanair will fare on its initiatives, it is the regulator’s responsibility to ensure that there is adequate competition so that consumers are not deprived of choice.

Understandably, the regulator should be there for the consumers, to protect and facilitate their rights when airlines renegade on their contractual obligations, not excluding responsibilities under moral circumstances. And, especially when not often is asked of many airlines in question: How are the savings from innovative trade-offs translated into benefits to their customers?

It would be a welcome change to the consumer that the next airline that will follow in Ryanair’s footstep to phase out the issue of boarding pass at airport check-in offer a discount for self-printing, even if there is a penalty otherwise, considering the savings it may accrue from the initiative.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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