Are low-cost airlines really… low cost?

9 July 2009

I recently had to book flights to Belfast for a friend’s hen do, and was pleasantly surprised to book fairly cheap flights at quite short notice. Of course I knew that the ‘total’ cost of flights I had selected would go up once the various charges and taxes were added but I went near apoplectic when I saw how much I was being charged for paying with my debit card.

In the days after booking the flights I played the ‘guess how much game’ with my friends and family: ‘guess how much Ryanair charged me for paying by debit card – go on guess!’ I could do the same with this blog but either I’d have to finish it now, which would make for a distinctly underwhelming part one and the potential part two really isn’t the kind of cliffhanger that warrants a long delay and ‘to be continued’ tag.

Suffice to say I was charged £10. A payment handling fee of £5 per passenger, per flight applies so one person traveling to and from a destination – ie me, will incur a £10 charge. On Ryanair’s website the airline claims the booking fees are “to defray the substantial administration costs we incur when processing credit and debit cards or ELV direct debits a handling fee applies to each passenger per flight segment.”

Funny though that if I pay for my weekly shop, a pair of shoes, my train ticket and pretty much anything else with my card I don’t have to pay a tenner for the privilege.

Apparently though, even in a group booking that uses just one card the information for each flight for each passenger is sent to Visa separately. If this is the case then I suppose its fair enough that Ryanair have to try and recoup the cost but investigations last year from the Times revealed that airlines are charged a set percentage of the total payment, which therefore has no bearing on how many passengers or tickets are booked. Hmmmm.

But anyway don’t worry about all this, in a gesture of extreme generosity Ryanair will not charge customers a fee if they pay by Electron cards – for a limited period. How good of them and how does that work? What is it about Electron cards that mean we don’t have to pay extra handling fees? I presume they are dipped in fairy dust and stamped (with the approval) by a unicorn hoof. Who cares, I just know I’m getting myself one before I book flights to the wedding. 

If only that was the end of my gripes with Ryanair and that was the only charge there was to worry about. But no, the airline has come up with an ingenious array of ways to squeeze extra juice out of its customers.

Checking in at the airport now costs more than doing so online and if you want anything more than hand luggage expect to pay a significant amount. One checked in bag will set you back £20, two bags £60 (you would have thought £20 plus £20 equals £40 but  apparently not in the world of Ryanair.) Check in three bags and you will have to pay £100 extra.

I avoided these charges by taking a small overnight bag and asking my friend in Northern Ireland to bring me a towel etc. but for passengers going on longer trips or families who need more than one bag, these costs aren’t optional extras. That means a family of four would be looking at having to pay £40 in card charges and then £100 for three checked in bags  – and that’s even before counting the cost of flights, taxes and the save the leprechaun fund.

Yet despite all this the airline is still in the news for its cost–cutting adventures rather than its cost–upping. Firstly there was the “pay a pound to spend a penny” plan. Apparently this would earn the airline an extra £15m a year; however technical difficulties have put plans on a standstill although the airline still maintains it will go through with the plan once they have worked out the logistics of attaching a credit card slot on the toilet doors.

Then at the end of last month Ryanair said they were considering the possibility of scrapping checking in bags altogether. Admittedly this would get rid of the exorbitant baggage charges and according to Ryanair save them approximately £17 million a year because they wouldn’t have to pay baggage handlers. But who really wants to drag their heavy suitcase onto the plane? It all smacks a bit of traveling on the train or the national express. Apparently Ryanair quite likes that idea though: their latest announcement sees the airline looking at introducing vertical seats – a bit like bar stools.

“Train, bus and underground commuters often stand for hours each day yet pay the same fare as those who get a seat. Ryanair passengers who are willing to stand on our one hour flights should be able to fly for free.” Says Stephen McNamara, a spokesperson for the airline. Great: so in addition to enduring sweaty armpits and someone else’s music tastes via their too–loud ipod every working day of my life, I get to savour the same joys going on holiday too.

Still all of the above are only works/thoughts in progress and it strikes me that Ryanair is rather more concerned with its customers buying into the image of it striving to shave off all unnecessary costs, while still coming up with a fair few charges.

OK I accept flying isn’t dirt cheap but seriously how many more charges can they come up with? Perhaps a charge to turn on or off the lights and air con switch above you, extra costs for traveling on a Monday because let’s face it everyone hates Mondays and double fare if you support a football team that plays in a red shirt. To counter these ridiculous extra costs future cost–cutting measures could include letting learner pilots fly the shorter routes and getting passengers to vacuum the plane before they leave. 

In the meantime I will make the best of things by checking in online, only carrying hand luggage and paying by electron.

Nathalie Bonney is staff writer at Moneywise.