London - With the holiday season drawing to a close, many of us can at last look forward to months of tranquillity and relaxation. The stress, expense and inconvenience of air travel will, thank goodness, be behind most of us for another year.
No more tiresome queuing at airport security and being asked to take off belts and shoes. No more being herded like cattle as we try to re-enter our own country. No more being fleeced by the Government’s ever-increasing air passenger duty.
And no more hassle with budget airlines over hidden or unexpected costs. The story of what has just happened to Suzy McLeod at the hands of Ryanair certainly spoke to my heart. Something very like it occurred not long ago to my younger son.
Mrs McLeod arrived at Alicante airport to return home to England with her family after a 15-day holiday in Spain. One imagines they were feeling pleasantly rested. There must have been a spring in their step. They were probably looking forward to coming home. The last thing they can have wanted was a set-to with Ryanair.
But that is what they got. Mrs McLeod was forced to pay €300 (about R3000) to print out five boarding passes. She had the passes on her smartphone as PDF documents, but that wasn’t enough for Ryanair, though it would have been for some airlines. Hand us the money!
Why hadn’t Mrs McLeod printed out the boarding passes? Because she had left home 15 days previously and with Ryanair you can only print boarding passes 14 days or less before your flight. Like most of us on holiday, she did not have access to a printer and — silly woman! — had omitted to bring a portable printer with her.
Ryanair could have printed out the boarding passes for her at almost zero cost. But that would have been a kind and decent and civilised thing to do. Better make her pay — just as my son, who had unaccountably been tramping around Europe without a portable printer, had to stump up a similar amount at Prague airport.
A spokesman for Ryanair says it’s all in the small print. That may make it legal but it doesn’t make it right. I’d say it was little better than extortion to demand €300 for five pieces of paper while very possibly ruining someone’s holiday.
You may say that if you travel cheaply this is the sort of treatment you should expect. But Mrs McLeod’s five return tickets to Spain cost a hefty £1,650. They had been advertised at £166 per person, but once priority seat allocation, baggage fees and the boarding passes had been paid for, they were £330 each.
Ryanair also told a serving soldier earlier this month that he would have to pay £50 to bring a second bag into the cabin containing presents for his children he had just bought at Stansted airport. Can there be a company in the world that cares less about its public relations?
We will all have our horror stories. Make sure you pay for hold luggage when booking with Easyjet or they will charge you an arm and a leg at the airport. As for the airline’s so-called “speedy boarding” (around £10 per person per flight), in my experience this sometimes offers no advantage, while on other occasions it enables you to avoid gargantuan queues which seem to have been deliberately created.
The truth is that the business model of budget airlines relies on squeezing extra money from almost anything you do. Ryanair has even threatened to introduce a €1 charge for a visit to the lavatory. A chilly passenger on a Monarch Airlines flight from Turkey to Birmingham was told that for health and safety reasons she couldn’t have a blanket, and was then invited to buy one for a fiver!
This is why air travel is so stressful. We face a wearisome succession of privations, confrontations, humiliations and unforeseen scams. When you get back home, you often need another holiday — if that did not involve flying again.
And here the dead hand of the Government makes itself felt with its air passenger duty (APD), which has risen 360 percent over the past seven years, and is now the highest air passenger tax in the world.
For short-haul flights in Europe, the duty is an irritant on top of all those I have mentioned. On long haul flights it is a painful extra burden. A family of four flying to the US or Egypt will have to shell out an extra £260, while those heading for the Caribbean are charged £324 before they leave the runway.There is a curious symmetry here. Just as budget airlines may sting you for printing out a boarding pass or going to the lavatory or having a blanket, the British government has found a way of taking a cut from almost every significant transaction we make. The air passenger duty did not even exist until 1994. Without anyone making much fuss, it has become a serious stealth tax.
It is sometimes defended as a way of restricting air travel and the concomitant pollution said to contribute to global warming. With the increase in air travel it’s not clear it has had the effect of deterring passengers, but it would inevitably hold back economic activity if it did. At this time of all times, we surely can’t afford that.
Some 75 MPs have signed an early day motion calling for more Treasury research into the tax. Do we even need that? Why not freeze it until the end of time? Or, better still, gradually reduce it to zero? Air passenger duty is another wheeze to add to all the airline scams I have talked about.
However, there is this difference. If the government makes us wait to pass through airport security (a process, by the way, that was very much quicker when overseen by the Army at Olympic venues), or forces us to queue at passport control, or hits us with another stealth tax, there is little or nothing we can do about it, other than grumble.
By contrast, if a budget airline mistreats us, or demands extra money with menaces, we do at least usually have the choice of making alternative arrangements the next time we travel. After one unforgettably awful experience several years ago, I made a promise to myself never again to travel by Ryanair, which I have so far managed to keep.
And although bud-get airlines are in several respects ghastly, it can’t be denied that Ryanair, Easyjet and the like have opened up many new routes to interesting places to the benefit of millions of travellers.
Moreover, they usually, though by no means always, offer cheaper travel than more orthodox airlines, and with the Government bumping up air passenger duty year after year, I suppose we should be grateful for that.
But it can’t be denied that a toxic mix of government mismanagement and stealth taxes, combined with the tricks of voracious budget airlines, produces some of the unhappiest experiences known to modern humans — which is why I am looking forward to a long holiday at home until I have to fly again. - Daily Mail