Friday, 20 January 2012

Deep pockets

As I go about the tricky business that is sorting out how to get to fantastic birding destinations other than Wanstead Flats, I find myself once again feeling a very deep hatred for budget airlines. In a civilised society, budget airlines would be banned. Instead they are free to con, swindle and rip us off at every opportunity. The booking process is of course the worst bit - somehow, every time and without fail, a £29.99 flight advertised in flashing lights ends up costing about £200. First there are the taxes, not a lot you can do about that apart from vote for the other lot next time around. But then, incrementally, the airlines find more ways to hike it up. So you find insurance pre-selected, including snow and ice cover for your spring break in Egypt, and you find that you are about to hire a car for your trip to Venice. You find that the flight price didn't include a seat on the plane - perhaps you are expected to stand? So booking one - pre-selected for your convenience - sets you back another few quid. If, like I was, you're taking several flights, you find that this applies to each leg, so multiple lots of a few quid. Pre-boarding before the other poor sods on your flight? More money please. What, you want to take some stuff on holiday? Well, you'll need a suitcase then, so another charge - but half price if you book it now rather than at the airport! OK, we're almost done. Do you want to check-in at the airport? If so it'll cost ya! Online it is then. So, your total is now £180. Ah, hang on, we haven't yet added enough spurious extra charges, so we need to add a booking fee. In fact, a booking fee per leg. That's better. Right, £200 then. How would you like to pay? Got a credit card like any normal person? Excellent, that'll be an additional £10. Bit steep? OK, how about a debit card - this only costs us 20p to process, so we can generously drop the handling fee to £8. What, you find that absolutely outrageous? OK, what about a Visa Electron or a pre-paid Mastercard, we don't charge for them. Know why? Because nobody has one and they don't actually exist.

In the end, the flight is probably cheaper than a real airline, but how much there is in it I have no idea. The problem is that budget airline customers end up loathing their carrier before they have even left for the airport - how can that be any kind of successful business model? For me though, the villainly of the booking process is eclipsed by the hand luggage restrictions. The policy on some budget airlines is near enough identical to a normal, decent and morally superior airline, which means that by and large you can get one of those small rolling suitcases on. Some however are just plain evil, and they slash these dimensions to a plainly ridiculous degree, typically about 1cm less than any known bag. You're allowed to bring the case your bins came in, and that's it. Unfortunately birders are not known for travelling light. In addition to bins we need scopes. We need tripods, and we possibly need cameras. All nice and bulky.  Packing for birding trip is agony, it takes hours. You pack and repack, you stand on the bathroom scales to see how much your bag weighs. You unpack it all and start again. Three weeks later, you're ready.

At the airport you stand in a long line. Though you checked-in online, this in fact means nothing, you still have to queue. There is one person at the desk, and she is dealing with an irate fat scouser. Finally you get to the front, pretending that your bag isn't really really hurting your back. Nobody asks to see it, nobody weighs it, nobody tries to squish it into one of those little cages. Phew, I've done it, I've made it! The plane is only four hours late, but hey, they didn't check my hand luggage! Result!!

You wait in yet another queue for the plane. They announce boarding - you're off!! All of a sudden there are budget airline staff everywhere! They are checking bags, and they have one of those little cages. In sight of the plane, too late to do anything about it, and now, finally, they are getting draconian on bags. The choice is a stark one. Leave your bag containing thousands of pounds worth of optics behind, forfeit your flight, £60 to have a man take your bag to a different door on the airplane approximately twenty feet from the door you're about to go through. Weeping, passengers reach for their credit cards, presumably to be told that if that's how they want to pay, the price has risen to £100. The whole process is sickening. I read recently about a great airline scam - the sizing containers at the check-in desk of one budget airline were larger than the ones at the departure gate! Passengers bags passed the initial checks with flying colours, and then failed the later one. A nice little earner, as they say. I would not be at all surprised if check-in staff work on a commission basis.

The only way to successfully travel on a budget airline is to wear all your clothes, including a coat with masses of pockets. I habitually use a fishing jacket - the rear pocket, designed for trout, can hold a 300mm lens with no problems at all. I can get full size bins in one of the front pockets, a DLSR in the other. A wide-angle lens, macro, and both converters go in the top pockets, my tripod head in another, and I can smugly present them with a very small carry-on bag. My weight has doubled, but so what? I bet I still weigh less than that scouser. I actually think airlines should charge fat people more. Where's the equity in charging me for a bag weighing 1kg more than the defined limit, when the guy behind me weighs the same as my entire family? But I suppose that would be fattist, or whatever the word is, and anyway, I'm at risk of getting charged.......


  1. Jono, your blog is much better when you don't write about birds.