Why Condé Nast Traveller owes Ryanair an apology

David Whitley April 4, 2013 34

In the last few days there has been yet another round of Ryanair-bashing, largely sparked by the editor’s letter in Condé Nast Traveller. In this, the editor, Melinda Stevens, tells of her botched attempts to catch a plane from Stansted to Brindisi with her husband and three young children. It’s a well-written, funny read. But it’s not a fair one.

Referring to it as the “Ryanair debacle”, Stevens calls Ryanair “bastards” and blames the airline for her missed flight. She’s not the first to do this, and won’t be the last. Ryanair is a convenient whipping boy for the sins of the budget airline industry, and it plays up to this with its hard-nosed publicity stunts and responses to complaints from passengers.

I don’t particularly like flying Ryanair either. I’ll pay a bit more to travel with other airlines, and I routinely assume that the actual price will be way more than the stated price. But on the other hand, Ryanair will often go from an airport convenient to me, flying me to where I want to go, for very little money. And when it’s a case of doing that or paying far more to schlep down to London and fly from one of the London airports, I’d be an idiot not to choose Ryanair.

But it’s worth taking a closer read of Stevens’ piece. Because some parts of it are extraordinary – and not just the £2,000 cost of the flights. That seems absurdly high even in the peak of school holidays season. And if it was that much with Ryanair, surely you’d go with someone else?

The timings ring the first alarm bells. The flight was supposedly at 7.30am (a quick scan of the Ryanair schedule shows that none of their flights on this route leave at this time – although I’m prepared to accept the schedule may have changed), and she was waking her children up at 4am. She says herself: “Crikey, Stansted is a long way away. I always forget that.” To me, this indicates that she lives at least an hour away from Stansted. It’s a reasonable assumption, therefore, that she wasn’t at Stansted by 05.30am – especially when the only stated queue time is 45 minutes. Even with that amount of time in the queue, they would have sailed through without a problem had they arrived at the airport two hours early. Which, incidentally, is the minimum time recommended for an international flight by almost every airline in the world.

If, as seems likely, she wasn’t at the airport two hours before departure, she does kinda waive her right to moan when she doesn’t get on the plane in time. It’s not a nice experience, but turning up late does shift it from being the airline’s fault to the passenger’s fault.

The most incredible thing, however, is that they didn’t realise they needed to pay to check in bags. Given the amount of high profile whining about Ryanair and other budget carriers over the last decade or so, I find it rather unlikely that anyone in the country doesn’t know you have to pay to check in bags with budget carriers. For the editor of a prestigious travel magazine to not know is astonishing.

The complaints about that died down in roughly 2002 when everyone realised that it was just part of the deal in order to get cheap fares. Claiming to be caught by surprise by a bag check-in fee in 2013 just doesn’t ring true. You may as well feign surprise about there not being a smoking section, or not being sat next to Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter drinking Cinzano.

Many accusations can be levelled at Ryanair – unfriendly staff, inflexible attitude, nasty trick-laden website – but they’re usually the airline with the shortest queues. That’s because everyone knows they’ll pay massive fees to check in bags online, so they travel carry-on only and walk straight through to security with their pre-printed boarding pass.

Turn up late, expecting to not have to pay to check in your bags, and you’ve got to admit some culpability. Sure, the airline could be nicer about it, but in this case Ryanair is absolutely not at fault. For an editor of a travel magazine – an editor who seemingly doesn’t understand the basic principles of how budget airlines work – to use her introductory column to perform a hatchet job on an airline in this way is both petty and extremely unfair.

I’ve no particular desire to be seen as one of Ryanair defenders – there are few airlines that I’d like to fly with less (hello Jetstar, Monarch and Cebu Pacific!). But the amount of praise I’ve seen on Twitter for this claws-out swipe is misplaced.

The irony is that this is the sort of writing I’d like to see more of in travel magazines: honest, occasionally scathing, and prepared to flag up the negatives as well as the positives. But criticism is worthless if it isn’t fair and justified – and in this instance, it’s an attempt to settle scores that have arisen from the passenger’s own errors.

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