Sunday, July 01, 2018

I think I'm getting the hang of discount carriers

I think I'm starting to get the hang of the European discount carriers, like EasyJet, WizzAir, and RyanAir. Let me begin with the two takeaways, which I state in the form of the strongest assumptions I think you can reasonably make when traveling on these carriers:
  1. You stand a good chance of arriving at your scheduled destination on the same day as indicated on your ticket.
  2. You will eventually board and sit in a seat where you can stow something under the seat in front of you.
Making any stronger assumptions is asking for trouble. In particular: don't assume you can bring on 2 small bags, don't assume overhead bin space will be available, don't assume paying for Priority Boarding will necessarily buy you anything, don't assume you'll get the upgrade seat you paid for (at least one person on our flight didn't).

Today's discount flight was my direct flight from London Luton to Larnaca, Cyprus, on WizzAir. The name sounds vaguely piquant to me, and I was trying to figure out which non-English language was the one featured on the safety information card. (I correctly guessed Hungarian.)

Luton Airport, served exclusively by discount carriers, welcomed me cheerily: a 20 minute train + 10 minute bus ride from St. Pancras (about £11), easy security screening (the airport wasn't very busy on a Sunday morning, but they do have about 15 conveyors so I imagine throughput is decent), and the shopping concourse was open, bright, and airy, with a Starbucks that was (as usual) generously appointed with AC outlets, which was good, since the departure board showed a 2 hour delay for my flight (which eventually turned into a 3 hour delay, but I shouldn't get ahead of myself).

Within an hour, the airport was as full and busy as Grand Central, with all tables full, many people sitting on the ground with their luggage, and the airport Wifi collapsing under this load. TripAdvisor warned me against paying for the Aspire VIP Lounge. The three college-age women sitting near me, also going to Cyprus, had originally booked a flight scheduled at 10am; then a few weeks later they got an email saying the departure time had been changed to 6am; then a few weeks later to 12 noon, which was the schedule I'd purchased. But I had low expectations and was in good spirits—with the delay I'd arrive in Cyprus too late to have dinner, but that's what airline booze is for.

When they announced our gate an hour before the delayed departure, I decided to head over, as discount airlines are notorious for closing the gate a full 30 minutes before takeoff to ensure boarding happens on time. Now the real fun began. The Luton shopping concourse I'd been waiting in was a Costco warehouse from the outside—shiny aluminum siding, no frivolous architectural flourishes such as windows or signage—though pleasant on the inside. But then you pass into the actual boarding gate building, which resembles a late-Cold War bureaucratic installation.

One way the discount airlines apparently maximize the use of their airport footprint is by stacking gates. In modern airports, gates are usually on the 2nd floor, making them level with the jetway. Our gate was below another gate, occupying a space that in any other airport would be used for maintenance-vehicle parking or pallet storage but here had been enclosed and turned into a holding pen. But we only spent about half of our pre-boarding time in that space. The other half was spent in the stairwell getting down to it, because for reasons I couldn't understand, the gate space itself wasn't open when they made the airport announcement that everyone on our flight needed to immediately go to the gate. So we were sitting and standing in the stairwell for about 45 minutes until they opened the actual gate area, whose distinguishing feature—in fact its only feature—was a Disneyland maze leading to the boarding podium where boarding passes are collected, and which concealed another Disneyland maze to line up for the actual boarding process. All in all, we were standing in either the stairwell or some sort of maze for an hour and ten minutes, which is in fact longer than most of the mazes at Disneyland, without ventilation or toilets. I remained in good spirits because this was so farcical one could not but laugh.

The boarding-pass collection point was staffed by a girl with braces and a boy barely old enough to shave, but I guess hiring young non-union service workers keeps airfares down. We had the usual assortment of passengers: complainers, overweight vacationers, douchebag frat boys in tank tops trying to con their way into the Priority Boarding line, and so on. Boarding followed the familiar discount-airline system: first, those who paid for Priority Boarding board in a frenzied mob, nominally in the order in which they joined the queue, but not really; about halfway through that process, they "invite" the rest of us to board in a frenzied mob, nominally in the order in which we joined the queue, but not really. Since our gate was at ground level, we were able to board by walking across the tarmac to the plane, though there was another hapless kid managing traffic to ensure we didn't get run over by airport service vehicles, as boarding required crossing an active service-vehicle lane. As I've mentioned before, the seating onboard helps me understand why the European competitor to Boeing is called Airbus. The seats are smaller and less comfortable than BART's (and don't recline, but hey, that means your laptop is in no danger of having its screen crumple when the person in front of you reclines and you have tucked the lid under the lip of the tray table receptacle). Between 2 mini-bottles of wine, my miraculous Bose noise-cancelling headphones, Steely Dan to listen to while working on my talk slides and writing this post for you, and my Kindle to read about Paul Theroux's miserable-sounding transit through South America, everything's gonna be all right.

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