Welcome aboard the fine-print, foul-mouthed, low-cost airline

Sat, Sep 8, 2012, 01:00

AM I imagining this or was there a time when Michael O’Leary’s foul-mouthed, hyper-arrogant swagger seemed robustly endearing?

It wasn’t so long ago that, simply by appearing on television without a tie, a successful businessman could give the impression he was some sort of benevolent anarchist. Richard Branson has been getting away with that particular fraud since the late Crustacean period. But the Ryanair boss was always a little too sharp-elbowed to convince as a cuddly hippie.

Even those Victorian rubber barons who – unless Marxist cartoons have led me astray – used to feed the poor into mincing machines stopped short of labelling their customers as idiots and telling them to bugger off.

The latest O’Leary charm offensive concerns a young mother named Suzy McLeod. Arriving for a flight from Alicante to Bristol, the unfortunate woman learnt that, not having printed boarding passes in advance, she would be forced to pay €60 each for herself, her parents and her two children. “I had to pay €300 for them to print out a piece of paper,” she wrote on Facebook. “Please ‘like’ if you think that’s unfair.” More than half a million people duly obliged.

In O’Leary’s defence, you could never accuse him of being evasive when such controversies arise. He doesn’t knock together weaselly excuses concerning the price of inkjet cartridges or the man-hours soaked up by repeated hitting of the “print” key. A man of many words (all punctuated by exclamation marks), he manages dissent with the same delicacy that Josef Stalin brought to his own negotiations with the politically unconvinced.

Utilising withering, schoolteacher sarcasm, he commented: “As you know, there are no internet cafés in Alicante, there are no hotels in Alicante that would provide print-outs and no fax machines so that some friend or colleague at home could print them out and fax them down to you.”

He went on to explain that some “99.98 per cent” of passengers print boarding passes in advance (really?) and that: “To those who don’t, we say quite politely: ‘Bugger off.’” His response to a letter from Ms McLeod was characteristic. “It was your f**k-up,” he commented.

This particular issue offers a chilling, depressing demonstration of the Ryanair philosophy in action. Since it is explained (and it is) on the company’s website that boarding passes should be printed in advance, any inconvenience or expense suffered by the customer who has failed to comply is regarded as entirely reasonable. This is pretty much how the Baader-Meinhof Gang operated: if you don’t do what I say then you are responsible for what I do.

The fact that the reprinting of passes is an operation – like providing seatbelts or filling the plane with fuel – that virtually every other airline offers for free is not seen as relevant. But the pass is not some lovely souvenir of your journey to an airport in the vague vicinity of a major European city. It merely allows you to get on the plane.

Ryanair is charging you €60 to make the journey. But you’ve already paid for the journey. Haven’t you? Where will such logic end? Might the unfortunate tourist, after arriving at the airport without the relevant piece of paper, find herself being dragged on to the concourse and beaten senseless with rubber hoses?

“What are you screaming about, you f**king idiot?” the Ryanair enforcers will bellow. “Weren’t there any internet cafés in Riga? Stop punching yourself in the face! Stop punching yourself in the face!” (Sorry, Michael. That is very unfair. Ryanair would never stoop to beating up its customers. After all, there’s no money in it.)

Why do punters put up with such inconveniences? Well, when budget airlines arrived, customers willingly signed up to a not entirely unreasonable compromise. You pay a hitherto unimaginably low price for your ticket but, as a consequence, you forgo a number of privileges previously regarded as immovable aspects of the airline experience. You can’t select your seat in advance. You may be forced to fly to an airport some distance from your ultimate destination. You will sit in the class of moulded plastic seat more suitable to bus-station waiting rooms.

But to describe the issuing of boarding passes at the airport as any sort of luxury is to betray the noble science of semantics. Ryanair has determined it can legally charge for the service. Therefore, it charges. That’s all there is to it.

What is, however, particularly depressing about this business is the implication that, just because you pay a low fare, you should be prepared to accept abuse from the airline’s prime mover.

Perhaps I am misreading the situation. If Mr O’Leary were chief executive of Rolls-Royce he may very well call his customers “idiots” for expecting each vehicle to come with an ivory backscratcher. It seems, however, unlikely that – if so minded – he would remain in such a post for very long. Ryanair customers, even those without printers, deserve the same respect as limousine owners.

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