Flying without the frills

Posted: Thursday, February 26, 2004

LONDON You got a cheap airline ticket, what else do you want?

Ryanair, Europe's most successful budget airline, is testing the Spartan spirit of its passengers and extending the frontiers of cost-cutting.

It recently announced it will dispense with the plane's window blinds, reclining seats, Velcro-anchored headrest covers and the seat pockets where customers normally find a safety notice and free magazines.

The required safety notice will be stitched to the back of each seat.

Ryanair also said it may charge for checked-in luggage, and is switching to leather upholstery because it lasts longer and is easier and cheaper to clean.

Removing such ''nonessential extras'' from its new Boeing 737s will save Ryanair hundreds of thousands of dollars per plane in the purchase price and the maintenance normally required on broken reclining seats, said Paul Fitzsimmons, the airline's chief spokesperson. The goal, he said, is to pass the savings on to its customers.

No matter what carrier you choose, many of the cabin features are set by regulations covering seat belts, environmental-control systems, lighting and the number of doors. Beyond that, an airline is free to decide what amenities, if any, you'll get on board, including toilets, closets and in-flight entertainment.

Theoretically, an airline could abolish toilets and free drinking water on its short flights and Ryanair's main competitor in Europe, easyJet, has reduced the number of toilets on its Boeing 737s from three to two, adding another revenue-earning seat.

Toby Nicol, the head of corporate affairs at easyJet, said no one had complained.

''If you don't serve free food on board or show films, you don't have a rush to the toilets with lines outside. On normal flights,'' Nicol said in an interview, ''that happens after dinner and when the film ends.''

Flights by no-frill carriers in Europe often average about an hour, with the longest being about 2 1/2 hours.

Ryanair offers its customers no assigned seats, no free food or drinks, no frequent-flyer miles and no help with connecting flights. It flies to secondary airports, has strict baggage weight limits, issues most tickets over the Internet and doesn't use enclosed ramps to take its customers from terminals to airplanes.

Airline analysts said they would be surprised if Ryanair's latest cutbacks cause much griping by customers, who relish the cheap tickets. Given how close the seats already are on most cut-rate airlines, some analysts said tall people could be overjoyed to learn that the person sitting in front won't be crunching their knees.

Michael Boyd of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm in Evergreen, Colorado, said Ryanair and EasyJet should be praised for shedding services that planes don't really need, especially on the short flights they specialize in.

''Reclining seats aren't a big deal. People won't notice the missing curtain. The seat pockets often are mostly used by customers as garbage cans,'' he said.

''I even applaud only two toilets,'' said Boyd, adding that he wouldn't object if budget airlines began using pay toilets.

Ryanair ''is going further than other carriers in Europe have done in taking away the comfort enhancers,'' said Simon Evans, chief executive of Britain's consumer watchdog for air passengers, the Air Transport Users Council.

''Ryanair has never made any secret of its cost-cutting goals. They say they have given consumers the cheapest possible air traffic, and it's hard to argue with them, given their numbers. They are pushing the boundaries of minimum levels of service. It will be interesting to see how much consumers put up with that,'' said Evans.

Michael Clarke, an aviation reporter for Travel Weekly in London, said Ryanair may have had little choice but to cut more frills, given two recent setbacks: the European Commission ruled that payments to the airline by government-owned airports were illegal, and the airline fell short of its passenger growth targets.

''Ryanair need to do this. Their whole business model is based on low prices, cutting them below everyone else's,'' he said. ''Their philosophy is what do you expect for a 10 pound ($18.70) fare?''

All three analysts said it could be risky if Ryanair angered customers by charging for carry-on luggage since the expanding cut-rate airline market is getting more competitive.

''You've got to be careful,'' said Boyd. ''Everyone has the highest respect for Ryanair. I applaud it. But you've got to watch your competitors when you reduce your services.''



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