Thursday, 31 July 2008

Fly the Low-Cost Skies (While You Can)

Some interesting rumbles emanating from the UK this week, as budget airline Ryanair faces its first loss in quite a while, according to this report in The Guardian.

For those who aren't familiar with the dizzy world of el cheapo flights across Europe, Ryanair is in the vanguard of a slew of low-cost carriers who grab headlines by advertising flights for as little as one shiny British penny (yes, you read that correctly). The devil, of course, is in the detail: to get those fares, you have to book way ahead.

The carriers then load you up with as many extra charges as they can: a fee for priority boarding, a fee to check a bag into the hold, charges for all food and drink on board.

Sky Europe, a Slovak-owned carrier I travelled on from Poprad to London (Luton) this year, even charges you to select a specific seat, with the amount depending on how desirable it is. And of course, government taxes and charges have to go on top of all that.

I'm not complaining about any of this, mind you; it's easy enough to avoid most of these extras if you plan ahead and travel light. And I can confirm that the absurdly cheap fares do exist. Last year I flew from London (Stansted) to Szczecin, Poland for a 50 pence base fare; and I topped that this year by scoring a £0.01 fare from London (Stansted) to Krak√≥w, Poland. To put things into perspective, by the time the various fees were added, the latter trip cost around $50 Australian. Still very cheap for a 2.5 hour flight.

But the unreality of all this makes you wonder if it isn't just a fevered dream that's finally coming to an end. In a 1960s Batman-esque series of blows, the likes of Ryanair are being hammered by high fuel prices (BAM!); inflation (POW!); falling consumer confidence (WHACK!); and environmental concerns (KAZOW!).

Add the fact that those exotic Eastern European countries aren't as cheap as they once were (I can testify to this re Poland), and the future might look bleak for airlines that rely on leisure travellers making casual, discretionary decisions to spend a weekend in somewhere like Bratislava.

And the "discretionary" part of that has me thinking. Many people might see, say, a late-model car as an essential item, and travel as a luxury. I think the opposite. I like my material comforts, sure, but I'd rather have less stuff and more travel any day.

So even if the days of the super-cheapie fare are numbered, I hope people keep travelling. If nothing else, it's good for our mental health to realise that it is possible to exist for a while without all the consumer goods we seem to "need" in the 21st century.

(And yes, I know there are environmental factors to consider; I'll talk more about these another day.)