Cheap flights have got so expensive, the sun is going down

[ Tuesday, 10th April 2007 ]

EVERYONE seems to be taking this latest hike in the cost of air travel in very good part, on the whole.

Consumer-affairs types have been grumbling a little but everybody else has more or less just been repeating that limp joke about being made to pay for using the oxygen masks. Maybe we're not taking it seriously enough.

So Aer Lingus is charging us 3 to book a seat online or, after 22 May, 10 for a seat in the first five rows or 15 if you want to sit at the emergency exit with your feet out in front of you and daydream in a harmless way about being called upon to save the day in an emergency.

This isn't the thin end of the wedge, though: the wedge has been getting noticeably thicker for some time.

There is the new cost of putting a bag in the hold . . . with Aer Lingus 5 and with Ryanair 6 (or 10 and 12 if you have it in mind to take the bag home with you again after your trip).

The surcharge on overweight luggage doesn't even bear mentioning, for fear of reviving that limp joke about making fat people pay more for their tickets.

Then there's the airport tax, the government tax, the UK air passenger duty for flights out of Britain, the fuel surcharge, the wheelchair levy, the fee for online check-in (ingenious when it was free but now suddenly maddening because you have to pay the airline 3 to save them a bit of trouble), the aviation insurance levy and the 2.50 creditcard booking fee, which is applied for each passenger on each flight you book, even if you book and pay for them all in the one transaction. It begins to look like the Irish taxation system doesn't it? ("The basic income tax rate is 20%. . . It is, it is. The rest isn't tax, it's Pay-Related Social Insurance." ) Now that cheap flights have got so expensive, could this be a sign that the sun is going down already on the golden age of low-fares air travel?

So soon? What a brief golden age it was, if so, when we all got to go to daft places like Poznan and Ljubljana, and flew to France just to buy cigarettes, and learned to regard Bratislava and Vienna as one and the same place.

Bittersweet it was too, though, and Ryanair flights have long been packed to the overhead lockers with people who hate Ryanair. No-frills flying is hellish (unless you're the pilot, and even they get fed up). All that hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait; the paranoid security precautions; having to take your shoes off; having to put all your ever so slightly embarrassing toiletries in a clear plastic bag for everyone to see; always beeping in the metal detector; being frisked by a grumpy security woman with some sort of stick and having to explain giddily that you're not making a lunge for your firearm, you're just ticklish.

Then the plane is cramped and noisy, and there's never anything left to eat except a hotdog priced like a fillet steak, and the coffee tastes like diesel, and the cabin crew keep shrieking at you to buy something, and the baggagehandlers tear your bag. And behind it all is the knowledge that because you live on an island you have no choice: it's either fly or embark on some ludicrously epic sea voyage surrounded by slot machines and the smell of puke.

Interesting, though, how the rising cost of cheap air travel is dovetailing nicely with the efforts to discourage people from flying, out of consideration for the environment.

The Institute for Public Policy Research in Britain has called for cigarette-style warnings on advertisements for flights, to remind each of us that we're wrecking the planet on our way to Faro. Others have recommended that a carbonoffset fee be added to the cost of a flight, in line with the current thinking that global warming is something we can buy our way out of.

If you were tempted to view all this as part of an evil plot to keep the lower orders out of the air, you wouldn't be alone. After all, you don't hear anyone trying to talk the rich out of flying, do you? All those suits hopping back and forth to London in business class to see each other twice a week instead of trying something funky and modern like the telephone, and all those millionaires and heads of state in their private jets . . . they aren't going to be priced out of the air by an environmental levy.

No, as ever, the biddable middle classes will carry out the course correction and the rest will carry on doing what they've always done.

After all, whatever your antipathy towards low-fares airlines, they've made travel a much more egalitarian business than it once was.

Remember years ago, when only that well-heeled family down the road could afford to vanish off to the Canaries at Christmas, and how they made themselves out to be Graham Greene, and didn't even show you their photos because you wouldn't understand. Travel has lost its mystique and not a minute too soon.

On any given weekend, half the country is off broadening its mind somewhere, and not a minute too soon.

If this carries on, then the sort of people who clap when the plane comes down will be done away with by the sort of people who laugh at the sort of people who clap when the plane comes down. The rich will get their leg room back and the rest of us will be where we belong, down below, looking up at them. Oh and of course they will tell us we're saving the earth.

Eithne Tynan / Sunday Tribune