Travel: Europe – the Ryanair way (2/3)
14 July 2011
After Beauvais, Trapani and Frankfurt, our two intrepid Le Monde journalists continue their tour of the world of low-cost, where many surprising encounters await…
Hussars in the sky
Riga ought to be better known, especially for its Art Nouveau buildings by architect Mikhaïl Eisenstein (the film director’s father). An extremely popular low-cost destination, on weekends the city is crowded by western tourists attracted cheap alcohol and the remarkable beauty of Latvian women. At the airport the day we were there, there was a lot of agitation surrounding a dozen passengers dressed as… Napoleonic era hussars.
They were a group of Russians about to board a flight to Charleroi on their way to the annual re-enactment of the 1815 battle of Waterloo. The lads were sweating profusely in their dolmans and shakos. But why the devil did they not stow their costumes in the hold? By Jove! “To cut costs,” one fellow explained. With excess baggage at 20 euros a kilo, they were better off carrying the extra weight on their backs than in their trunks…
Having traveled from Saint Petersburg by car or from Moscow by train, they had spent about 12 hours to reach the nearest Ryanair terminal. From there, the return flight to Brussels would cost them a maximum of 250 euros. “Four times less than a direct flight from Russia. The journey is also shorter. We used to spend three days and nights to get there by coach,” explained the leader of the group, Oleg Sokolov, a historian who specialises in Napoleonic battles. Assuming an august air in his authentic cocked hat, he was clearly pleased to be arriving in Charleroi on 16 June: “Just like Napoleon at the start of his campaign.”
Should we expect to cross paths with hussars in the sky? Perhaps we should. Vectors of a more democratised airspace, Ryanair’s medium-haul flights bring together a heady mix of populations: athletes in transit, lovers on a spree, groups of sun seeking pensioners, businessmen, large families, and clergy.
The Irish company has succeeded in widening its customer base from the original hardcore of financially strapped young people which remains its principle mainstay. Many of the backpackers we spoke to remarked that using Ryanair to visit former Erasmus students in their home countries has become a well established tradition.
“The moral issue is much less important than the price of the ticket"
What is most surprising is not the diversity of passengers, but their offhand behaviour: on Ryanair flights it is not unusual to see them turning on their mobile phones or getting up from their seats before the aircraft comes to a halt – as though the old rules did not apply in low-cost travel. They also typically applaud the pilot, even when the landings are bumpy.
The cabin crew do what they can, but often they appear more like wandering peddlers than hostesses and stewards with a mission to look after the well being of passengers. And when you see them sitting down to eat odd meals from their lunchboxes at the back aircraft, you might even be tempted to feel sorry for them. But this impression is quickly dispelled by a perusal of the in-flight magazine, which features a new bikini-clad hostess every month.
Does that mean there is a case for a boycott? “Most of the passengers know nothing about working conditions in the company, and even if they did they wouldn’t care,” points out Guillaume D’Agaro, a 25-year-old artist traveling from Cracow to Charleroi. “The moral issue is much less important than the price of the ticket. It is very hard to resist this type of offer when you are a student or a pensioner, or someone who is in their first job. Ryanair is representative of our globalised capitalist society where everything is bought and consumed with no regard for the human cost. And this ideology is embraced by people on board, who are probably pleased that for once they are the ones to be taking advantage of the situation.” As for Guillaume himself: “I have no choice. For purely financial reasons, I can only travel via Ryanair and other similar airlines.”
To be continued...
Translated from the French by Mark McGovern