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Flight Memo: 5 ways to improve European budget airlines

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Airplane snacks on a LAN flight to Argentina
In-flight snacks. Photo by matt.hintsa.

Ten years ago, European budget airlines were widely celebrated as a positive symbol of then-contemporary Europe. The new budget airlines sold tickets online, easing the transaction process. Airlines flew cheaply to destinations both familiar and novel. The low fares and simplicity of travel ushered into effect by Europe’s budget air revolution were largely commended. Budget airlines were seen as an important, constitutive piece of Europe in flux, a Europe within which free, frequent and fast movement was a given.

Today, increasing awareness of climate change has meant that budget air travel in Europe is often targeted as an environmental disaster. On the consumer side, passengers are overwhelmed by a huge number of fees and charges—for checking a bag, for checking in at the airport, for preferred seating, for using a particular credit card—all of which continue to creep upwards.

The stories told about low-cost carriers tend to focus on the distance of secondary airports from the cities they purport to serve, the rudeness of staff, the inflexibility of various charges and the difficulty in obtaining refunds for canceled flights.

People continue to fly budget airlines in great numbers, of course, but they’re not enjoying themselves. How could things be improved? How could a budget airline actually build a fan base?

Here are five suggestions for improving budget airlines in Europe:

1. Offer transparency in marketing and pricing.

An airport named after a city 100 km away does nobody any favors. Acknowledge location and market around it. Eliminate last-minute charges for the use of a particular credit card. While you’re at it, get rid of perks like early boarding that make embarkation so regimented and unpleasant.

2. Provide a carbon offset opt-out option.

Under this proposal, passengers would be able to click a box to remove the carbon offset option from their flights and save a euro or two. Some would do this. Many would not. Here’s a better and more radical idea: get tons of press by announcing that all flights will be carbon offset in their entirety.

3. Develop a simple, well-scrubbed aesthetic.

Budget airlines shouldn’t be grubby. They should be enveloped in simplicity, ease, and lightness. Colors should be gentle and music should be soft. Flight attendants should have nice uniforms that reflect the airline’s aesthetic. (They should also look rested, competent and pleased to be at work.) License a pleasant 30-minute electronic score for boarding.

4. Offer tasty snacks for purchase.

If ancillary income is the key, offer something worthwhile—tasty treats with some real relationship to the departure or destination city. Also, keep mark-ups in check. On-board mark-ups need not be extortionate.

5. Brand around location.

Souvenir items sold in flight shouldn’t be anonymous. Why stock the duty-free cart with items that can be found in any international airport when cute objets of local relevance make better gifts? Fill the in-flight magazine with the insights of interesting people who populate the route map’s destination cities.

Your recommendations

Can you think of other ways that budget carriers could improve their service? Do you agree or disagree with these points? Tell us about it in the comments section.

About the author

Alex Robertson Textor

About the author: Alex Robertson Textor is a London-based travel writer and editor. He has written for Rough Guides, the New York Times, and Public Books, among other publications; he also guided the tablet magazine Travel by Handstand to two SATW Foundation Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism awards. With Pam Mandel, he writes copy and generates ideas as White Shoe Travel Content. He is on Twitter as @textorian and maintains his own blog, www.alexrobertsontextor.com.

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2 Responses to “Flight Memo: 5 ways to improve European budget airlines”

Eurotriptips says:

But budget airlines wouldn’t be budget airlines with these recommendations – nicer uniforms, snacks and all cost money and I don’t think CEOs are interested in taking that money in their own pockets, thus leaving the check to the customer.

Respectfully I disagree. Nicer uniforms are not particularly expensive to create and execute. Nor is a crisp, simple airplane interior. Even my suggestion to license an appealing electronic musical score for boarding shouldn’t be expensive. There are thousands of electronic music composers who would jump at the opportunity for the publicity.

Note also that I mentioned snacks in the above post in the context of ancillary income—that is, as items that would be purchased. I was trying to suggest that the quality of snacks matters, and that passengers would more happily pay for good snacks than they would for disgusting snacks. But even if the snacks were free, that would not necessarily run counter to budget airline practice. Air Berlin offers drinks and snacks for free (as well as magazines and newspapers!) and the airline generally keeps its advance-purchase fares quite low.

You are certainly right that airline CEOs cut corners like these in the pursuit of profits. This fervor isn’t all bad, but truthfully it would cost very little to make a few minor adjustments that would stand a good chance of inspiring in turn far greater demand and firmer loyalty.

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