Terror plot adds new dimensions to flying

Only the day before the airport terrorist alert, Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary was able to crow about another milestone being passed: Ryanair, he said, is now Ireland’s national airline, displacing Aer Lingus.

The terrorist plot is a milestone, too, he will find – but one rather less to his liking. It will adversely affect all the main commercial components of airline travel – the airports, duty free and of course the airlines themselves – and seemingly in an irreversible way.

Already there has been a big kerfuffle over the handling of the crisis, with British Airways delivering a withering, and very public, critique of BAA (which owns all three London Airports), over its incompetence in dealing with security arrangements in the aftermath of the alert. While some theatre can be detected here – BA chief Willie Walsh playing to the shareholder gallery; “it’s not our fault, it’s them” – BAA has reason enough to worry. BA’s anger is justified: BAA was spectacularly unprepared. A fact which cannot go unregistered at the Office of Fair Trading as it continues its investigation into BAA’s monopoly status.

More interesting than the initial salvos in the blame game are the longer term implications, however. And here, nothing can be more important than a series of apparently innocuous statistics: 45,35,16. These are the inflexible dimensions, in centimetres, of the maximum hand luggage volume now allowable on any flights out of Britain. They correspond, roughly, to a laptop computer and not much else. And they are, we are told, a permanent imposition.

Quite apart from struggling with the absurdity of the third statistic (just 6in – how many cigarettes or electronic goods can you fit in that?) duty free will take a caning from the restriction on all liquids and gels sold in the departure lounge. It’s not too good for food and drink, either, as these will have to be consumed pre-flight.

But bigger by far as an issue is the corrosive impact on the “customer experience”. This, admittedly, was never great at airports, but has been alleviated in recent years by speedier check-in procedures and much cheaper flights. Both are now likely to suffer from serious impediments, though for different reasons.

Extra security procedures will be particularly irritating for the fast-track business executive, whose every flight check-in to the US threatens to become an El Al experience. But budget customers will also find plenty to take exception to. Low cost airlines have recently begun charging for baggage stored in plane holds. It’s a mechanism for keeping nominal pricing low, though the airlines claim that its real purpose is to reduce the aircraft’s payload and therefore costs. This rhetoric will become meaningless once customers find that, thanks to the new restrictions, they are being charged for essentials being put in the hold, whether they like it or not.

Ryanair shrugs off criticism of its current pricing model as “ill-informed nonsense.” But that is not the opinion of industry experts, who believe that budget airlines will come out worst in the changed regime. And all this comes at a time when ecology pressure groups are beginning to aim their ire at the very concept of cheap flights.

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