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The joys of flying Ryanair

On October 1, you published my letter about the impending Ryanair UK-Malta flights, in which I sought to "inject a note of reality into the 'Ryanair threat to Air Malta/British Jet' debate".

Since then, I have sampled a Ryanair flight from Luton to Malta and found that, although dire, it was not quite as bad as I had anticipated. On Ryanair flights, seats are not reserved or allocated, but every passenger is guaranteed a seat somewhere on the plane. Passengers are very much "self-loading cargo" and, to ensure that they obtain the seat of their choice or seats together, passengers begin to queue at the boarding gate some half hour or earlier before boarding commences.

I had a "priority boarding" ticket, which exempted me from the general scramble, and so I overtook the queue and went and stood by the Priority Boarding sign. Almost immediately I was approached by an elegantly dressed young Maltese lady, from whom I received a tirade in 'tal-pepè' English. She, too, had a Priority Boarding ticket and was upset because, had she not stopped to talk to her less fortunate acquaintances in the peasants' queue, she would have arrived at the sign before me.

This was of no great concern to my wife and me, so, for the sake of peace, we made way for her and her companions. It was only when we reached the plane that I realised why she had been so agitated: the first three seats on the plane are right by the front door and have four or five feet of legroom, making them the closest Ryanair has to Club Class. For some reason, on flights from the UK to Ireland, these three seats are always kept vacant, but, on Luton-Malta flights, they are the prize for a win or a place in the Ryanair Priority Boarding Stakes.

At Luton, once the gate opens for general boarding, there is a mad scramble across the tarmac as the passengers run to the aircraft. All that is missing is a race commentator: "They're off, there's confusion at the starting gate, but already the field's extended. Yes, it's Bright Young Thing by half a length from Punk Lad, with the favourite Maltese Maid on the inside, but Little Old Lady's coming from behind on the outside and may just make it. Yes, it's Little Old Lady, by a nose, followed by Bright Young Thing, Punk Lad, and Maltese Maid. But wait, Bright Young Thing is protesting and the Ryanair steward may hold an inquiry. No, he's shaking his head and they won't. So, on her first outing this year, Little Old Lady wins the Ryanair Luton Boarding Card Stakes at a Hundred to One!"

All the seats on the newer Ryanair planes have yellow plastic tops, which are far from restful on the eye, and the safety card is fixed to the back of the seat, presumably to prevent theft, thus providing an interesting reflection on the quality of passenger Ryanair expects. The seats are fixed and do not recline and, in the interests of easier cleaning and a swifter turnaround, the seat pocket has been omitted: that such things are a discomfort or grave inconvenience to the passenger is apparently of no account.

I had not realised how much I would miss the electronic map, which on Air Malta and British Airways flights shows the progress of the flight. All we had were terse announcements that Rome was on our left and later that landing was imminent. However, as I had a good book, the flight passed more quickly than I had expected, despite the discomforts.

The other passengers appeared to be 90 per cent Maltese, either returning to Malta after a shopping trip in England or coming to visit their family in Malta. None was obviously a tourist, though of course this may change in the summer. Some were annoyed, as they had had arguments over baggage, which on Ryanair is strictly controlled and charged for, with the staff given little or no scope for discretion.

As I predicted, Air Malta and British Jet may suffer in the short run and it would appear that more Maltese are travelling to the UK and Ireland to spend their money there. However, given their restrictions on baggage and lack of interest in group travel, I do not see Ryanair making any bulk contribution to the inward Maltese tourist industry.

I had first flown from Dublin to Birmingham on Aer Lingus, a route on which they are in direct competition with Ryanair, and the fare, for the far more comfortable Aer Lingus flight, was significantly lower than that for Ryanair. This is surprising, for Ryanair are currently seeking to acquire Aer Lingus, and it is in their interests to make the proposed takeover look economically and politically palatable.

If, as they claim, Ryanair are truly considering establishing a base at Luqa for future Middle Eastern and African operations, we may yet see them bid for Air Malta, something which I trust will be vigorously resisted. Once, when I was at Heathrow, I saw the distinctive tail of an Air Malta plane and heard someone say, "Oh look. It's from Malta. Why don't we go there next year?"

The Air Malta tail plane has a large and widespread airport audience, which is captive, relevant and receptive and it is a billboard that needs to be preserved, even at a substantial cost.

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