Are low cost airlines really low cost, or are they capitalising on customer error to make profit? ✈️

So as promised, having waxed lyrical about the joys and thrills of First/Business class flying, its time to talk no-frills, and share my economy travel experiences this week.

The thing about low cost airlines (and the point of them) is to deliver the absolute minimum price to customers and as such they have to literally strip out every frill and flourish to be able to make it a profitable venture. Despite their value proposition, customers still expect decent service, but some of the positive efficiency intentions, have spilled over into negative customer service, a ‘just say no’ culture, and an experience of often paying more than you expected when you accidentally misunderstand the rules.

So are customers expecting too much? Is it the case that poor experiences are the result of customers being at fault for not sticking to the rules? Or are low cost airlines profiting from us being ‘only human’?

CX is rational and emotional, we all have expectations, we have a strong sense of what’s ‘fair’ and a hope, for a level of compassion and humanity when dealing with any issues that arise.

A good example of expectations, and unfairness is the reason I swore never to travel with Ryanair again. Jetting off from London, I’d passed all the tests and checked-in my bag at extra cost, only to get to the gate and a hostile reception. I want to say hostess, but her job seemed to be ‘keeper of the mobile payment device, and enforcer of policy’ said the bag of Crisps I was holding, ready to scoff on my flight to Dublin was deemed excess baggage, and that if I couldn’t fit them in my little shoulder bag, I either couldn’t take them on board or would have to pay extra. No joke, this actually happened! So primed by previous negative experiences, I was understandably not looking forward to my first flight, to Moscow, with the Russian equivalent, Pobeda this week. 

I actually booked using Momondo, using their super easy app with multi-city function to search out different routes that could secure the best possible price with the least amount of time in the air or connecting in other airports. You can imagine my sense of victory when I secured flights for the next 6 weeks (London – Moscow, Moscow – Hanoi, Hanoi – Manilla, Cebu – Singapore, Singapore – Siem Reap, Siem Reap – Singapore and Singapore- London) for only £1200 and booked via Kiwi.com! Thats less than £175 per flight! But I knew this low price would have to come with some compromises.

Pobeda has an app (but it doesn’t work.. check out the ZERO stars reviews on the app store). Bizarrely they do have online check-in, but unlike other airlines who let you check in online 24 hours before up to a few hours before the flight, Pobeda have a 24 hour window 4 days before you fly. Kiwi had sent me a message, but I had missed it, and anyway, who thinks of checking in online 4 days early?

I got to Stanstead airport, to find two queues, with no clear distinction, so I joined the shortest one in the little maze they construct with retractable barriers (my time in supermarket retailing means I know they are called Tensator poles, you can bank that one for your future quiz knowledge, you’re welcome). My fellow passengers in the other line looked on in anger, and pointed out to me with glares and gestures that ‘their’ line was the official line. You can imagine how horrified they were when the grumpy guy behind the counter told them THEY were actually the ones in the wrong queue. But how were they to know? It wasn’t sign posted!

My Britishness comes out when it comes to orderly queuing, so naturally I let all of the people from the ‘wrong line’ cut in as they had been waiting longer (as it’s only right and proper). My manners however, were lost on my predominantly Russian fellow-travellers who to my surprise didn’t say thanks or comment on being much obliged.

My position further back in the ‘new queue’ enabled me to observe the amount of disruption going on to each persons check-in. I noticed a special desk at the end of the check-in desk line, that wasn’t for checking in baggage as it didn’t have a conveyor belt… but oddly most customers had to visit it. And that once the main bags had been accepted into the matrix, every customer had to parade over to some kind of metal box contraption with their hand luggage to, I assumed, check it fits.

When it was my turn, a very well groomed lady with zero social skills took my passport and asked if I had checked-in online. When I replied ‘no I didn’t see it until it was too late’ I immediately had the sucking of teeth response usually reserved, in my experience, for plumbers and garage mechanics who are about to give you the bad news.  My failure to check in online 4 days before my flight meant my own little trip to the special counter at the end of the check out line to pay for airport check-in. My own fault? Possibly, but could this restriction have been clearer? Or could I have been given the benefit of the doubt as a first time customer and user of Pobeda? No such luck. And I had  to pay 50% of my total flight cost on top for my failure.

I trotted back to the socially inept check-in lady, past the building queue of new glares (the lady btw hadn’t served any other customers since I left on my trip to the payment desk).

Then it was my turn to pass the cabin baggage test. Now one would assume that the box was the size of a standard small flight case used for hand luggage on the other infamous low cost airlines. But it wasn’t! Bizarrely it was about a third of the size and an odd low narrow shape. Too small for a small case, too narrow for a standard rucksack and for anyone who’s a fan of the shopper style hand bags, you wouldn’t be getting one of those in there! The final bit of the Krypton Factor-esque game was that the lid had to shut completely, and I felt like the check-in lady took some kind of sadistic pleasure in enforcing this rule. Fortunately as I’m a back-packer these days (haha) I only had a laptop and a few essentials in my especially purchased travel satchel. But for most others I watched, the final challenge test resulted in you guessed it, another trip to the special counter again to make a further payment.

I hadn’t been informed of these conditions, and it looks like others weren’t either. Looking on the website, I couldn’t see anything that helps customers to understand the restrictions like Easyjet do, overtly. As I walked away from the queue to clear security, I was given the warning not to buy anything in Duty-Free that wouldn’t fit in my bag. After the Crisp fiasco with Ryanair, I should have taken that one seriously. It got me thinking..Should low cost airlines provide visuals to help customers understand restrictions? Or should we have a good enough grip on mathematics to translate the dimensions provided into a 3D image we match our bags to? I was beginning to think that tricks like this are what enable ultra low economy fares to exist… as gambling on customer ‘stupidity’ seems to have pretty big pay offs.

One thing I have to praise in this story, is how efficient the security experience is at Stanstead. Again, years of managing CX in supermarkets, I’m no stranger to queue management techniques and good design being the best solution to a massive point of friction. (Sorry, not sorry for the CX geeking comments I’m about to make, but). Their herringbone conveyer belt and scanning configuration, switched on staff and lines put customers into positions along the belt instead of waiting in a bottle neck was impressive! The staff were looking for potential language barrier issues like, people not holding their little bag of toiletries out in front BEFORE they got to the machines. (CX/retail geeks among my readers, you get me) Heathrow should really take note. I was through in less than five minutes.. with no stress!

I’m easily susceptible to duty free, and as a result more often than not, have to run to the gate to board. So having broken my promise to the enforcement officer at check-in (by stopping in at Duty Free MAC to buy their new highlighter, and PRET to grab a tasty lunch) I was literally running through the airport to get to the red flashing ‘FINAL CALL’ boarding gate. As I blasted out my biggest cardio session in months, I’d arrived at the gate surprised to see another (colder) very bored group of passengers sitting uncomfortably waiting to board.

Despite the final call warnings, plane hadn’t even arrived from Moscow to pick us up! I know they probably wanted to keep us all at the gate to make their lives easier, but why not just say the flight is delayed and let us all take our sweet time, to buy all the stuff we can’t fit in our tiny oddly shaped hand luggages? Speaking of which, when the plane finally arrived.. we had to do the embarrassing bag thing again to check we hadn’t increased our load size since check-in. It took forever to board so I had time to stash my new make-up and demolish the Pret Sandwich (that definitely wouldn’t have fit in my bag for sure and possibly caused another Ryanair moment).

The flight itself was uneventful, but an hour late, which made me worry I would miss my Pobeda connection precisely 1 hour after we were due to land in St Petersberg.  The frills lost in the cabin included very small pitches for seats, so we all had our knees in each others backs.. no reclining action, very little padding, no on board duty free, food or snacks service. (Good job I stopped for the sandwich). During the flight I raised my concerns to the flight attendant that I might be late, she just told me not to worry. Not exactly the most reassuring service message. 

We are hearded through the connection route like rushing cattle, having to go though security and bag size checks once more, hoping we hadn’t missed the flight, to the holding room of another set of very bored passengers waiting to board.

The end of this story is ironic. You may have guessed it already, but the plane from St Petersburg to Moscow was actually the same delayed plane we just got off from London and ran through the airport to meet. Again, everyone knew this.. so why not just say so, and save all of us the anxiety?

My final reflections on this are that any airline who designs in and permanently staffs an extra payment counter on check-in KNOWS without question, that they have problems in their customer journey, but profitable problems that may well mean losses financially if fixed. Something about that just feels inherently wrong to me. Similarly, paying staff to be enforcers mean who act like they have non-compliance targets to meet, means they are not only aware that there is a financial opportunity which outweighs the labour cost, but is rewarding and recognising colleagues who generate extra revenue.

I get it, policy and rules are what make the fares so cheap, but 80% of the people I watched at check-in, ended up paying more at the airport and lost that benefit. At the very least, expectations could be better set by communications, and helpful ones at that, that could in some part help avoid the human errors caused by ignorance of said policies. At least then we would have a fighting chance of winning low-cost airline-krypton factor.

Just how far would you go to compromise your experience for the sake of low cost? I definitely wouldn’t use Pobeda again, unless they made some drastic changes to the customer journey, service culture and CX.

Next up, I’ll be sharing my story so far of swapping hotels for hostels and baggage for a backpack!

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