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Thu 2 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Carriers need to clear the air

Airlines are levying mysterious and opaque surcharges on their passengers, notes Andrew White.

Now that summer season is upon us, Middle East carriers will be hoping for full flights and a subsequent upturn in fortunes. And they’re starting from a position of strength, at least compared to their peers around the world: the region’s carriers amassed a $291m profit between January and March, while elsewhere airlines suffered a $3bn drop in revenue due to falling demand.

These mammoth losses are cause for alarm in Europe and the US, where carriers find themselves forced to reconfigure business models that have sustained them for much of the last decade. And leading the panicked pack is Ireland’s budget airline Ryanair, where buying a ticket for travel is now just a downpayment on the total cost of your flight.

Airlines are levying mysterious and opaque surcharges on their passengers.

The carrier has removed all its check-in desks at airports and charges passengers $8 a flight to check in online. You’ll pay $66 to print out a boarding card at the airport if you leave the original document at home. And woe betide anyone who wishes to change the name on a booking (up to $247); change a flight (up to $90); check in a musical instrument or sports equipment (from $66); or even check in a regular bag ($49).

Airport workers’ unions are in uproar over the prospect of the carrier asking passengers to carry their luggage to the aircraft, in order to save on baggage handling costs. And on the subject of baggage handling, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has said that the carrier is assessing a “spend a pound to spend a penny” policy, whereby passengers looking to use the toilet will be presented with a coin slot on the lavatory door.

All this has caused an almighty uproar in Europe, with passengers and consumer watchdogs arguing that the airline is taking unfair advantage of its customers. But is it any worse than carriers levying mysterious and opaque surcharges on their paying passengers? Booking a flight with a major Gulf carrier last week, I paid as much in extra charges as I did for the (regular economy) seat. I know that the extra fee included set airport taxes, but other than that I’m left wondering what I’ve paid for. The airline certainly won’t tell me.

The oil price is half what it was this time last year, and yet that appears to have had no discernable impact on the cost of the fuel we’re asked to fork out for. We’re checking in online and proceeding smartly to the bag drop zones at the terminal, only we appear to be paying as much in admin charges as we were back when home printers were the size of houses.

And despite the best efforts of McDonald’s we’re not travelling any heavier — carriers are squeezing luggage weight allowances like never before. There’s not a flight that goes by without a handful of poor souls being forced to repack their case under the noses of hundreds of fascinated fellow passengers.

If it’s a choice between selecting my extravagances and paying for each on a case-by-case basis, or shelling out a significant lump sum on the vague assumption that I’ll use and abuse every service the carrier offers, then put me down for the Ryanair option.

Their inflexibility might betray just how Middle East carriers are able to turn a profit in dire economic times. But political and business leaders across the region have long agreed, at least in public, that increased transparency is vital to sustained growth and development. And that applies as much in the air, as it does on the ground.Andrew White is the editor of Arabian Business English.

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