“In the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from above your head. Insert 10 euro and breathe normally…”
With a turbulent bump, my daydream ended abruptly. Hostesses Kayleigh and Anna wandered listlessly by, clutching menus and scratchcards with expressions of hope rather than expectation, although I may have mistaken them for indifference. The Ryanair Experience was in full swing.
It begins at a grim park-and-ride in the middle of the rectum of the country which on polite maps calls itself Luton. Train tickets now do not automatically include the price of the 5-minute bus journey which follows; cue exasperated arguments between travellers and bus driver – the latter, in a rather Continental style, conducting his business with an elaborate shrug.
Luton Airport itself needs no further introduction. Suffice to say that the signs for “priority queue” amused me; one customs man sitting doing nothing while the other queue stretched ever longer. One does not pay pennies for a flight and then expect the kid glove treatment. Enforced discomfort is the norm.
A man with Beckham 7 England shirt was in the midst of an argument with Unsmiling Customs Official Number 3. The latter did not consider himself uptight, as Beckham 7 insinuated. At the fourth time of asking, Beckham 7 admitted that he “might” have told the previous androgynous official that he had a bomb in his luggage. Tongue-lashing taken and looking suitably chastened, he wandered through, muttering about “can’t take a joke” and “yerrhavinafackinlarff” in the same sentence, which seemed rather ironic to me.
The bag weighing ceremony is done with equal seriousness. Ryanair doling out arbitary meanness for no apparent reason, the weight limit is 15kg for checked in luggage as opposed to the customary 20 (Easyjet feels like comparative luxury) and even hand baggage is weighed – none of the usual “if you can lift it with one hand, then it’s hand baggage” malarkey, and at £10 a kilo outsize charges, it’s not surprising they pay close attention. Everything about the Ryanair Experience is about making money: hard squeezing, wrenching, sell-your-grandmother money making. From the moment one steps onto the plane itself, the sales attempts are persistent. Reports that there will soon be charges for toilets, wheelchairs and online check-in are depressing, amusing and unsurprising rolled into one.
Ryanair represents the New Ireland. 20th century Ireland was all about living up to the stereotypes of pot-holes in the road, subsistence economies, vague incompetence and general innocent niceness. The 21st century Ireland is a ruthless, profit making, beEuroed nation perfectly personified by Michael O’Leary’s behemoth company. This is a country where quality of life is now much better than the UK, according to a 2004 study. And yet if the country as a whole follows its leading airline, much of its soul will be lost.
Sladjana’s mesmerising dimple came close to tempting me to buying a scratchcard (for “charity” – presumably the Michael O’Leary Fund) and the smokeless cigarettes (“Are you desperate for a smoke?”) got me chuckling, but my hands stayed firmly in my pockets. And in truth, the cabin crew’s hearts were not in their work. Their expressions were neutral and resigned, immune to the whines of their customers. I wondered whether working as a flight attendant was like living as a woman under Sharia law – repressed, discouraged from displaying any personality or human nature, living as an object. Only at one point did the facade waver: when the woman next to me expressed outrage at a £5 charge for a single slice of pizza, Sladjana was apologetic and almost humble, branding the price “ridiculous”.
As for those customers, the British Holidaymaker Abroad was the order of the day. Aside from Beckham 7, there was the bloke in the fluorescent pink t-shirt, oh-so-trendy straw hat and bleached blond hair. Oh, and a bleached blond goatee, the accessory du jour of any self-respecting metrosexual. His clothes and hair were probably emitting enough radiation to power a two bedroom house. His girlfriend, meanwhile, had spent hours in the gym to achieve a fine pair of pins – her appearance sadly spoilt by poor genetics resulting in a prominent beak-like nose. A yummy mummy asked her daughter brightly "Can you see the fields, darling?" The child looked down over the fields. "No", she said, sweetly and happily. Most British of all was the sudden rush to the door as the flight was called. I sat comfortably in my seat, halfway through my chapter, for another 25 minutes until the doors were actually opened, “priority boarders” (both of them) took the pick of the seats (not a case of chicken or fish, but emergency exit or toilet) and run-of-the-mill Budgetites piled in behind. My own seat seemed the same as any others, but with the added satisfaction of the extra time not queueing.
On landing there was a fanfare and a plastic Scottish recorded voice (one of those clichéd “reassuring” ones proclaimed that once again we were on time. Since when a service provider actually providing adequate service merited a brass fanfare I don’t know, but O’Leary’s empire redefines doublethink and the bar is ever lowered as the British Holidaymaker Abroad lowers his standards likewise.
As for the emergency oxygen, my theory was, fortunately, never tested. But should we make an “unlikely” landing on water (wasn’t the Hudson miracle just that, a miracle?) it will not surprise me if I am greeted in future at the emergency exit by Sladjana’s dimple inviting me to make a contribution upon exit.