Originally created 02/29/04

Budget airline doesn't offer much - just cheap tickets



LONDON - You got a cheap airline ticket, what else do you want?

Ryanair, Europe's most successful budget airline, is testing the Spartan spirit of its passengers and extending the frontiers of cost-cutting.

It recently announced it will dispense with the plane's window blinds, reclining seats, Velcro-anchored headrest covers and the seat pockets where customers normally find a safety notice and free magazines. The required safety notice will be stitched to the back of each seat.

Ryanair also said it may charge for checked-in luggage, and is switching to leather upholstery because it lasts longer and is easier and cheaper to clean.

Removing such "nonessential extras" from its new Boeing 737s will save Ryanair hundreds of thousands of dollars per plane in the purchase price and the maintenance normally required on broken reclining seats, said Paul Fitzsimmons, the airline's chief spokesman. The goal, he said, is to pass the savings on to its customers.

No matter what carrier you choose, many of the cabin features are set by regulations covering seat belts, environmental-control systems, lighting and the number of doors. Beyond that, an airline is free to decide what amenities, if any, you'll get on board, including toilets, closets and in-flight entertainment.

Theoretically, an airline could abolish toilets and free drinking water on its short flights - and Ryanair's main competitor in Europe, easyJet, has reduced the number of toilets on its Boeing 737s from three to two, adding another revenue-earning seat.

Toby Nicol, the head of corporate affairs at easyJet, said no one had complained.

"If you don't serve free food on board or show films, you don't have a rush to the toilets with lines outside. On normal flights," he said. "that happens after dinner and when the film ends."

Another reason customers of easyJet and Ryanair aren't likely to miss these amenities is that flights by no-frill carriers in Europe often average about an hour, with the longest being about two and a-half hours.

In the United States, where average flight times are longer, budget carriers are headed in the opposite direction. Fast-growing JetBlue Airways set the standard, analysts said, by offering cheap fares as well as leather seats, TVs for every passenger and extra legroom.

Delta Air Lines is mimicking that strategy by making satellite TV and video games available on its lower-cost subsidiary, Song.

"In this country, JetBlue has set the pace," said Michael Boyd of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo. "You better be giving more for less."

Ryanair offers its customers no assigned seats, no free food or drinks, no frequent-flier miles and no help with connecting flights. It flies to secondary airports, has strict baggage weight limits, issues most tickets over the Internet and doesn't use enclosed ramps to take its customers from terminals to airplanes.

Airline analysts said they would be surprised if Ryanair's latest cutbacks cause much griping by customers, who relish the cheap tickets. Given how close the seats already are on most cut-rate airlines, some analysts said tall people could be overjoyed to learn that the person sitting in front won't be crunching their knees.

Mr. Boyd said Ryanair and easyJet should be praised for shedding services that planes don't really need, especially on the short flights they specialize in.

"Reclining seats aren't a big deal. People won't notice the missing curtain. The seat pockets often are mostly used by customers as garbage cans," he said.

"I even applaud only two toilets," said Mr. Boyd.