Travelling light


Airlines would practically have to pay Tom Cruise to fly


FINALLY, after threatening it for years, one airline has begun calculating its fares based on passengers’ weight, so the heavier you are, the more you pay. This is very good news for certain people who’ve felt hard done by in the matter of air fares up to now: Revenge of the 50-Kilo Woman, you might say.

Samoa Air claims, though not altogether convincingly, that its decision makes for the fairest possible means of charging passengers for air travel.

“The airline industry has this concept that all people through the world are the same size,” said Samoa Air chief executive Chris Langton, positively bathing in the sudden wave of free publicity. “Anyone who travels at times has felt they have been paying for half of the passenger next to them,” he added.

The idea is that passengers will be charged per kilo, having  declared their own weight at booking. Yes, you declare your own weight. Heh heh. However, you’ll also be weighed at the check-in desk, so fibbing won’t be… Wait, hang on. You’ll be weighed at the check-in desk? In front of everyone?

This calls to mind those fairground ‘I Speak Your Weight’ machines from the 1930s, in which you insert sixpence and then stand on the machine, aghast, as details of your excess tonnage are revealed to all and sundry. The alternative, ‘Pay Me Not to Speak Your Weight’ machine was  a much better idea but for some reason it never took off…

Nevertheless, despite this and other reservations (forgive the pun), the concept has on the whole been greeted favourably, though not necessarily because it’s actually a good idea or anything. One reason it’s been received with interest is that no one ever seems to mind it when overweight people are held accountable for their perceived failures – or even demeaned because of them (though that would properly be the subject of a whole different column).

Another is that hardly anyone has been able to resist wondering, with a sort of horrified fascination, how this practice might work out if Ryanair were to adopt it.

How might it be policed? Would you be railroaded out of the queue for check-in and asked to squeeze yourself into a metal cage, to see if you fit?

Would you be constantly being sized up by shrill Ryanair flight attendants, who are themselves so compact that they could be comfortably stowed in twos and threes in the overhead lockers (which would probably make for a pleasanter flight for everyone on board, but I digress).

In considering this, it must be borne in mind that men will, generally speaking, be worth more to airlines than women, which will surely cause trouble, while fat people will be worth more than anyone else.

Chris Langton didn’t mention the fact that Samoa is the fourth-most obese country in the world, according to the World Health Organisation, so Samoa Air probably isn’t running the risk of having planeloads of skinny malinks running the company into bankruptcy.

Take a Lilliputian creature such as Tom Cruise, for instance. An airline charging by weight would practically have to pay him to fly (except in so far as he adds value by transporting various thick-set Scientology types around with him at all times).

And skinny people generally will represent very poor value to a cost-conscious airline. After all, it takes a lot of effort to stay fashionably thin. A great deal of nice chow must be sacrificed. That sacrifice is often balanced by a lot of shopping for a lot of nice clothes that show your skeleton to its best advantage. What you save on carbohydrates you spend on Karl Lagerfeld.

Consequently, thin people tend to pack almost everything they look cute in, using up the entirety of their luggage allowance, rounded down to the nearest nanogram. Then they sit through the entire flight, with their hands dangling abstemiously in the gaps between their bony thighs, saying no to all the beer and hotdogs.

Fat people, by contrast, can never find anything to fit them, so they travel light, thus reducing the aircraft’s payload despite having paid more than anyone else for their tickets. And of course they famously can’t go more than ninety minutes without a snack, so even short-haul airlines get to offload their entire stockpile of money-making meatball subs before they expire (though in truth, a meatball sub doesn’t so much have an expiry date as a half-life).

In view of this, Ryanair would have to think up inventive ways to lure the more profitable obese travellers on board its flights. You dread to imagine what meretricious advertising the airline might employ to do this. Just how low might it stoop? You dread it, and yet you cannot help wanting to see it.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 7th April 2013

Blessed are the routemakers


NOWHERE in the gospels does it say Jesus Christ was born in a stable, only that he was laid in a manger afterwards, somewhere in Bethlehem. And that turns out to be but one of the differences between the messiah and Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary.

O’Leary was invited to speak at the European Commission’s ‘Innovation Convention’ this week, and the biography he supplied raised a laugh here and there – mostly that choky, reluctant laughter you experience when someone you don’t like says something funny.

(O’Leary’s contribution to the convention was billed as “a masterclass on doing innovation”, but as there are so many things wrong with that phrase, let’s just pretend we didn’t see it.)

“Born in a stable in 1961, he was a boy genius who excelled both academically and at sports,” wrote O’Leary, or if not O’Leary then one of those springy little subordinates of his, like Stephen McNamara. “Having represented Ireland internationally at bog snorkelling and flower arranging, he graduated from Trinity College in Dublin as soon as they could get rid of him,” he went on. “He then became another boring KPMG accountant until divine inspiration sentenced to him to a life of penal servitude in the airline business.”

After a paragraph of slush about Ryanair, the biog concluded: “It is widely known that women find him irresistible”, though that line was later removed for reasons unknown…

“Oh, there goes Michael O’Leary again, ha ha,” chuckled everyone indulgently. “Born in a stable indeed. What a card.” And yet, the idea lent itself to scrutiny. Once Michael O’Leary has compared himself to Jesus, what can you do but imagine him as a sort of ‘Monty Python’s Life of Michael’ figure, but one who really, really wants to be the messiah?

Picture the scene. You’ve got Christ on one hillside, preaching no-frills Judaism to the masses, and O’Leary on another, telling his baffled followers that even a rich man can enter the Continent if he will only swallow his pride.

By all accounts, Jesus’s mother appears to have travelled an awful long way to give birth, and yet still not quite arrived. It would make you wonder which carrier she chose. That manger in Bethlehem might be the Palestinian equivalent of Beauvais. Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of Bratislava, Ryanair assureth me I’m in Vienna.

This is a man who probably punches pilots (alright, that’s a pun too far – I’ll get my coat). And to be fair to O’Leary, he does honour certain Christian tenets. For instance, unlike many native tycoons, he favours rendering unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s – to wit, he pays tax here.

However, O’Leary is not one to resist the temptation of a fiver. “I am not the Messiah,” he might have mumbled, as on Friday he whacked €5 onto the cost of checking in a bag. The new charge takes effect on 15 December – just in time to cream the emigrants coming home for Christmas with suitcases full of maize for their indigent families, prompting mothers across the country to write, on tear-stained vellum: “Don’t come home, son. Just send blankets.”

So much for the three gifts of Christmas. ‘You can’t take that frankincense and myrrh on board; you’ll have to check it in, for a fee. The gold should just about cover it.’ Suddenly the soundtrack to O’Leary’s messianic delusion is less ‘Little Donkey’ and more ‘Carmina Burana’.

In other aviation news this week, actor Alec Baldwin has been publicly criticising the service on US airlines. He complained that flying had become an “inelegant” experience. That word again? Inelegant. Air travel… elegance… Nope, can’t put those two together in a sentence; it’s been too long.

Perhaps ironically, Baldwin is best known for playing arch-capitalist Jack Donaghy in the sitcom ’30 Rock’. Donaghy is a sort of dignified Michael O’Leary – as in, ruthless ambition and employee blood-letting are all very well but no respectable man should open his mouth that wide in a photo… or dress like Jeremy Clarkson.

Baldwin has clearly never flown Ryanair.“It is sad, I think, that you’ve got to fly overseas today in order to bring back what has been thrown overboard by US carriers in terms of common sense, style and service,” he wrote, as his European readers wept with mirth.

So once again the Ryanair Christmas message is more Satan than Santa. “Ryanair continues to incentivise passengers to travel light by raising our online checked-in baggage fees,” was Stephen McNamara’s typically overcooked comment on the increase.

We know what O’Leary’s comment might have been: “When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle… And always look on the bright side of life.”


Published (heavily edited) in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 11 December 2011