27 January 2012

Lessons from a missed plane

For the first time in my life, I missed a plane this week. But it was a chance for a little moment of growth.

I was booked on the 15:40 bus from Stratford (London) to Stansted. Normally this takes 45-50 minutes, so I arrive over two hours before my plane departs at 18:40. I don't mind leaving early as I generally have lots to read, and this way I have a nice margin of safety.

Ha. The A12 was closed due to a potential suicide (try not to read too many of the comments on that article, as the stupid may make your head explode) and every road in and out of East London was pretty much blocked solid. The bus which arrived at 15:55 was actually the scheduled service from 15:10, so the Irish man sitting next to me who'd got on at Liverpool Street was already looking very nervous about his 17:00 departure to Dublin.

As we crawled up Leytonstone High Street, a German passenger approached the driver. He wanted to get off, because he knew that he had no chance of making his flight, so he preferred to get the Tube back into town rather than make a fruitless journey to the Cambridgeshire/Essex border and back. The driver was reluctant ("elf 'n' safety"), and I was half-expecting a shouting match, but to my surprise he took up the German guy's suggesting to call his depot and he was given permission to let people off at the next bus stop.

After this, we carried on, well below walking pace, for what seemed like forever, while 50 kilometres to our north, gates were closing and planes were taking off without us on board. A man aged about 30 was sitting across the corridor from me and asking the driver if he, too could get off.

I asked him when his flight was; he told me the time, which put him in the "unlikely" bracket - towards which my own departure was also starting to slip. I suggested that he stay on the bus anyway, as I intended to do: you never know, I said, the flight could be delayed, and if you get off the bus and later find that the plane was an hour late, you'll kick yourself. He though about it for a moment and seemed convinced. "Driver", he announced, "I'm going to follow this gentleman's suggestion, and maybe I will make it to my plane".

The two of us, seated in the front rows of the bus, chatted to the driver for the rest of the journey; he seemed pleased to have non-hostile customers between him and some of the more nervous-looking people behind him, on what he said was his worst-ever journey in five years as a bus driver. (During the last ten minutes of the trip, he over-ran his maximum 4.5 hours of driving time. I don't think that he would have pulled over and taken his mandatory 45-minute break anyway, but perhaps our input helped. Mark, mate, you did a great job.)

We arrived at Stansted at 18:50, ten minutes after the scheduled departure time of my flight. To my surprise, it was still up on the departure boards, saying "Check-in closed". No other flight with a departure time within half a minute was up there, so I realised that it was most probably delayed. I didn't have a bag to check in, so I headed straight to security, which took far less time than usual. Into the departure area, the flight is still up... "Gate Closed". Yes, but... maybe they're still counting boarding cards. No gate number, though. I asked somebody whose job wasn't to know this sort of thing (you have to pick up a phone, as there is no information desk at Stansted; presumably it would take up valuable selling-you-stuff room), and she guessed a gate number. I ran down there, getting extra directions on the way from people in Ryanair uniforms. Got to the gate... damn! The plane was sitting there, the door had just closed, and nobody was to be seen.

I trudged back the whole length of the terminal - about a kilometre, I reckon - calling Mrs Brown to ask her to get me a ticket for the next day's flight before it filled up. Then we had some fun and games to get back "landside", through some secret doors, and I bought a bus ticket back to London.

I slept all the way. When we arrived, I grabbed my bag and walked to the Tube station, right next to the bus stop. I felt a tap on my elbow; it was the man who had decided to stay on the late bus, who had come back at the same time as me. I said, "I guess you didn't catch your plane, then". He smiled and said "No, but I don't regret having stayed on the bus. I might have caught the plane, and I know I did everything I could. Thank you." And he shook my hand.

It didn't stop missing my flight from costing me over a hundred pounds, but I think the world was a very slightly better place than it otherwise might have been.

Bounded rationality and the Ryanair boarding process

I’m tall. 1.93 metres or 6 feet 4 inches, although being very very old, I've probably started to shrink a bit. Anyway, when I fly, I like to have a decent amount of leg room, which typically means sitting in the exit row.

On most flights, this is a matter of outrageous fortune. Last time I booked a transatlantic flight, Lufthansa allowed me to choose my seat online, but although the flight was 7 months away, the exit row seats had all gone. (On the return trip, I asked the check-in person at the airport very nicely, as an afterthought, if there were any exit row seats available; he looked, smiled, tore up my boarding card, gave me a new one, winked, and said, "Don't tell anybody". I got 6 hours of sleep on a 9-hour flight, which is a record. Presumably somebody got bumped...)

Now, like a lot of people in Europe, the airline I fly with most often is Ryanair. For some reason, people boarding Ryanair flights do not head straight for the exit rows. I'm not sure why this is - maybe they like to be able to put things under the seat in front, or perhaps Ryanair passengers customers don't think that they will want to open the door in an emergency - but I'm not complaining. I usually get a "long leg room" seat, and if I don't, well, it's usually only a 75-minute flight anyway.

I could, of course, more or less guarantee an exit row seat by paying €5 to be first on the plane (or rather, at FKB, first on the bus which takes you to the plane, so you probably aren't first on the plane since you're stuck in the depths of the bus). But that really does feel like an extravagance. (Incidentally, I'm not one of those people who complains about all the "extras" on a Ryanair ticket. I've been paying for my own air fares for thirty years, and I would rather pay one of the nice Mr O'Leary's itemised bills than take a nice, gentle, all-inclusive hammering for three times the price, which is what I had to do until he and the equally nice Mr. Stelios came along.)

You see, the thing I hate most about boarding a Ryanair flight - or any other plane, for that matter - is pointlessly standing for 20 minutes in a queue at the gate. My place on the plane is reserved. If I'm travelling with Mrs. Brown, she's quite happy not to sit next to me while I strike up laboured spontaneous conversations with those around me, so we don't need two seats together. I want to get on last, preferably not even waiting at the foot of the steps of the plane. Fortunately, everyone else seems to be prepared to queue up for me, despite getting almost no benefit out of it.

There's now another good reason to be last. As of two weeks ago, Ryanair have changed the rules about the exit row. You now have to pay €10 to sit there (for that price, you also get the "priority boarding" option). At first, I was tempted to join my fellow passengers in their mutterings of "robbing bar stewards", as they were politely prevented from sitting in the good seats by the long-suffering cabin crew, and I'm certainly not going to be paying €10 extra for a short flight; but then, I just booked a flight to the Canaries, and €10 to avoid four and a half hours of cramp, and/or the urge to fight past people to get to row 16, is well worth it.

This raises an interesting question, however. The exit rows are not in a separate cabin, and €10 is not a lot of money compared to the price of the ticket. That means that Ryanair will sell every single one of the 189 seats on the plane if they can, even if nobody pays the premium for legroom. So what happens when a full planeload of people get on when 18 of the seats are reserved?

I got chatting to a cabin crew member at the bus stop while waiting for the coach up to Stansted. She told me that their instructions are to keep the exit row seats for last. (They don't always know exactly how many passengers will turn up, so it makes sense to protect the value of the €10 upgrade by not giving these seats away until the have to.) So, if you want to have a chance of an exit row seat, wait until everyone else has boarded ("After you" - "No, after you"), and hope the plane is full.

I suppose that there could be some unintended consequences of this slightly perverse incentive to stay sitting down, rather than boarding the plane like a co-operative citizen. I intend to continue to be among the last to board the plane anyway.