Special offer: fly cheap, feel worthless!
You will not believe it, but a week ago was the first time I flew Ryanair, the cheap Irish airline whose brand is known as widely as Coca Cola in Lithuania. Cheap airlines, like it or loathe it, represents a change in culture.
Flying is no longer luxury, which is not because airlines are kind and benevolent, but because the growing migrant and otherwise mobile classes have created a new opportunity structure for businesses. Some say that Ryanair is planning to earn solely on secondary products and advertising, making flights themselves almost free (my outbound flight cost 5 EUR, but the card fee was twice higher). On the way back, I had a chance to experience contacts with the 'new' travelling Lithuanians, who are so often mocked at by various bloggers and writers. Not only that, I had a chance to look into something that is also a part of the routine for frequent travellers in cheap airlines - inconvenient airports and unfriendly staff. The whole thing was very interesting.
To start with, cheap airlines are not made to be comfortable - for any comfort you pay extra. Which is fine, because many people find comfort superfluous, and all they want is to get from point A to point B. I heard that the bad quality of air on AirBaltic and Ryanair planes is due to the fact that the air is not filtered as it enters through the engine. But I do not know how to cross-check that, so do not take it as truth value. Chairs, especially in Ryanair planes, cause problems for taller people, and it's impossible to lean back. Needless to say, there is no food provided, except for overpriced food and drinks for sale. There were plans to make planes without toilets. Check-in luggage has to be paid separately and costs around 30 EUR. Otherwise the limits are 5 kg bag (excluding handbag, camera and umbrella - tested) for AirBaltic and 10 kg including everything for Ryanair.
Already on the way to the Schoenefeld airport I could see that the airport is rather far away from the train station. Morning cold, darkness and the clattering of suitcases' wheels surrounded me along with many other Lithuanians I could already identify. The airport announced the check-in gates already outside - check-in is not necessary for many people like us, since luggage costs extra, and boarding passes have to be printed in advance (another specialty of cheap airlines - a 40 EUR fine for not bringing a boarding pass in advance would make one remember the cheap flight with bitterness for ever).
As I mentioned before, many middle class Lithuanians (e.g. those who write/read Pravda) like cheap flights, but often feel ashamed to associate with the other travellers - typically much less educated, loud and impolite new migrants and friends of those. I remember a commentary from Pravda, when the author was annoyed at the typical custom of clapping hands when a plane lands. Also, there is the usual stuff - the cursing, the slang, the music, played loud from mobile phones... In my case the waiting hall was full of Lithuanians, and some of them were chatting in the usual slang that I would not even be able to translate, so loud that it was possible to take notes in 5 m distance. It was fun - I was imagining a hipster with a Macbook feeling ashamed to be Lithuanian in this situation :) I recently finished reading travel stories by Andrius Uzkalnis, the author of a bestseller "England". He was also looking down on those who fly cheap airlines and emphasising how much comfort and respect means to him, but trying not to judge anyone. I must admit that a thought crossed my mind that foreigners can easily confirm their stereotypes about us, because they would not notice the 50 quiet ones around the 10 loud ones. As we were waiting, a very unclear voice informed that the plane is delayed for 1.5 hours... It is not typical for Ryanair, which boasts most of the time keeping to the schedule. Frustrated, sleepless, we chatted around: maybe someone heard it differently? When the original time to take off came, we were informed, this time in a clear voice, that the flight will be delayed for 2.5 hours in total. I went with the wave of people who rushed to the security check, but a very serious and not very communicative, to say the least, guard told us a short and simple "No." "Sir, is there any information counter that we could access?" I tried. "Our flight is delayed for more than two hours, so are we entitled to any compensation" (read EU passengers' rights here. The distance between Kaunas and Berlin, from where I was flying, is less than 1500 km, which I did not know). "No." "What about any phone number for information?" "No." Anyone who holds stereotypes about Germans could have confirmed at least some. Of course, I am not naive to expect a meal, like I got when my flight from Japan was once delayed (unlike the staff at Schoenefeld, the Japanese airport employee who got the unfortunate task to inform passengers about the delay seemed to be willing to tear his heart out if that helped to speed up the flight. But of course, there are no business class passengers on Ryanair, so probably nobody feels a need to be nice. As people were crowding close to the non-Schengen sector, and boarding for a flight to Moscow was about to open, an officer from the passport control made a "shoo shoo" hand gesture towards young Lithuanians with big backpacks.
The waiting hall had several souvenir shops, some of them with chocolates and soft drinks, a Burger King, and a fancy shmancy organic bakery. Having a choice of hand-squeezed (!!!) juice for 3.9 EUR and a Coke for 2.7, I chose the latter (not only because I don't find it a good idea to drink sparkling drinks in the morning, but also because I was interested in how good it was supposed to be :)). A guy standing in line before me tasted their buttermilk before buying, and made the unhappiest face ever, realising that he will have to pay 4 EUR for what he does not quite like. Perhaps the name sounded confusing - what can go wrong with -milk?
As I was back to the gate where most Lithuanians were sitting, someone was playing Russian reggae from his cellphone, and most of the loud youngsters were lying on the ground, munching on food from Burger King and impressions of what a big discount they got for the food. A Russian-speaking child told his mother, "Look, everyone is lying here now!" It felt somewhat rebellious, and at that point I felt some kind of togetherness with the uncomfortable, non-rule-abiding Eastern Europeans who were stuck in the same trap. Yes, nobody wants us in their countries or institutions, but like it or not, we will travel, hunt for discounts at Ryanair, hunt for discounts at Burger King and lie around on backpacks if needed.
The three previous paragraphs were written at Schoenefeld airport, 9.29, 1 h 11 min before the plane actually departed. After another hour of waiting, and about 25 min of waiting in uncertainty inside the actual gate (without a bathroom), the plane took off. My short sleep was disturbed by loudspeakers constantly announcing: on-flight magazines will be distributed, now you can buy drinks, now you can buy perfume, now you can... I did not even notice all these things on the way to Berlin. Obviously, the joy of travel makes all the little annoying aspects of cheap airlines and cheap airports invisible. It is not out of good will that they are cheap, they see that it is a good business model. People need to get from point A to point B, and will survive any inconvenience for that purpose. Just like their forefathers did when they boarded ships in cellars for goods to go to the US and earn money to start their own farms or shops.