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Budget Airlines; Plane Sailing for our Columnist Cameron?

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Photo by http://www.airliners.net/photo/Air-Transat

Hailing from North America, the improbably low prices offered by European budget airlines is a remarkable phenomenon. An EasyJet flight advertised for February from London to Milan costs £31.99, taxes and fees included; a single train ticket from Exeter to London costs £34.

Discount flights are synonymous with long check-in queues, £2 bags of peanuts, and the occasional news flash of passengers held captive on the tarmac of an obscure provincial airport, or trapped in a stuffy plane next to screaming babies. Two hours to be endured and hopefully forgotten, it is how most people start their holiday in pursuit of la dolce vita.

Daunting, then, is the prospect of flying nine and a half hours across the Atlantic in such conditions. Yet I, looking for a cheap one-way flight back to university, decided to try Air Transat, Canada’s discount (or euphemistically, “vacation”) airline. Earlier this month, I took flight 242 from Vancouver to London Gatwick. The result? Me and my bags arrived – alive, and pleasantly surprised. The most limiting factor with flying long-haul on budget airlines is baggage allowance.

The unfortunate need to lug hardly-opened textbooks back to England forced me to pay an additional $60 (£40) for Air Transat’s Option Plus, which affords each passenger an extra 10kg of baggage. Most full service airlines charge a similar figure for an additional bag.

However, to ease the pain, Air Transat goes above and beyond, including priority check-in, security clearance, boarding, seat selection, and food service – and a few extra bottles of alcohol – included in Option Plus package. Business class perks, delivered to Economy passengers for a mere £40. And since there are only 12 seats of “Club Class” – Air Transat’s take on a premium cabin, with larger seats and better food — the economy seats stretch right to the front of the plane. A fair few, then – myself included – can board the plane and experience the thrill of turning left. The extra alcohol was essential, for it helped overcome my initial aversion to the food and numbed my taste buds – vinegary orzo salad and significantly charred pasta for dinner, gritty yoghurt and a stale bun for breakfast. A bottle of bubbly, a glass of white wine, and a beer made the meagre meals more palatable. By the time the next meal arrived, I had forgotten how bad the last one had been!

The beverages also helped to take the mind away from safety concerns, both real and perceived. My first steps onto the aircraft did not inspire confidence, as the flight attendants did not seem to have much themselves. The stewardess at the door was having difficulty pointing people to the correct seat. When I was finally pointed in the right direction, I overheard two other flight attendants marvelling at the location of the aircraft’s lavatories — they admitted to being unfamiliar with the layout of the aircraft.

Eventually, the plane was filled to capacity, and I was rubbing shoulders, literally, with the Spaniard in the seat next to me. Air Canada operates the Airbus A330 with 265 seats, while Air Transat operates the same model with 342. By then, every inch of overhead bin space had been filled, so the crew resorted to jamming bags precariously in between one row of seats and the adjacent toilet. Though takeoff, turbulence, and the unhealthy rattle of the engines all threatened to dislodge those bags, but they stayed put. At least the crew was confident in dealing with “excess baggage”.

In an attempt to keep passengers occupied, a personal entertainment system is mounted on the back of each seat. It is a surprisingly modern feature for Air Transat. I half expected to see boxy televisions drop down from the roof, which I still see on the likes of United Airlines. Nevertheless, my excitement was premature, for I found the moving map to be the screens’ most exciting feature. The selection of media was sparse, dominated by the likes of Tooth Fairy Two and similar films that bypassed the cinema and went straight to VHS.

Despite a delayed takeoff in Vancouver, we parked at the gate at Gatwick just after 9am, as scheduled. The door opened, and we quickly shuffled out. Having been sitting right next to the door, I was able to escape the claustrophobia of the cabin quickly. I breathed a sigh of relief after clearing immigration and being reunited with my suitcase. The Air Transat experience was over.

I found my overall experience akin to that of a road trip. Bags are squeezed in the boot from floor to ceiling, and passengers are squished together for hours on end. The question on everyone’s minds is always, “are we there yet?” The physical comfort sacrificed, though, is compensated by a friendly atmosphere and good company. The crew was amiable and enthusiastic throughout the flight, and made a solid effort to make sure the passengers were content. Small gestures – such as distributing mints before landing – made a big difference.

With the lines between the quality of today’s supposedly “full service” airlines (Air Canada, British Airways, United) and discount carriers becoming increasingly blurred, I can think of few reasons not to fly with the latter. The ticket is relatively cheap, and the experience is bearable. Just remember to BYOF – Bring Your Own Food!

By Cameron Ho

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