I was one of 80 or so journalists, travel agents and tour operators on the Aer Lingus inaugural Gatwick to Faro flight on Sunday. The Irish carrier has big plans for Gatwick. It's using 4 leased A320s to cover 8 routes at the moment: Malaga, Nice, Munich, Vienna, Dublin, Knock and Zurich along with Faro. The investment is significant - somewhere around £100 million.
You have to admire their pluck - launching in the teeth of a huge recessionary downturn. Ryanair attempted to takeover of the company late last year... and was rebuffed by the Irish government on competition grounds, but not before it got quite heated. One of the Aer Lingus' crew in an unguarded bar-moment admitted to me that part of the reason (but clearly not a very big part) for launching these routes - on the low cost model - was to 'give O'Leary the finger'.
Check in is in Zone B - a new area off the back of the main concourse. For us it was quiet and efficient - a far cry from my check in with easyJet the weekend before bound for Prague - which was bedlam. (But that was half term weekend, so not a fair comparison.) That said - this area is uniquely for Aer Lingus - so there will be more control there and big queues at the check-in desks of other carriers won't spill over or get in the way.It's a clear signal of intent and a smart piece of manouevring.
On board the spanking new plane the seats were mock grey leather, with a fairly decent pitch. Perhaps an extra centimetre or so? There were seat back pockets for your books and mags, they reclined(!) and they even had wings on the headrests so there was something to lean your head against if you fancied nodding off. It's funny how the little things start to matter when you don't have them. Not having a seat back pocket with Ryanair drives me nuts! And I was a bit gutted to find that easyJet's seats don't recline either these days on their newer planes.
Crew were friendly and helpful - a tad less fun than easyJet's who are occasionally laugh-out loud funny - and they were much more pleasant than Ryanair. But that's not hard - they seem to loathe the sight of you most of the time.
As you'd expect with flights starting from £9.99 (including taxes during the launch period - clearly a significant loss-leader) you pay for your food and drink with similar fayre and prices to the other low costers. Service was rather slow, but with a 2 hour+ flight this didn't really matter. No exhortations to BUY LOTTO TICKETS on the PA system (like Ryanair)... and the toilets are free. (Seriously... can someone tell me is Ryanair really charging to use the toilets on its planes? One of the other journos assured me he had seen it with his own eyes on a recent Ryanair flight to Rimini. No joke. A pound in the slot...)
Anyway... the Aer Lingus gig - from a customer perspective - looks all good. More competition has to be a healthy thing - particularly when the product is better.
Returning from Faro yesterday evening I checked the monitors at the airport. Flights from Faro to Gatwick on the board:
- Easyjet: 20.05
- Aer Lingus: 20.45
- BA: 21.15
- Easyjet: 21.55
Yep. Four flights all within a couple of hours of each other all flying the same route. I can't believe this is sustainable. (And that doesn't include Monarch - which also flies this route - leaving earlier in the day.)
The steward on board told us the 174 capacity plane had just 44 seats filled on the outbound trip. Returning there were 97. So take out the 80 journos, agents etc and that leaves just 17 fare paying customers.
With £100million to burn there's time yet to market the services and see load factors increase, but those planes need to be seriously full to turn a profit. I wonder if they'll succeed? Right now I'd probably only put it at 50:50. Others have been forecasting the company's downfall against a backdrop of mounting losses.
But you know what they say about the luck of the Irish.