The Cheat's tale of the Spanair quagmire. Note that this has nothing to do with the fact that their airline magazine is also called "Spanorama."
I am a little picky when it comes to air travel. For many years in my old life I flew weekly and in doing so developed a penchant for clean, safe and hassle free flight, which I have since discovered is the exception rather than the rule in the airline industry. The old legacy flag carriers like Lufthansa, KLM, AirFrance etcetera are being attacked by the low cost airlines and their revolutionary idea that you should be able to fly across Europe for scarcely more than the cost of a movie. These are good times for the air traveller on a budget, and I for one applaud this turn of events.
Having said that, all cheap carriers are not created equal. In the turmoil of the post 9/11 airline industry most legacy carriers suffered as load factors (passengers per flight) dropped and fewer still were into paying a premium for amenities like free meals and drinks on a one hour flight. Pioneers Easyjet and Ryanair spawned a myriad of copies like Virgin Express, Transavia, Buzz, Vueling, Go and many others all trying to cash in on the low-cost bandwagon, offering to fly you from nowhere to nowhere by linking useless city-pairs like Manchester-Ümea or Bucharest-Orleans, with the promise that a cheap local train or bus ticket (often costing as much as the airfare) will whisk you to your preferred destination. The good news is that after inevitable consolidation the legacies fought back by cutting intra-European flight costs and taking on the low-cost crew with competitive prices and superior service. In the end, the Darwinism of Capitalism weeded out the weak and grew strong healthy competitors to the delight of all.
But Spain is the air travel market Capitalism forgot, as I discovered on a recent business trip from Barcelona to Madrid. One might think that the most travelled air corridor linking the two principle cities in the country would be cheap and saturated with choice. Not so. Iberia operates its “shuttle” service with 4 flights per hour during peak times with all the service and professionalism you would expect from a legacy carrier, but unfortunately, they also offer pre-9/11 legacy pricing. Sure you can book a month in advance for less, but realistically, who does that anymore? Low cost start-up Vueling has great cheap fares but only operates one mid-afternoon flight per day.
That leaves Spanair, which by appearance didn’t inspire my confidence. Their ticket desk was a mess, and after three delays amounting to nearly 5 hours, we boarded a very tattered looking MD-80. The air-conditioning was broken, so they offered a few customers water until that ran out, then ignored the rest. After another delay the pilot started up one engine. There was relief as we were happy to just get going, but after several minutes of horrible mechanical screeching noises the first engine was shut down, and the pilot came on to tell us the engine was not working so the flight was cancelled.
Rage is not a strong enough word to describe the feeling in that cabin, and I am genuinely amazed that no one threw any punches. In the end, Spanair staff were unhelpful and disorganized and the €30 I saved by not flying Iberia didn’t mean much considering that I had spent the day at Barcelona airport and never made it to my meeting. When I finally did fly the following Friday, the service was ok, but we suffered another 2 hour delay in Madrid on the return leg. Tired, angry and annoyed every time I watched an Iberian shuttle take off on time full of well dressed business men, I came to the old conclusion that in Spain, as with elsewhere, you do get what you pay for.