Features

Welcome to Ryanair Britain

Local councils, banks, railway companies and the taxman have all learned the art of ‘pirate pricing’

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

Which businessman is the most influential in the making of government policy? The answer came to me when I received a letter fining me £80 for forgetting to renew my car insurance by the correct date. But it could also have come to me had I forgotten to fill out of council tax enquiry form (fine £70), missed getting in my tax return by one day (£100), or got caught in a box junction in the King’s Road which has two sets of traffic lights in quick succession (£130).

It is, I have come to believe, Michael O’Leary. The Ryanair boss has mastered a business model whereby you lure in the customer by offering a product at a seemingly giveaway price — and then, in effect, trap him into paying huge extra charges by exploiting his forgetfulness, his failure to read the small print or his simple misfortune. Hence you can buy your flight to Dublin for £19.99, but if you fly often enough, sooner or later you are going to pay £70 to reprint your boarding pass at the airport, £110 to change a name mistakenly mistyped during the booking process or up to £130 to check a bag into the hold.

I wouldn’t describe taxes as being at ‘giveaway’ levels, but the same principle can be seen at work. While the government crows about holding down tax rates, and councils boast about freezing council tax, they count on extracting money from us in the form of fines. Take Hammersmith and Fulham Council, frequently described as a ‘model’ Conservative-run local authority. This year it reduced council tax by 3 per cent, the sixth year in seven that it has done so. But there is, of course, a sting in the tail. You don’t have to live, drive or breathe in the borough for long before you will start having to shell out in unofficial taxes. Last year, the borough raised £13 million in traffic fines, £2.7 million of it from one box junction alone, which catches 111 drivers a day; many motorists report that, thanks to the phasing of the lights, it is virtually impossible to avoid sometimes being caught in the box.

Hammersmith and Fulham’s protestations that it is only helping traffic to flow more freely were somewhat undermined in June when a leaked email from the parking enforcement team congratulated staff with the words, ‘Another record month guys, well done.’ Funnily enough, Hammersmith is planning even more cameras at box junctions. Other councils are eyeing the spoils: those outside London have asked the government permission to raise parking fines from £80 to £130.


Income tax, too, increasingly runs on the Ryanair principle. While the Chancellor boasts of cutting the top rate and of raising the individual tax-free allowance, HMRC is busy clawing back money in aggressive fines. This spring, 850,000 taxpayers were fined at least £100 for failing to complete their self-assessment tax returns — with all the pernickety detail which they involve — by 31 January. Many went on to be stung for extra daily fines of £10, up to a maximum of £900. Next year the bonanza will be even greater: the rules have been changed so that every taxpayer earning more than £50,000, and who has a partner in receipt of child benefit, will have to fill in a self-assessment tax return, which will mean thousands more victims.

Time was when one might have expected the Office of Fair Trading to fight against Ryanair-style pirate pricing, on the grounds that hitting people with extra, last-minute charges at vastly disproportionate cost to the product being sold amounts to extortion. But now the government seems to encourage it. True, it did belatedly outlaw the use of wheel-clamping on private land, which had been ruled by Scottish courts to be extortion 20 years ago. But contained within the same bill were new measures to make it easier for private companies to extract money from unsuspecting motorists. Not only will the DVLA happily sell the home addresses of motorists, but parking and traffic enforcement companies have been granted new powers to pursue the keeper of a vehicle.

The result has been a bonanza in dubious charges. Try to drop off a passenger outside the terminals at Luton or Stansted Airports now and you will be faced with a minimum charge of £2 — or, if you stop in the wrong place or leave your vehicle unattended for moment, a ‘charge’ of up to £80, enforced by a fleet of CCTV-equipped Smart cars.

There is method in the government’s tolerance of pirate pricing: it helps flatter the inflation index. While, for example, the basic cost of airline flights are included in the inflation indices, the same is not true of the add-ons such as extra baggage charges, charges for printing out your boarding card at the airport and so on.

The availability of cheap advance tickets on the railways makes rail travel, in theory, look good value; what the inflation figures do not measure, though, are the occasions when passengers are obliged to cough up sometimes hundred of pounds extra in penalty fares because they mistakenly got on a train other than the one on which their ticket was valid. It is a classic piece of pirate pricing -— made all the more ruthlessly effective by the failure of trains to run on time: how is a passenger to know whether a train which arrives at 10.19 is the 10.20 on which they are booked or the delayed 10.00?

Far from protecting consumers, the government has increased powers for railway companies to collect penalty fares. Disgracefully, the railway industry is allowed to enforce its bizarre ticketing rules through the use of its own partisan police force, the British Transport Police.

What tends to happen is that while overt cowboy operations are, after much dithering, legislated against, sharp practices which are hardly any better are indulged by the law. Shaven-headed clampers with earrings who tour council estates eventually end up in jail, while parking enforcement companies who do their business from smart offices with the aid of CCTV cars, high-street banks and even payday loan companies are awarded help in the form of legislation which helps them to cash in on their dubious fees and charges.

What else could the government do when some of the worst offenders, from local authority parking departments to HMRC, are public officials? As Michael O’Leary might say if he were in government: ‘If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have voted for us.’

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  • Sanctimony

    Never, ever, no matter how desperate, travel with Ryanair !

    Apart from the endless discomfort and rudeness of their staff, their boss is one of the vilest men to have ever drawn breath.

    He takes huge pleasure in forcing his customers to suffer.

    • kentgeordie

      Whenever I have flown with Ryanair, the price has been low, the staff polite, friendly and helpful, and the flight punctual.
      O’Leary has never made me suffer, belittled or insulted me, and has never forced me to do anything – how could he?

    • Jules Wright

      I’m with kentgeordie. Flown Ryanair many many times over many many years. Never delayed, always on time, world’s biggest airline (consumers vote with their wallets), a great success story with a CEO who takes cr@p from no-one, least of all politicians. It’s a bus in the sky and does what it says on the tin. More power to his elbow.

    • Chairman_mao

      Anyone flying Ryanair knows what they are getting into, hence deserves all they get.

      • Jules Wright

        Yes, cheap air travel to where – or near – you want to go, Unless they’re too stupid to follow the small print. Or are a snob who’d prefer to fly BA and hates the fact they can’t afford it.

    • Mike Power

      Suffer? I’ve travelled with Ryanair dozens of times. I was perfectly comfortable, the staff have always been friendly and I’ve always arrived on time. I couldn’t care less about O’Leary. I’ve never seen him. he doesn’t fly my plane or serve me drinks. I wonder what the CEOs of other airlines are like? If people want to spend more to fly with BA, then let them. As O’Leary has said, a plane is just a bus with wings. I don’t expect reclining seats and a head massage on a flight to Bratislava. As for those passengers complaining of being forced to pay “extra” it’s usually because they are morons, incapable of following simple, clear instructions.

  • GarethSoye

    “exploiting his forgetfulness, his failure to read the small print or his simple misfortune”

    Or could this be phrased “his stupidity, his not following simple rules or his ability to think that he can do things his own way and the rules don’t apply to him”?

    • Marcus

      I would love to be there quoting your words back to you when you are charged an ‘airport tax’ on your return journey. If you had spent 45 minutes reading the small print on your ticket purchase you would of course have read
      ‘customers may be subject to charges levied by the returning airport for which we take no reponsibility, these maybe subject to change’. Along with 60 other entierly useless pieces of information.

    • Marcus

      I tell you something Gareth, if you ever find yourself at the head of a queue of mostly busy, foreign and disorientated people who have no form of recourse as they are booked out of their hotel and expecting to fly home and you are collecting money from them for a charge that not only 1 or 2 of them was aware of, then you sir are a conman and the world of extortion and robbing of groups such as the elderely and the foreign is yours and all the money contained within in it.

      • GarethSoye

        Who is doing this? Where is your evidence of this happening? Why are you suggesting that the “elderly” and “foreign” are being robbed, could it be because these groups will introduce an emotional element into an argument that you do not provide any factual elements for?

        I have flown Ryanair many many times and only once have ever had an issue where I was required to pay a huge amount of money for a very simple thing. But do you know whose fault that was – mine. Ryanair did charge me a ridiculous amount because they want to discourage people from doing what I did and it worked, I have never did it again but it still doesn’t change the fact that if I had not have done it in the first place I would not have been charged, it was fully my responsibility and I will not be one of the whiners who blame what I do wrong on an airline that has revolutionised travel and given more people than ever before a chance to see new parts of the world.

        • Marcus

          I was at a queue for a return flight from Ireland of pensioners who had not read they had to pay an airport tax. Sligo airport FYI.
          I got a flight to Biarritz. An elderly lady and I had to connect accross Paris from CDG from Orly.
          It was torture and I had to carry her bags accross Paris. Again, it was in the small print neither she nor I read.
          Austria, big queues of foreigners who did not see one small sign asking you to get a motorway sticker. Again old and confused foreigners in the main.
          I could go on.

          • GarethSoye

            This article is about Ryanair and I fail to see what your comment has to do with them as they fly out of none of the airports you have mentioned.
            What would you expect people to do to those who either cannot be bothered finding out the rules for places they are visiting, are too stupid to, or simply miss them? Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

          • Marcus

            It has nothing to do with the law Gareth, if only it did.
            If you have a queue of people who are being fined 1 hour before going on holiday because they ‘didn’t read the small print’ then the onus of responsibility is yours. That’s under the British sense of fair play. It’s difficult to explain if it has to be.

            The article is about extorting people via extra charges levied by placing small signs or small print stipulating unfamiliar or even new rules at times of stress, when time is not on your side.
            It is a vile practice and you should not be supporting it. It’s the sort of thing you expect in a junta.
            ALL the low fare air lines are at it. Not just Ryanair and it’s a sorry way to make money.

        • hale992

          Ryanair did not revolutionise air travel – Southwest did! And Southwest prides itself on excellent customer service, not ripping off their customers . Ryanair merely copied the economics, but unfortunately threw away the bit about customer service. I have flown dozens of airlines, from Pyramid Airlines using DC3’s to the nationals providing full service flights, and many of the low costs operators too. Ryanair I have found to be overall the least customer friendly, least comfortable, but (fortunately) their staff can’t match the arrogance of either BA or Air France.

  • davidshort10

    Try travelling to many places in southern Europe or just about anywhere in southern Spain without having to use Ryanair.

    • John Smith

      Alicante – Easyjet from many airports

      • Paul Bishop

        Barcelona, Alicante and Malaga – Flybe

  • davidshort10

    AtheNians no choice,on a return Palermo-Stansted-Palermo, I paid up to choose my seat and made sure I printed my boarding passes three times. Oddly enough, aft err not travelling with them for six or seven years because of the rudeness,the staff weren’t rude, which robbed me of the anticipated opportunity to be even ruder back!

  • Fourth Generation

    Dear Reader,
    The issue does not lie with the individual being ‘stupid or unable to follow simple rules’. The fact is that these ‘rules’, quite simply are unclear, confusing and are deliberately calculated to deceive people. And if we are going to talk about the individual, the explotation of their all too human characteristics is an unfortunate reflection of the companies ethos and lack of care towards us, the people behind the numbers. People are herded like cattle onto the plane, so it’s not surprising that the experience can be a little disorientating, and no amount of smiles or polite gestures can hide the disturbing reality of the profit making machine that lies behind the smily face of this, or many other companies. People would follow the ‘rules’ firstly if they were reasonable, and secondly if they were set out in a clear way, rather than being hidden behind a shiny billboard, whose only support beams are deception. If something isn’t that price on the surface, simply don’t pretend that it is. Many people mention the stress of today’s living..what is the point in victimising people when they’re already tired and anxious? Surely companies should aim to alleviate, not add to the emotional baggage when flying. Looking into the face of the elderly woman who was being heckled by a member of staff, insisting that her handluggage ‘didn’t comply to the required size dimensions’- or a similarly phrased piece of terminology and therefore would have to pay for this ‘crime’, was a sad reflection and dismissal not only of the passenger or customer, but of the human’s that are simply trying to make their way from a to b. The last time I checked it only costs about 10p to reprint a piece of paper, but i’m afraid that the price of this continued intimidation will be much greater.

    • GarethSoye

      Everything you have written backs up the point that if people did what they agreed to do in the contract they entered into there would be no issue.
      They are free to not enter into this contract if they so wish. But as usual some people want to have their cake and eat it. They want cheap flights but do not want to obey the rules in place in order to make the flights so cheap. A lot of time this is a case of unbelievable arrogance, how many times on a Ryanair flight do you see some idiot try to get a huge bag through the boarding gate despite the fact that everyone knows exactly how large a bag you are allowed to take and that there are countless measuring devices around for you to be able to check. Yet they will still complain loudly that they are being singled out or not treated correctly. Rubbish, they are at fault, no one else.
      Unfortunately the “elderly woman” you mention above (who of course you have invented as an emotional ploy to claim that those who will argue against you have no heart and don’t like the elderly) did not follow the rules which are clearly stated and there for everyone to see. You seem to be suggesting that they are hidden, they are not for if the were the myriad of advertising authorities in different countries take great pleasure in prosecuting companies such as Ryanair.
      Simply – if you want a cheap flight then use Ryanair and follow the rules and you will not have a problem. If you want a cheap flight but want to do whatever you like then set up your own airline.

      • UKSteve

        Your sanctimonious contribution to this debate is most unwelcome.

        The vast majority of reasonable people accept the platitudes you’ve offered as common sense, but I suggest you read some of the other stories about people ‘caught in the switches’, i.e. forced to pay extortionate charges through no fault of their own.

        You superciliousness in stating “…did not follow the rules which are clearly stated and there for everyone to see…” would grate less if you assure us that you read and digest every word of every contract of every contractual agreement you enter into – including the Warsaw Convention on air travel.

        Ryanair purports to be a budget airline, when many passengers have found it is far from one. Now, public services are adopting that model, which was the whole point of the story. Which seems to have “whooshed” over your head like one of Ryanair’s 737s.

        • GarethSoye

          It always amuses me when someone accuses someone else of being sanctimonious and then proceeds to tell them they are not welcome in the ongoing debate, as if they are the arbiter of who is and who is not welcome or what can be discussed. The irony is thicker than any contract, with or without the small print.

          There is a very simple solution for those who think Ryanair are a terrible airline or somehow charge customers for things that they did not agree to… do not use them.

          Meanwhile the vast majority of us will continue to do so, continue to abide by their rules which we agree to and continue to be able to fly around Europe for prices cheaper than we can travel in our own country between two cities by train.

          There are laws on air travel, advertising and customer responsibility and with the unabashed hatred some people have for Ryanair, not pointing any nose cones, I am sure they would be continually falling foul of these laws if they were indeed as bad as some claimed.

          • UKSteve

            Well, perhaps if you could read as well as you write, you may not look so foolish.

            I didn’t say you weren’t welcome in the debate, as you will see. I don’t think he was attacking Ryanair as such – they are what they are, and he (sort of) accepts that – but as I tried to explain to you, and you again missed completely, he doesn’t think the Ryanair is a suitable model for public services (which is why he widened out the article). And I agree with him.

            Maybe if you’d read the article…?

  • matimal

    Britain sounds like a horrible place to live. Why don’t you come to the U.S. Ross?

    • John Smith

      When is Obama going to close Gitmo?

      • matimal

        Gitmo isn’t in the U.S. When is Britain going to give back Gibraltar and the Falklands?

        • John Smith

          But it is where the USA tortures people it does not like. When is Obama going to close it, as promised?

        • GarethSoye

          Give them back to who exactly?

          The Falklands were British before Argentina existed so I fail to see how they can be “given back” to a country that didn’t exist when they were “taken”.

          If we are talking about giving places back in your terms then when are Spain going to give back Ceuta and Melilla?

          • matimal

            So your argument is “Spain started it,” “there was no one there,” and “America tortures more people than we are able to.” Amazing.

          • GarethSoye

            No. My argument is exactly what it states above, which you would have seen if you had actually read what I wrote. You would have also seen that nowhere does it mention anything about America whatsoever, you were having that conversation with someone else.

          • UKSteve

            Well, you’re accurate about the latter part of that post.

            Bombing and torturing people seem to be your biggest activities. or raising funds for Irish terrorists – or did you forget that?

        • UKSteve

          Give the Falklands back to whom? Argentina has never formally administered it, we have since 1853.

          When are you going to give Catalina Island and Texas back to the Mexicans?

        • Bob339

          When Hell freezes over.

  • John Smith

    Most have no problem with Ryanair as you have a choice whether to use them.
    When it comes to the Council they just pick your pocket. You have no choice but to use them

  • Chairman_mao

    Easy Answer:
    I don’t fly Ryanair because I know they are pirates;
    I once got stung by Camden Council, so now I don’t enter Camden or do business with anybody in Camden;
    Ditto Brent;
    I once got stung by a Rail Company, so now I drive everywhere.

    The answer is obvious: vote with your feet.

    As soon as I am able I intend to leave this pox ridden socialist hole for a decent capitalist WASP state.

  • YesWeCanFlyDrones

    Politicians – in their world of jargon ridden double-talk – like to talk about encouraging an “enterprise culture”.

    Instead what they have created, as this article so accurately describes, is a punishment culture, obsessively authoritarian and stupidly counter-productive.

    Of course many of them, never having run a business or worked anywhere except a political research department, know nothing about enterprise, except possibly George Osborne who did have that valuable experience working at Selfridges folding towels. He should have stayed there; he would have done less harm and been more useful.

  • I remember flying to Frankfurt with Ryanair. In fact it was an old military airbase some 90 minutes away.

    Mind you for sheer utter crap service AirItalia are scorchio in the league.

  • Prick the balloon of pomposity

    “The answer came to me when I received a letter fining me £80 for forgetting to renew my car insurance”. Let’s just deconstruct that: firstly, the author of the article failed to renew his car insurance, after receiving a reminder from his insurers. Second, he then drove without car insurance after the policy had expired. Third, he received a reminder from the Motor Insurers Bureau to the effect that he was currently uninsured and that he should rectify matters as soon as possible. Fourth, he failed to do so and some time later received a fine. Well diddums! If Ross Clark was involved in an accident caused by an uninsured motorist, he would no doubt be the first to complain. Organise your life better, Mr Clark, and stop complaining if, after being every opportunity to legalise matters, you fail and the authorities catch up with you.

    • hale992

      The point is not that you are fined, but that the fines are totally out of kilter with the “offence”. The “offence” in most cases is to be human and make a mistake. It is allowing government, public bodies and all sorts of other organisations to reap unjustified profits from individuals irrespective of whether it is fair, just, or affordable. We are moving back to the era of the Robber Baron, supported and protected by Government and the mealy mouthed, pampered, self-serving, profiteering ministers who run it, and who quite evidently don’t give a jot for ordinary citizens. But you are obviously the perfect human being who never gets anything wrong, and if you do you are happy to have your eyes taken out for being human. Well good luck to you sunshine, because you are now part of the problem – rolling over onto your back and saying “do anything you want, I am your obedient servant”. You perhaps should try pricking the balloon of your own huge pomposity before trying to prick the much smaller balloons of those around you .

      • tastemylogos

        WELL BLOODY SAID YOUNG SIR/MADAM.

        beautifully put. very erudite.

        people like him are the issue. they allow it to happen and tell those being punished in such harsh ways to stop complaining. useful idiots indeed.

    • UKSteve

      Where does he say “…he received a reminder from the Motor Insurers Bureau….”?

    • tastemylogos

      good god.

      the issue is, does the fine fit the bill? clearly not, its disproportionate. those old grannies should be hit by this? really? what a huge heart you have. what a selfish, unsympathetic being you are.

  • jim1999

    Filing your taxes on time… what a radical concept. Using the train seat you actually paid for… what a radical concept. Reading the notice board at a train station or asking somebody… what a radical concept. Paying attention while you drive… what a radical concept. Driving with valid insurance… what a radical concept.

    The above are behaviours that affect other people. Using a seat on a train that you didn’t pay for affects the person who did. Not filing your taxes on time affects us all. Blocking traffic affects us all. Driving without insurance affects us all.

    Stop whining like a child when you get caught being selfish, inattentive, or lazy. Being responsible is being an adult.

    • tastemylogos

      in what way does missing your tax date by ONE day in any way affecting other people? TO THE EXTENT OF £100?! get real man. you really are anal.

  • David John Scott

    It’s simple – fly direct from EDI to an interesting foreign destination where either y money goes further, or I get the quality I want and can afford. Or transit a London airport for the privilege of being allowed out of my own country …. No brainer.

  • hdb

    Welcome to Late Capitalism, the Spectator!

    • tastemylogos

      that is not the kind of capitalism i know. that is socialism. steal as much of your money as possible. pay vested interest groups with it and spend the rest frivolously.

      • hdb

        Okay. Have it you own way. Michael O’Leary is the biggest socialist in Britain. LOL.

        • tastemylogos

          im not talking about ryanair but the states appetite for our property upon whichever premise they see fit.

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