This article is from Alex Macheras’ weekly Gulf-Times Aviation Column.
Over the last decade, low-cost airlines have dominated the air travel sector. Around the world, passengers have become accustomed to being able to fly 2,000 miles for as little as $20. The rapid rise of low-cost airlines all over the globe, including Norwegian Air, and the Air Asia Group, has driven down the cost of global air travel, making it an affordable means of transport for the majority of the world’s travelling population.
In order to grow, budget airlines have adapted their strategy to ensure they are flying from major airports in order to attract customers from the traditional scheduled airlines. In Europe, Ryanair is often regarded as the airline at the extreme end of the low-cost carrier scale, frequently selling tickets for as little as €0.10 cents, in return for making passengers queue at the aircraft door (even in harsh winter conditions), while the previous flight’s passengers still disembark. And while your ticket may have only been only 10 cents, you’ll be paying three times the ordinary price for a bottle of water on any Ryanair flight.
However, the seriousness of what these ultra-low fares have done to the flight working environment is a bleak reality of which most passengers are seemingly oblivious to. The true cost of ultra-cheap air travel nowadays is the rise in the number of exhausted, fatigued crew — responsible for the safety of every single person on the aircraft.
At low-cost carriers, the crew are subject to poorer working conditions, minimum rest, and maximum flying. It’s an issue of such importance that, if a passenger were to have any doubts over the safety of air travel (which still remains the safest form of transport), they’d be more logical to be concerned if the flight crew had sufficient rest since their last flight, rather than worry about bumpy weather en route.
In Europe this week, Ryanair left a flight’s cabin crew to sleep overnight on the floor of the airline’s Malaga Airport office, claiming there were no hotels available — a completely dishonest statement from the largest budget airline in Europe. After I independently verified the information with six sources, I found there were at least 400 hotels in and around the main city of the airport available the for Ryanair on that night. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much thought to recognise that it’s low-season in Southern Spain, and most hotel occupancy rates are at 50% (half-empty), as is normal for this time of year. Why is a tired crew a concern to the public? Fatigue can impair a crew member’s alertness and the ability to safely operate an aircraft or perform safety-related duties. For example, an exhausted crew may struggle to evacuate a passenger aircraft fast enough or may forget to check surroundings through the exit door window prior to opening it in an emergency.
In the Middle East, several pilots of the UAE’s low-cost airline FlyDubai have spoken out against the airline, in order to shed light on how the airlines’ pilots are “being pushed to the limit.” FlyDubai crews have complained about a higher level of fatigue and ‘dangerous’ schedules. In the immediate aftermath of a FlyDubai accident — where a FlyDubai Boeing 737 crashed during an aborted landing at Rostov-on-Don Airport, Russia, on 19 March 2016 — a FlyDubai pilot told BBC News: “I don’t want to speculate on what caused the crash, but I think that fatigue must have been a contributory factor. The crew are overworked and suffering from fatigue. It is a significant risk. Staff are going from night to day shifts without enough rest in between. I would say 50% of the airline’s workforce is suffering from acute fatigue.”
Are passengers expecting cheaper airfares to be here for decades to come? Absolutely. But should those cheaper airfares result in a compromise having to be made over the alertness of the pilots operating the flight, or the wellness of the cabin crew responsible for evacuating all passengers in 90 seconds? Are budget airlines’ punishing schedules, and increased workload in order to meet the low cost travelling demand, now revealing the ‘true cost’ of ‘low cost?’