December 2010

27 December 2010
Getting home from Budapest and other thoughts
Michael Jennings

In January this year, I was visiting my parents on the Gold Coast, a city on the beaches approximately 100km [That’s about 60 miles, Ed] south of Brisbane. I have both friends and relatives in Brisbane, and one morning I therefore caught a train from Helensvale station on the Gold Coast to Brisbane. I purchased a ticket, and towards the end of the journey, there was a ticket inspection.

I could not immediately find my ticket. I explained this to the inspectors, but rather than giving me a moment to look for it, they assumed instantly that I was lying. I was asked where I had got on the train and where I was going, asked for identification, told that I was going to be taken off the train at Brisbane Central, etc etc. When I produced ID with a British address on it rather than an Australian address, this was received with contempt, as if I were trying to avoid complying with them rather than because I lived abroad. The same questions were asked of me over and over, presumably in the hope that I might say something inconsistent. I was given no time to actually find my ticket. It was pretty standard behaviour from law enforcement officials who think that if they harass you for long enough you will say something that will incriminate yourself in some way of something. Eventually though, I did manage to look down the side of the seat, where I found my ticket, which had fallen out of my pocket. When I thus presented my ticket, I was told curtly that “You were lucky”, with clear annoyance. No apology for accusing me of being a criminal when I was not - just clear heavyhanded arseholery and annoyance that they had not managed to catch anyone. This sort of thing is sadly common in Australia, and is one of the reasons why I do not live there. Heavyhandedness of this kind does not endear the place to foreign visitors.

I was struck by a contrast to this when I was in Budapest last week. I had made an error when checking out transport options to get to the airport, and had assumed that I could get a bus directly from Deák Ferenc Square (the centre of town) to the airport. Having got there, and failed to find any airport buses, I walked into the local metro station (where three lines come together) to try to figure out what I was doing wrong. As it happened, a group of ticket inspectors were doing a sting at that station, and were acting together to attempt to catch fare evaders. I started looking at a map of metro lines and bus routes on the platform, clearly a little confused. One of the ticket inspectors saw this, stopped the fare evasion enforcement for a moment, and came up to me and pointed out where I was on the map. I explained that I was trying to get to the airport, and she explained to me in broken English that I needed to get a metro train to the end of one of the lines, and then I could get the bus. I was then practically dragged to the correct platform. When I attempted to walk towards a ticket machine, the inspector instead pulled a book of tickets out of her bag and sold me the necessary ticket. She then presumably went back to catching fare evaders. I then made my may to the airport with little difficulty and in plenty of time for my plane. Budapest 1, Brisbane 0.

As it further happened, I was flying from Budapest to London last Sunday. There was snow on the ground and very cold temperatures in both cities. I was flying on the Hungarian based discount airline Wizzair (a company that deserves a post in its own right) to Luton airport north of London. Both Budapest and Luton had been closed the previous day, but both were open again on the 19th. I got to the airport and looked at the departure board: British Airways to Heathrow: CANCELLED. Easyjet to Gatwick: DELAYED. Wizzair to Luton: ON TIME. I went through security, and purchased an overpriced beer in the bar. I started talking to a couple of young English women at the next table. One was a PA for a financial firm. The other was a schoolteacher. Yes, Budapest is beautiful. No, they had not seen much of it because they had stayed inside in the freezing weather. Yes, they were hoping they would get home so that they could go to work the next day. This was followed up with “We are lucky to be going to Luton, as it is not run by BAA, who are a really crap company”.

I think this was probably a little harsh. It is true that Luton is always one of the last of London’s airports to close, but this likely has as much to do with the local geography of Luton as it does management. (Stansted was long controlled by BAA, and is always fairly robust to weather, for similar geographical reasons). I think BAA probably does deserves its bad reputation in other ways - they are a fairly typical opportunistic monopolist who are lazy in terms of customer service in general - but they cope with the weather about as well as do other British airport operators. However, a bad reputation filters through to all areas, even those where it may not be relevant.

As it happened, the flight home was about 45 minutes late in all. In the circumstances, not much to complain about. Well done Wizzair. Well done Budapest and Luton airports.

Once at Luton, there remained the question of how to get home. The usual way is a shuttle bus to Luton Airport Parkway railway station, a train to St Pancras or London Bridge, and then a local bus to my home in South Bermondsey. Indicator boards indicated that trains were operating, so I purchased a ticket, and headed to the railway station. Indicator boards indicated that there was a train departing for London at 2133, so I went to the platform and waited. At 2135, all indicator boards changed to state that all train for the immediate future were cancelled. I was stranded. The ticket office was suddenly closed, and there was little opportunity to figure out what was going on or to obtain a refund for being unable to use train tickets. This was annoying.

On the other hand, the good sense of random people prevailed. A group of people near me (who I later discovered did not know one another before this) were discussing sharing a taxi to London. I walked up to them and explained that I was in the same boat, and asked if I could also have a share in their taxi. They were entirely agreeable. One of them called a local minicab firm, and fifteen minutes later we were all in a cab to London. We were going to various parts of the city, but this was okay: we had heard that local public transport in London was working fine.

An hour later I was at St Pancras. It is easy enough for me to get home from Kings Cross or St Pancras by local bus, and this is what I did.

So what can I say. Good work Luton Airport, Budapest Airport, Transport for London, and Transport for Budapest (or whatever the relevant organisation is called). Praise also to the good sense of ordinary Londoners and Luton based minicab firms. Less praise to First Capital Connect. No praise at all to Queensland Railways.

24 December 2010
Khatia Buniatishvili plays Schumann at the Wigmore Hall
Brian Micklethwait

Nearly two months ago now, I went to a piano recital at the Wigmore Hall.  An American lady was visiting a friend.  Friend was busy during the day, and needed someone to show the American lady a good time, or at least to try.  American lady likes classical music, which made me the designated local.


The recital was given by the young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, and the biggest piece on the programme was the first, Schumann’s Fantasie opus 17.

I have many recordings of Schumann piano music, but have never quite got him.  Oh, it’s nice and everything.  But only in a rather vicar’s tea party sort of way.  Schumann enthusiasts write about how revolutionary and disruptive his music sounds, and especially how revolutionary and disruptive it must have sounded to his contemporaries, but all I have tended to hear is what his music had in common with that of his contemporaries.  It just sounded to me like nice, classical piano music.  And I had never been able to understand the connection between all that well-mannered tinkling and the fact that Schumann died a madman, and before that had never been entirely sane.  Mad was the last thing his music sounded, to me.  Schumann lurches insanely, nay schizophrenically, between spooky serenity (the kind of music that accompanies attics full of dolls in horror movies) and explosive craziness!  Schumann is wild, man!  But I could never hear this.  It just sounded serenely serene to me.

All that changed when Khatia Buniatishvili started to unleash the Fantasie opus 17.  The American lady later told me that she admired the risks Ms Buniatishvili took with the tempos, speeding up here, slowing down there.  For me, that all helped, but it was the sheer loudness of it, when it was loud, that made the real difference.  Finally, I was hearing what I had been reading about Schumann for half a century, but had never heard before.

The Wigmore Hall accoustic is famous and much admired, but I don’t believe it would suit everyone.  The sound completely surrounds you.  And this is especially the case when someone like Khatia Buniatishvili is flaying a piano the way she did that lunchtime in early November of 2010.  I suppose I might achieve a similar effect in my own kitchen, if I were to go mad with surround-sound hi-fi and turn up the volume to maximum.  But were I to do that at all regularly, my neighbours would soon be pounding on my door.  Anything less than a detached house with a large surrounding garden and everyone else in the house away on holiday and it would be very anti-social.

My experience of listening to live classical music compared to listening to it dead, in my kitchen, has been that the fewer the number of the musicians involved, the greater the contrast between liveness and deadness. 

Strangely, the value added, so to speak, of a concert when there is an orchestra playing is far less than it is for much smaller ensembles.  It is as if, with orchestral music, the drama and the frenzy is packaged in a way that seems to survive the diminution involved in a mere recording.  The melodies, emphases, the contrasts, and above all the harmonies, the meanings of each passing moment, all get through.  But with chamber music, the loss is far greater.  With chamber music, a dead recording is merely nice.  Liveness enables you to experience all the nuances of the performance, including all the body language of the musicians, which of course means far more than it does when you watch a full orchestra all swaying about.  With chamber music, the difference between live and dead is the difference between being in a theatre, and listening to a bad sound recording of the same thing.

Some years ago, I experienced this difference with particular force when I attended a Wigmore Hall performance of the Shostakovitch violin sonata, given by Leonidas Kavakos.  Fantastic!  But then, unusually (Radio 3 broadcasts Monday lunchtime concerts live and then again the following weekend), I was able to listen again to the exact same performance on the radio that I had already witnessed live.  And on the radio it sounded … nice.  The comparison was, as the saying goes, no comparison. 

Since her recital was also a Monday lunchtime Wigmore recital, I would once again have the chance to listen again, to Ms Buniatishvili.  Would the same principle apply to her playing?  That Shostakovitch piece had involved two musicians, Kavakos and his equally excellent pianist, both striking sparks off each other.  Would the deadness-liveness contrast still apply, with only one musician?

Indeed it did, and if anything ever more so.  I listened, in particular, to that Schumann piece that had knocked my socks off in the actual concert hall, and it sounded … nice.  I was right back with the vicar, sipping tea.  Astonishing.

What a difference a journey can make.  As you can see, that’s been a preoccupation of mine here of late.

23 December 2010
Market Urbanism
Rob Fisher

Stephen Smith, who describes himself as a libertarian urbanist, has a rather excellent blog called Market Urbanism. It’s about cities, and there are a lot of articles about transport. The most recent is called Japanese transit and what it can teach us. Another recent one is The “Systemic Failure” of US transportation policy.

Just give Access-a-ride users cash is interesting. This is New York’s scheme for subsidised transport for disabled and elderly people. Apparently it costs a fortune. $49 per door-to-door ride! I struggle to imagine how it has become so expensive. The MTA is planning to just give users subsidised cab rides instead, in an effort to cut costs. Stephen argues that it would be better to simply hand over cash.

But I think the more fundamental problem is that while cabs might at first blush look like good substitute for transit and paratransit, the truth is that people given cash grants could, oftentimes, think of much better and cheaper ways to spend the money. You could substitute some grocery store trips with walks to the nearest bodega, where you could spend a little more for your food. You could spend the money on rent to live in a place that’s more accessible. You could spend the money on having things delivered to your door from local stores, or shipped by internet-based retailers. And I know the city obviously can’t openly suggest this, but you could use it on cheaper gypsy cabs or informal drivers – something that is apparently already quite popular among Queens retirees, according to my great aunt Sylvia.

I wonder how that $49 per ride cost compares to London’s equivalent scheme, which just hands out free passes for free travel.


Backscatter update and other links
Rob Fisher

It’s been a while since my roundup of airport security controversy.

A mailing list called RISKS digest links to a letter from scientists at UCSF about the naked backscatter X-ray machines. The authors argue that the machines may be more dangerous than the government thinks, because the energy from the radiation is absorbed only on the surface of the body. Acceptable dosages from normal X-ray machines are calculated based on the fact that the energy is spread throughout the whole volume of the body. So the energy is more concentrated in backscatter machines, and will cause more damage to DNA bonds. Incidentally RISKS is a good read: there are many descriptions of the way all kinds of systems have failed, and you start to notice patterns.

CNET reports on Tammy Banovac, a retired dental surgeon, sometime Playboy model and wheelchair user, who, so annoyed at hear treatment by the TSA, turned up for her next flight in her underwear.

Remember the boy who was strip-searched? The TSA said that it was all a misunderstanding and the boy’s father was happy. Now the author of the video says he was asked by the TSA to delete the video, and that the father was not happy. There’s a written interview and a video interview with Glenn Beck about this, too. Beck says he found out the boy was autistic, which was why the TSA were having so much trouble patting him down, which they were doing because he was wearing a baggy shirt.

The Daily Mail has a couple of stories that suggest women are not particularly enjoying the TSA’s new processes.

Meanwhile, the Norlonto Review notices that pretty girls get groped, diplomats are annoyed and guns still get through security. The Norlonto Review also notices that part of the London congestion charge is being abolished.

While I’m in a linking mood, Angry Teen is talking about how UK Libertarian is talking about how rail privatisation wasn’t.

Rob Fisher

Northern Rail must be very concerned about all the jokes about the wrong kind of leaves, so they are making sure everyone understands the problem. This poster is displayed on one of their trains:

Leaves poster

I’ve heard anecdotes of trains overshooting the platform because of slipping on the leaves. Instead of opening the rear doors to let passengers on and off, or simply reversing, it seems trains are likely to simply continue to the next station.

22 December 2010
Are these guys kidding?
Michael Jennings

From: Transport For London
To: Michael Jennings

Dear Dr Jennings,

I am writing to let you know that the ASLEF union have called a Tube strike. If the strike goes ahead, there is likely to be significant disruption to Tube services throughout Boxing Day, Sunday 26 December.

Bus, DLR, Tramlink and River services will operate, although some of these will have a reduced service. Cycling or walking may be practical options for many.

Yours sincerely,
Mike Brown
Managing Director
London Underground

Okay, so we have the coldest winter in living memory, and our buildup to Christmas has thus been difficult. We are cold, tired, and frustrated. Those of us without cars have the usual London Christmas experience of not being able to go anywhere on Christmas Day.

And, on Boxing Day, the tube workers go on strike. Transport for London provides us with the helpful advice that we might consider walking. Obviously the sympathy of the public is going to be entirely with the workers and their grievances. The poor petals.

20 December 2010
Boris blames everybody else
Brian Micklethwait

Mayor of London, Boris Johson:

Well, folks, it’s tea-time on Sunday and for anyone involved in keeping people moving it has been a hell of a weekend.  Thousands have had their journeys wrecked, tens of thousands have been delayed getting away for Christmas; and for those Londoners who feel aggrieved by the performance of any part of our transport services, I can only say that we are doing our level best.

Almost the entire Tube system was running yesterday and we would have done even better if it had not been for a suicide on the Northern Line, and the temporary stoppage that these tragedies entail.  Of London’s 700 bus services, only 50 were on diversion, mainly in the hillier areas.  On Saturday, we managed to keep the West End plentifully supplied with customers, and retailers reported excellent takings on what is one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

We have kept the Transport for London road network open throughout all this.  We have about 90,000 tons of grit in stock, and the gritters were out all night to deal with this morning’s rush.  And yet we have to face the reality of the position across the country.

It is no use my saying that London Underground and bus networks are performing relatively well – touch wood – when Heathrow, our major international airport, is still effectively closed two days after the last heavy snowfall; when substantial parts of our national rail network are still struggling; when there are abandoned cars to be seen on hard shoulders all over the country; and when yet more snow is expected today, especially in the north.

Boris blames, in particular, the Met Office.  Everybody else believed them when they said it would be a warm winter.

More about the weather forecasting angle of this by me at Samizdata.

Brian Micklethwait

I have recently acquired a new computer, and that has caused me to spend much of the recent weekend rootling through all the data that got transferred from the old machine to the new, if only to get used to using Windows 7.  In the course of this rootling, I came across this photo, taken almost exactly three years ago, on December 19th 2007.  This at first got my attention simply because I thought it a striking picture.  I had been looking for something to put on my personal blog.  But then I realised, it’s transport related:


This kind of thing has become a much more regular part of the London scene than it ever was when I were a lad.  Partly (guess) it’s the Green thing.  Are there tax money and tax break bribes available for such enterprises, now, the way there never used to be?  Partly (another guess - Michael?) it’s that London, which used to be a First World city, now has First World stuff, Second World stuff (in the form of huge and ugly Sovietesque housing estates) and Third World stuff, like guys making a living riding bicycle-taxis for tourists.  I’m guessing that all the world’s cities are becoming like this, more varied within themselves, more like each other in there being the same kind of First-Second-Third World variety everywhere.

But I wonder, is there also a technological component?  Have things happened to bicycle design and bicycle technology that make it easier to peddle such things than used to be the case?

Bugbugs website here.  Note, judging by what is said there, what a big part advertising plays in their business.  I recently wrote here (here) about advertising on eye-catchingly weird vehicles.

19 December 2010
Incoming from Michael:

"Belgrade-Budapest train was efficient and on time, even though there was snow and it was -7."

I know: the Balkans are better than Britain. Just go ahead and rub it in.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (1)Rail: Miscellaneous
17 December 2010
GPS in NYC taxi
Rob Fisher

Michael Jennings spooked a taxi driver in Vietnam by using GPS on his iPad to spot that he was going the wrong way. Some taxis in New York City have GPS on a touchscreen in the back:

Touchscreen GPS

You can zoom in and out, and select various other bits of information, such as the contact details of the taxi company. It draws the route you have taken in blue dots. You can see that our driver has taken to the surface streets to avoid a nasty looking freeway junction.

16 December 2010
Slow motion train wreck
Brian Micklethwait


You have to be patient.

14 December 2010
Big cities are here to stay
Brian Micklethwait

Mario Polèse has a piece about Why Big Cities matter More than Ever in, appropriately enough, City Journal.

He makes many worthwhile points.  My favourite one (i.e. I already strongly agree) is that the rise of electronic communication at a distance intensifies (rather than reduces) the demand for face-to-face contact, and hence for transport.  Not all information can be transmitted over wires or through the ether.  That much can increases the value of face-to-face meetings (like this one for instance), because quality face-to-face teams can now influence and trade with the entire world.

Sample quote:

What about the argument that falling communications costs actually undermine urban concentration?  For example, didn’t the existence of e-mail encourage Silicon Valley companies to outsource computer programming to Bangalore, India?  The truth is that this shift did foster urban concentration - in Bangalore.

Nice one.

As for falling physical transport costs causing physical dispersion, well, yes and no.  Consider the live theatre business.  Theatrical endeavour clusters in one spot (like Broadway or the West End of London), for all the usual reasons that businesses cluster (economies of scale - big pools of core professional talent - variety of ancillary professional talent - inside info - face-to-face contact (see above)), but good transport enables more punters to come to town, to witness these performances.  Transport enables a dispersed population all to benefit from the same services, which it thus makes more sense to be concentrated in the big city.

Transport, in other words, isn’t going anywhere.

09 December 2010
Downfall Ryanair parody
Patrick Crozier


Warning: some swearing.

08 December 2010
What does “busiest” mean?
Michael Jennings

In response to my recent post on Japanese airports, in which I mentioned that Haneda airport had had four new runways built since 1988, Patrick left the following comment

Huh?  And there must have already been at least one to start off with bringing us up to a minimum of five.

As it happens, Haneda has closed runways as well as opened new ones, and so Haneda at present has four runways.

But Heathrow, as I understand it a vast, if not the vastest airport in the world, has only two.

How come?

I will get back to the runways in a bit, but the belief that Heathrow is the busiest airport in the world is often heard in the UK. At least it was - I don’t think you hear it quite as often as you once did. As it happens, this belief is false, and it has been false for the 25 years of so that I have been paying attention to this kind of thing. The belief seems to have its origin in a somewhat disingenuous phrasing that was often heard in the aviation and engineering press a decade or two back, specifically “Heathrow is the busiest international airport in the world”. Note the word “international” in this. What was meant was that more passengers passed through Heathrow when flying on international routes than passed through any other airport flying on international routes. The reason for this is very simple. Britain is a small island with one giant city on it, and almost all of the places one might want to fly to from that giant city are in other countries. Domestic services make up a significant percentage of services from every other major airport in the world, but from Heathrow the percentage is miniscule. (In addition to this, for another reason that I will get to in a bit, a significant percentage of those domestic routes that do fly from London tend to be from airports other than Heathrow). Therefore, although more international passengers used (and still use) Heathrow than any other airport, there have always been other airports that handled more passengers in total.

However, many people have missed this distinction over the years, and have just heard it as “Heathrow is the busiest airport in the world”. (After all, aren’t most airports international airports? The phrasing of the stated statistic has often been deliberately misleading). Many people in the general media have made the same mistake, thus further spreading the misunderstanding.

As it happens, though, Heathrow is a massive airport. The most common legitimate statistic by which airports are compared is “Total passenger movements per year”. Every passenger who departs, arrives at, or passes through (transits) the airport countes as one passenger movement. By this measure, Heathrow has been number three in the world for most of the last twenty years. The only airports that have exceeded its traffic have been in the US: most notably the main airports of Atlanta (which has five runways) and Chicago (seven). In 2009, Heathrow actually moved up to number two in the world by this measure. Statistics for 2010 suggest that it will move down to number four, behind Atlanta, Chicago, and Beijing Capital, the first Asian airport to exceed Heathrow’s traffic. although Tokyo Haneda has at times been in the top five in the world.

However, although this is a useful statistic for determining how much terminal capacity is needed, this is still not the right statistic for determining how much runway capacity is needed. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, not all aircraft are the same size. An airport that hosts flights that use smaller aircraft is going to have more takeoffs and landings, and is going to need more runways. Long haul flights tend to use larger aircraft than short haul flights, and for various reasons Heathrow hosts almost all long haul flights out of London, whereas short haul flights are shared around London’s airports. (This has recently become even more pronounced with recent decisions of the EU to deregulate landing rights at Heathrow for foreign airlines, which led to most long haul traffic that had previously used Gatwick to switch to Heathrow). Plus there is a vicious circle. If runway capacity is at a premium but terminal capacity is not, and a lot of passengers want to use an airport, then airlines will use larger aircraft rather than putting on more flights. Since the opening of Terminal Five, Heathrow has been in this position. Heathrow has fewer runways than other airports. Rather than having fewer passengers use the airport, Heathrow simply hosts larger aircraft.

Secondly, there is an issue in the nature of the statistic: a passenger movemet is a passenger who starts a journey at the airport, a passenger who ends a journey at the airport, and a journey who changes planes at an airport. This last passenger is only counted once, even though he has both landed and taken off again at the same airport. Therefore, an airport that hosts lots of transfer passengers is going to have more take-offs and landings than one that is the start or the end of most journeys. As it happens, the airlines with the most dramatic hub and spoke systems in the world are the large US carriers, and their busiest airports are hubs in the middle of the US where vast numbers of passengers change planes. Due to a lack of political and airline consolidation and the preponderance of discount airlines, Europeans are much more likely to fly point to point. As it happens, the largest hub of the largest airline in the world (Delta) is Atlanta. The second and third largest airlines in the world (American and United) have hubs in Chicago. Atlanta and Chicago are still the two busiest airports by this statistic. Heathrow, on the other hand, comes in at number 12. The top six airports in the world by this measure and eight of the top nine are in the United States. With the exception of Los Angeles (which is a hub for traffic from the East Coast changing for aircraft to Asia - no such hub is necessary on the East Coast as modern aircraft can fly directly from anywhere in the US to anywhere in Europe) all of these airports are inland hubs where many passengers change from one flight to another.

By this measure, Heathrow is not the busiest airport in Europe. Paris Charles de Gaul has this distinction. This airport has four runways.

Before I bring this to a close, one more factor has to be mentioned. Not all runways point in the same direction. Some airports have runways that actually cross one another. It is not always possible to use all runways at the same time, or all runways at full capacity at the same time. An arrangement of parallel runways allows the highest flow of traffic, but this can make capacity dependent on weather conditions. If wind is blowing hard in the wrong direction, particularly perpendicular to the runways, this can reduce the number of flights possible, or perhaps even close runways completely. In places where weather is extreme and comes from unpredictable directions, having multiple runways pointing in different directions can make operations more robust to changes in weather conditions. In places where weather is less extreme and more predictable, this is not necessary. Heathrow has only two runways, but mild and predictable weather. Not all two runway airports are equal. Not all four runway airports are equal. All four runways at Charles de Gaul point in the same direction, which is a lot of capacity. Those four at Haneda consist of two pairs of parallel runways at an angle of 60 degrees to each other, meaning that total capacity is probably a little lower but robustness to changes in weather conditions is probably better. Proposals for another runway at Heathrow (theoretically cancelled by the coalition government, but they will no doubt be back at some point) are for another parallel runway, which is quite a lot of extra capacity.

06 December 2010
New York Transit Museum
Rob Fisher

I’m visiting New York, and today I stumbled upon the Transit Museum Gallery Annex and Store at Grand Central Terminal.

Transit Museum Gallery and Annex

Mostly it’s just a museum shop, but it does have a rather charming model with working trains. There are cutaway sections that illustrate what’s going on underground.

Subway Cutaway

New York subway trains run just beneath the roads, so you can hear the trains when walking along the street, and you can hear the traffic when you’re waiting in the subway station.

Meanwhile I have been trying not to get arrested for taking pictures of bridges and tunnels


So, the Transport Secretary picks the very day I swap my summer tyres for their winter equivalents to (wrongly) claim that they are bad for the roads.

I suppose, if we're going to excuse him we could argue that he was confusing winter tyres - which are just fine - with studded tyres - which aren't.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Road Miscellany
Something I admire about Ryanair
Michael Jennings

Historically, state owned or state favoured airlines have very good at getting governments and even international law to protect them from competition. As monopolists often do, the airlines often justified their protection from competition by arguing what an important public service they were providing.

Approximately, “We fly to all these remote, out of the way places which are otherwise difficult to travel to, and if we had to face competition on our other, more major routes, we would not be able to afford to cross-subsidise our loss-making, but vitally socially necessary minor routes.

This argument was basically as big a load of crap as it sounds, but government often bought it, and thus we ended up with with restrictions on the number of airlines that could (say) fly between London and New York, and also often actual restrictions preventing low fares, in order that the profitable routes could be made more profitable, to supposedly allow cross-subsidies to occur.

Even when the single market came into being in 1993, state owned and favoured airlines obtained one last favour; the single market did not fully apply to aviation until April 1997. Only then could any EU airline fly any route it wanted to within the EU. However, after that, things changed rapidly. Mainly, this was the growth of the discount airlines, the obsessive compulsive leader of which was Ryanair.

The discount airlines figured out that short haul aviation is basically a different business to long haul aviation, and basically figured out that if you cut all the frills and just provide transport, cut costs ferociously, unbundle all the other services, charge fares that are highly variable depending on the flexibility of the passenger (and which can be very cheap), and always more or less fill the plane, you can make money on just about any route.

Even amongst discount airlines, Ryanair is something of a sociopath. As is often the case with highly successful companies that reflect the vision of a single man, it is probably better to say that Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary is something of a sociopath. He is willing to outrage, offend, and piss off his own customers, governments, the BBC, and just about everyone, but he has been so willing to try almost anything that his airline is the one that figures out what innovations work and what don’t. Other discount airlines follow a little way behind, and are more pleasant to fly on. When O’Leary is no longer in charge of Ryanair it will no doubt turn into something more like Easyjet or Wizzair, as it really takes something extraordinary at the top to maintain an attitude like Ryanair’s. (It is easier to be nicer to people). For now it is the company that demonstrates just how low it is possible to make the cost base of an airline.

However, I have a point to make. At present, I am in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. Ryanair have been flying here from London for about a month. There have never been direct flights from Plovdiv to London before, and there have been few direct flights from Plovdiv to anywhere. However, the city has a runway, and has recently built a terminal, and that is all you need. The flight over here was packed with Bulgarians who were happy that they no longer had to travel via Sofia to get here. Several people over the last couple of days have commented how good it is that they now have direct flights.

Ryanair’s route map is something extraordinary. The airline flies to all kinds of places that bureaucrats would have missed back in the days when they were choosing routes that would be flown to and cross-subsidised on the basis that “social responsibility” required this. (It also flies a lot of domestic routes in Germany and Italy in particular, countries in which protected national airlines have traditionally served their people poorly with high fares and inadequate services) Not only has it been proved that a genuine free market will support routes where it has traditionally been argued that some kind of subsidy was necessary, but it has also been proved that a free market will find routes that can be made profitable, that few people even thought might be able to support air services.

Long haul routes are also being deregulated. The argument about how these cross-subsidise loss making but important routes is not heard much any more. For that, Michael O’Leary has my thanks.