How Low Can You Go?

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Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary has announced his desire to remove all but one of the toilets on each of his planes, and install a coin-operated lock so passengers need to pay to use it. What’s strange to me isn’t how radically nutsy this idea might be. Rather, it’s that nobody is terribly surprised.

Consumer expectations of airlines border on what they they’ll get from their cable operators or dentists. Service that will be minimally sufficient. Unpleasant, at least, and likely painful. A necessity more than a choice. There’s no real connection between cost/benefit when buying airline tickets, just like cable charges or dental bills seem arbitrary. The prices are chosen by throwing darts for all we know, so the only thing we need to do is look for the lowest. It’ll always seem like too much.

Airlines aren’t brands, they’re necessary evils.

This condition encourages them to strip out all costs associated with operating airplanes up to the point at which a standing-room-only and infrequently available air to breathe policy finally forces passengers to travel by rail or foot, and reach beyond the flying experience and monetize behaviors that occur before or after. 

So no meals, blankets or pillows; plane interiors cleaned less often or completely; automated check-in; checked-bag fees (and Spirit’s recently announced plans to charge for carry-on luggage). It’s a race to the bottom for airlines to promise as little as possible beyond getting passengers from Point A to Point B. Changes or additions to this expectation have fees attached. 

By threatening to charge for bathroom use RyanAir is tacitly saying "go before you go." You know the in-flight drill: everyone downs their free can of soda or juice and then lines up in the aisle to use the toilet. It makes everyone’s lives unpleasant (not least of which the flight attendants), but it’s no worse than sitting next to someone who brought with him an entire hot pizza, chooses to remove her nail polish, or thinks alcoholism makes for desperately fascinating conversation.

So is RyanAir trying to help us in spite of ourselves? Less bathroom use would be a slight improvement of the flying experience. For that matter, think of all the numbnuts who carry their life’s possessions onto planes and then have the prerequisite problems finding storage space, getting the overstuffed bags to fit, retrieving them, and knocking their way onto and off of planes. Spirit’s plans might and be intended to make those brands marginally better?


Coin-operated toilets and carry-on charges are just two more ways to communicate and support the airlines’ low price positioning. Media coverage gives those brands the benefit whether or not the policies are ever implemented; in fact, ever carrying them out might be more trouble than they’re worth. Imagine a bathroom emergency only the guy doesn’t have the right change? Not pretty. 

Making such declarations is somewhat similar to the frequent vaporware announcements that come from technology companies: you declare that some widget or software is coming down the pike before you even plan on developing it because it supports your current business and dares your competitors to respond. If RyanAir is so committed to low prices that it would charge for toilet use, well then it must offer the lowest fares. What’s EasyJet going to do in response…charge passengers for looking out the windows?

I’m fascinated by the branding benefits of participating in this race to the bottom, though, and it suggests to me  that other industries might want to examine and reaffirm their consumer cost/benefit equations. It’s not a good thing when they expect the worst and then resent what they pay for it. And it will only get worse for everyone involved.

I’d love to write more but I need to make a flight and I need to hit the bathroom first.

Image source:  Ma1974

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