I joined British Airways as a “stewardess” in 1996, the same year that Westjet was born, serving Champagne and small bowls of salted cashews to international passengers who demanded luxury in the sky. Elegance and attention to detail was the name of the game.
But change was in the air. Ultra low cost carriers (ULCCs) such as Easyjet and Ryanair were becoming popular with customers who were happy to exchange their inflight frills for low fares. By 2016 Ryanair, once “the little guy” became the largest airline in Europe, in terms of passengers carried.
More than two decades later, Canada is facing its own low-cost revolution with WestJet-owned Swoop, which launched its first flight on Wednesday, and Flair, an already established ULCC.
With fond memories of my flying days, how could I resist the temptation to try out a new airline, and better yet, take myself somewhere new for the weekend? I booked a flight from my hometown of Halifax to Hamilton for a base fare of $79 on Swoop.
The first thing to know about the tax-inclusive base fare is that it is almost never what you end up paying. Everything from hand baggage to a glass of water is considered extra.
Flair airlines refers to this model as “à la carte,” while Swoop claims its fares to be “unashamedly unbundled,” but the truth is that a base fare serves as a very effective marketing tool.
“We don’t deny that it’s the fare that gets people in,” says Swoop president Steven Greenway. “It’s the hook, and we’ve got to make sure that the fare is as low as possible so we can be competitive in the marketplace.”
Since it’s more expensive to take a carry-on item aboard the plane ($40.25) than to check a bag ($28.75), I chose to put my luggage in the hold, understanding that I would be limited to a “personal item” on board.
It’s worth checking the dimensions of your “personal item.” Small wheelie bags are a no-no, and even a school-sized backpack can be too big.
As I breezed through security with only a messenger bag hanging comfortably on my shoulder, I felt a little sorry for some of my fellow travellers, lugging their great heavy wheelie bags toward other airlines. Travelling light, I felt liberated and a little smug.
The feeling of freedom was quickly extinguished when I crammed myself (a healthy size 16) into my “randomly assigned at check-in” seat.
Things got worse when I chose to buy the most substantial thing on the onboard snack menu: a large Mr. Noodles-brand Chicken Pho, for $4.99, served with a fork (no chopsticks, no spoon), and a Belgian Moon beer for $6.89.
I can tell you that slurping wet spicy noodle soup from Styrofoam while wedged in the confines of a tiny airline seat is nearly impossible. Worse still, my beer exploded as I opened it. “It’s the air pressure,” explained my flight attendant. Twenty years ago, I would never have handed a passenger a beer without opening it first – a small, intangible service gesture that costs nothing.
On arrival at Hamilton, with a patch of chili sauce on my shirt, and smelling ever-so-faintly of beer, I evaluated the overall flight experience.
Was it luxurious or elegant? No, but the flight was smooth, the service was friendly, and for roughly $100 I had escaped from the East Coast for a couple of days.
The only thing I would do differently next time is to bring a granola bar.