Stormy Skies For Europe’s Low-Cost Airlines

Times are tough for budget airlines, with rising fuel costs and new competition from traditional companies joining the price-cutting game.

( Mikel Ortega)

By Ernst August Ginten

DIE WELT/Worldcrunch

BERLINA young woman wearing a fluorescent yellow-green safety vest looks slightly aloof as she monitors the security line at Berlin-Schönefeld airport. But when a passenger with a large travel bag approaches, she immediately snaps to attention. She asks him to squeeze his bag into a narrow 55x40x20 cm metal cage, but it does not fit. The young woman informs the passenger that he'll have to check his bag for the flight – and it's going to cost him.

Employees like these for the Irish budget airline Ryanair ensure that no one with a too heavy or too large piece of carry-on luggage is allowed to board. Every extra kilo drives up the airline's fuel consumption, and Ryanair is forced to pass these additional expenses onto its customers.

Thanks to this iron discipline, the Irish – with their roughly 250 aircraft – have become market leaders in Europe. Customers can incur extra fees at all stages of their trip. For example, Ryanair's passengers must check-in electronically if they are flying to Britain, and those who fail to do so must pay high fees at the airport. Despite its ruthless practices, Ryanair serves more than 72 million passengers (up 10 percent from last year) and remains Europe's leading low-cost airline.

However, there are many signs that the recent proliferation of budget airlines has reached saturation – both economically and psychologically. Prices can only drop so low, and the costs of air travel, the bulk of which come from fuel and government fees and taxes, continue to rise.

Even Ryanair customers are beginning to rebel from the often tough conditions that come with such low prices. Recently, fog forced the re-routing of a Ryanair plane from Beauvais, France, to Liege in Belgium, nearly 350 kilometers (217 miles) away. When the plane landed in this alternative destination, already several hours late, 100 passengers refused to exit the aircraft to be taken to Beauvais by bus. The crew left the airplane, and the pilot switched off the lights and locked the toilets. Airport employees and members of the local fire department were left to calm the ensuing storm of protest.

Ryanair spends an average of 39 euros per seat per flight. Revenue is about 45 euros per seat, which comes not only from tickets but from additional passenger transportation and the sale of coffee, sandwiches and lottery tickets. With these figures, the company has mercilessly warded off all of its competitors. Remarkably, revenue for Ryanair has continued to grow over the past two years, even though the average ticket price, at 35 euros, has actually dropped by 5 euros.

Micheal O'Leary, the hard-charging CEO of Ryanair, can sense that this period of rapid growth is coming to a close. Despite the relative success the company has seen, its stocks have suffered.

"Many low-cost airlines will soon reach a limit in growth," predicts Tanya Wielgoß, consultant at AT Kearney. For most lucrative European routes are now served by at least one cheap company. And because the price of crude oil has reached the 95 dollar mark again, it is too expensive for airlines to open new routes or try to undercut competitors with lower prices.

The Traditional Airlines Fight Back

In addition, established carriers are increasingly copying the low-cost model – adopting both the prices and the stripped-down service models of their budget-oriented peers. Many major network companies "have adapted to the economies of the low-cost airlines, and in many cases, the service they offer is no longer that different," says Wielgoß.

"It's going to get tight in the middle," says a British industry expert, outlining the development of the industry. "Other than Ryanair and Wizz, there aren't any purely low-cost airlines left in Europe," adds Gerd Pontius, head of Prologis management consulting. "The market has reached its zenith, and further growth cannot be expected."

These changes are forcing many airlines, such as Easyjet, to set their eyes on new target groups. The second largest European low-cost airline is now hoping to attract more business travelers. Currently, the percentage of business travelers is only at 18 percent. The company is even thinking of offering assigned seating – an option which was until now unthinkable for a low-cost provider.

Easyjet has already decided to offer a new flexible ticket, which customers will be able to transfer up to two hours before their departure. There will be extra perk options as well, such as "Speedy Boarding," which will allow customers to board early, and one free checked bag.

Ryanair Turns to Major Airports

Even more amazing is that Ryanair is beginning to provide service to more and more major airports, a move that can also be seen as a nod to business travelers who may want to save a bit of money but don't want to travel through remote airports. Because of high landing fees at major airports, the Irish company had until recently avoided these destinations as much as possible, often choosing landing sites up to 100 kilometers away from the major cities their passengers were flying to. Michael "O Leary has been under pressure to change this policy in recent years. Many small airports were built for the needs of low-cost airlines with taxpayer money, as these airports are often operated by the state because they cannot support themselves economically.

Ryanair now flies directly to Barcelona, and will soon add direct services to Seville and Valencia. There are murmurs in the industry that the company now also has six Boeing 737-800 aircraft stationed in the Canary Islands. With these planes, the Irish budget flyer could begin to compete with established charter companies there or with Air Berlin, the so-called hybrid airline.

Air Berlin has grown significantly in the past years through the acquisition of many of its competitors, but it has earned almost no profit thus far. This is partly because its business operations are so complex: the company offers long-distance routes as well as packaged tours. There is a frequent flyer program, and tickets do not need to be booked online. Snacks are free even on short and medium haul routes, coffee is refilled often, and magazines and newspapers are distributed to passengers – even though paper is heavy and adds to the rising fuel costs that the airline must face. However, Air Berlin is still considered a low-cost provider, and provides by far the most flight options of any airline in Germany.

And increasingly, the established airlines of Europe are joining the low-cost fray. These companies will never offer the pure budget services that Ryanair does, but they are lowering prices and adjusting services accordingly. Even the great Lufthansa offers some routes to Europe that are cheaper than its low-cost subsidiary German Wings. This may just be clever marketing, but it is also a sign that the old guard is finally learning from its low-cost competitors.

Read the original article in German

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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