Ryanair – Really Getting Better?

Introduction
After several trips with them in the early 2000s, I stopped using Ryanair, mostly because of their inconvenient secondary airports, erratic flight planning and their tendency to schedule flights at ungodly early/late hours. On this trip, however, the times suited our itinerary and our party of four (three adults, one child) ended up paying just under 300 Euros return including three 15 KG bags. Lufthansa would have taken almost 1.000 Euros si this made for a nice opportunity to check out how Ryanair has changed already after year three of their Always Getting Better Program (AGB).

Booking
Booking through their website which was relaunched in AGB year two (=2015) was relatively straightforward. Reducing the range of baggage options from an unbelievable 108 to just 6 probably helped to streamline bookings. Another long overdue step was to finally offer a practicable payment option without an extra payment charge. Before AGB, Ryanair levied such a charge on all payments except those madw with a Visa Electron card – which is not exactly widespread in Europe. Now, tickets can be purchased without a payment charge through SEPA directly debiting your bank account, a system widely used in Germany.

That said, you still have to fend off several attempts to hard-sell insurance, seat reservations, rental cars, hotels and other incidentals at several points during our booking.

Check-in, Departure Airport
Online check-in was perfectly easy and took just under two minutes. Ryanair allows to check-in 7 days prior to departure, so on this four-day trip we could check-in for our return flight as well saving us the search for an internet-café in London, which is very convenient. Bag-drop in Berlin-Schönefeld (SXF) was expedited with very little waiting time as well.

Schönefeld airport, as well as Berlin-Tegel (TXL), would be closed by now, being replaced by Berlins new International Airport (BER) in 2011. Due to massive planning and engineering disasters the only things operating there at the time of writing are the car parks. Rates there are cheap and a free shuttle connects them to the SXF terminal.

So SXF will have to remain open well into the second decade of the 21st century and the airport tries its best. However, it is obvious that the airport of former East Berlin has stretched its life-span to the limit. Some parts of the terminal show their age, some parts show that they were built as short-term facilities to bridge the few years to BER’s opening and the whole place is dark, stuffy and overcrowded. The Non-Schengen area is particularly gloomy with its holding areas and departure gates feeling downright claustrophobic. The saving grace is the Mövenpick restaurant in Terminal D (airside) that sells a wide range of fresh and tasty snacks and flavorful swiss-style coffee.

Crowded house in the Non-Schengen boarding areas
Crowded house in the Non-Schengen boarding areas

Boarding started on time and thanks to free allocated seats, another blessing introduced under Ryanair’s AGB program, no longer resembled a stampede. Another highly appreciated improvement is the relaxation of their strict carry-on rules, allowing one bag as well as a second personal item.

Boeing 737 taxiing to the gate at Berlin-Schönefeld (SXF)
Boeing 737 taxiing to the gate at Berlin-Schönefeld (SXF)

The aircraft was parked a short walk from the terminal and passengers were able to quickly board the Boeing 737 via two sets of airstairs.

Inflight
The flight was operated by an older aircraft still featuring the bright yellow interior scattered with advertisements. Seat pitch is 30 inches which is one inch more than on Eurowings for instance yet still felt tight.

F/A dashing through the cabin in preparation fpr take-off

A notable improvement was the well-organized inflight service with flight attendants handing out inflight magazines containing menus first, then taking orders for meals and afterwards passing trough the aisle selling drinks and snacks from the cart. I really would have tried to sample some of their improved meal options but almost everything was sold out. So I made do with a can of beer and some crisps. The drink was served with a ‘napkin’ that looked pretty similar to their bathroom paper towels, so I guess in some places Ryanair’s good old nickel-and-diming still lives on.

The F/As were working hard to complete service and sales on this brief, full flight and were friendly and positive.

Throughout the flight I felt that Ryanair has indeed toned down its in-your-face onboard sales and promotions, even though there is still plenty of soliciting going on. The one thing they no longer sell are discounted tickets for the Stansted Express-too bad ascthose really used to be a good deal.

Arrival, Onward Journey
The flight landed in London-Stansted (STN) on time. It is quite a walk to get to the arrivals hall were a quick inspection of passports/EU-identity cards is conducted by polite immigration officers. The first bags were delivered to the belt approximately 20 minutes after landing.

Stansted airport is well-connected to central London by National Express coaches and the Stansted Express to Liverpool Street Station, the latter being the fastest and most comfortable, yet expensive option. Tipp: If you are heading for King’s Cross or Bloombury, change at Tottenham Hale for London Underground (Victoria Line).

Return Journey Summary

Stansted Airport preparing for a busy Sunday evening
Stansted Airport preparing for a busy Sunday evening

Our return flight departed a few days later from STN. As it was on a Sunday afternoon with lots of weekend travelers returning, we felt it would be a good idea to buy fast track passes for security. Avilable online at 5,00 GBP per person these are indeed good value and it took just a couple of minutes to get through the checks.

Once in Stansted’s departure area you might easily forget that you have a flight to catch, as it looks and feels more like a shopping mall. While I appreciate the diversion and firmly believe that a ‚Meal Deal‘ from Boots beats any inflight snack combo anytime, the shopping aspects are a little overdone. I find it especially irritating that departure gates are only communicated a very short time before boarding commences. The intention is obviously to keep passengers in the shops for as long as possible, but given the airport’s size this also means you have make a dash if your gate is in one of the satellite concourses.

For the return flight Ryanair treated us to a brand new 737-800 featuring their new interior which btw must have been one of the costliest AGB improvements. Featuring LED lighting, slimline seats and a smart color scheme, this plane could easily be taken for a legacy carrier’s.

Ryanair's brand new interieur featuring blue LEDs, slimline seats and no more yellow, almost.
Ryanair’s brand new interior featuring blue LEDs, slimline seats and no more yellow, well almost.

The flight to Berlin was delayed half an hour but otherwise uneventful.

All things considered, Ryanair seems to have taken the right steps to improve their product. While this still does not make them my favorite airline, they will definitely be in my ‘relevant set’ when planning my next weekend trip.

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