I think I know, by now, what makes a real budget airline. And I also know, having just flown to Frankfurt and back on a brand called Buzz, what doesn’t. What doesn’t make a real budget airline is a dodgy corporate identity job and a poster campaign, plus a slogan that reads: Three people had an idea.
What makes a real budget airline, from Freddie Laker’s Skytrain in the 1970s to Ryanair and EasyJet today, is obvious enough: it offers cheap fares by saving money on its operations. It can do this in a number of ways. Not offering any “free” in-flight service is just one, but only a tiny one, since the real costs are in the salaries of cabin staff, and the numbers present are determined by safety legislation, not catering requirements. The real costs are cut elsewhere. Not having an inclusive airline tuck-box is a kind of reverse window-dressing: it gives the correct low-budget impression while scarcely lowering the budget at all. Meanwhile, the cabin staff can lounge around, unless a passenger is desperate enough to want to buy a coffee on board. I was that desperate passenger. The coffee was surprisingly good. That was the last good Buzz thing I experienced.
Once, a budget airline would have run ancient – really ancient – planes. The best example was the now defunct Dan-Air, which operated de Havilland Comets – the world’s first jet airliner – right up to the early 1980s, when all other surviving examples were in museums. I was one of six people on a Dan-Air Comet to Stuttgart once. The crew asked us not to bunch together in the cabin, lest we upset the plane’s balance. And ice formed on the inside of the porthole. That’s budget for you. Oh, and they gave us lunch.
Dan-Air combined the old-plane dodge with the second attribute of the budget airline: using seriously inconvenient, therefore very cheap, airports. Flying Dan-Air from London to Paris involved getting on a coach at Victoria, bussing down to Lydd in Kent, getting on a Vickers Viscount (that means propellers) and flying to Beauvais. Then you got on another coach and bussed to Paris. Ah, but it was cheap.
Antique machinery is not so attractive to today’s operators. Old planes don’t seem to crash much more than new ones, but they need expensive updating to meet current legislation, and the fuel costs are higher. EasyJet’s leased Boeings are gleaming new. But they are at Luton Airport, which doesn’t cost much as a base. Or at any rate, it used not to. Now it’s been tarted up at considerable expense – including a vast new terminal and a very slightly more convenient railway station – to make it more like a mainstream airport. EasyJet, being a true budget outfit, is threatening to move somewhere cheaper.
And Buzz? Buzz is an abomination. Buzz used to be called KLM-UK, and before that was an independent, Air UK. I used to like Air UK, flying from Stansted in its new BAE 146 whisper-jets. Once KLM took over, running it at arm’s length from Schipol, the operation became somewhat arthritic. And now the same planes – ageing, now – have been painted bright yellow and rebranded as Buzz, it is truly awful.
Buzz is a lame response to British Airways’ Go brand. Go, in turn, was BA’s response to EasyJet, which pluckily refused to sell out to the monster airline. Just as BA subsidises Go, KLM subsidises Buzz. But whereas BA set up its new subsidiary at Stansted – an airport it had hardly previously used, and which thus represented cost savings – KLM was there already. So it is in the same place, it has the same eight planes, and it flies to the same European destinations – not weird budget places. What’s different, then? The yellow paint.
And not just yellow. Inside, they’ve slapped bilious green paint over the bulkheads, while seat fabrics are mauve. This, presumably, is an attempt to emulate the brazen orange image of EasyJet. Sadly, the cabin fittings are otherwise untouched, and they’ve reached that rattly, broken tray-catch, flickering fluorescent-tube phase. These planes need a real refit, not paint. But paint is easy, like buying sites for a poster campaign. So paint is what you’ve got.
I had plenty of time to ponder all this as I waited hours for the incredibly delayed last Buzz flight back from Frankfurt. Apologies were cursory, the atmosphere grim, the tawdry decor already looking ragged. If you had to design an airline, how would you do it? Consider that slogan: Three people had an idea. What it doesn’t tell you is that they had a very unoriginal idea, and then failed to follow it through. But at least Buzz proves one old dictum: packaging design can’t disguise a fundamentally bad product. You’ve got to redesign the thing inside the package.