As the traveller’s friend easyJet find themselves in a public relations pickle for overbooking an Easter getaway flight, I am further illuminated in my belief the term “mini-break” is an oxymoron. There is no “mini-break” from life in the Luton airport easyJet check-in queue. Nor in the overflowing 5am Wetherspoon’s or amongst the stags and crying toddlers. Fleeing one’s everyday routine for a budget flight, then an Airbnb is bald-faced consumerism positioned as gypsy spirit. And its cruddy consumerism at that.
Being informed your designated plane is still in Alicante festooned in panini crumbs is not remotely a break. Arguing with a Hertz representative is not relaxing. Eating other people’s mayonnaise in an upsold rental apartment is the opposite of zen. If I ever Airbnb again I’ll forget the negligee and pack a Glade plug-in and a verruca sock. Mini-breaks are a cultural mirage. The modern notion that Bruges will be better than Brighton, or Madrid far happier than Manchester is merely sticking a capitalist Elastoplast over introspective angst. An actual break would be turning off the internet for 48 hours, doing a “delicates” hand wash and breathing a bit. Don’t shoot the messenger, you only hate me for speaking the truth.
I’m caused to think of our modern obsession with “getting away” due to the story of Manoj and Viddha – second names withheld at their request – who attempted to fly on easyJet EZY2383 on 10 April. Due to oversold flights the couple were removed from the aircraft. Manoj and Viddha suffered a fresh new fear in the world of mini-breaks and getaways: being escorted off the flight in front of a packed plane. “This was an incredibly humiliating situation,” said Manoj, an IT consultant. The incident bears similarities to David Dao’s removal from a United Airlines flight last week, resulting in, his lawyers say, him losing two front teeth and suffering a broken nose and concussion.
But while both stories display atrocious customer service, what I find curious is how prolific “no-shows” on flights have now become. Of course airlines gamble on no-shows, commentators have said; particularly on cheap short-haul flights. We are so prone to not show up. While our grandparents travelled almost nowhere, booked few flights and took the concept of travel seriously, the modern First World traveller is flaky. My grandparents travelled abroad on holiday once in their lifetime. The tickets were bought months before, pinned to a notice board, scrutinised, taxis pre-booked, and the entire street was aware of what day they were flying and returning.
Today’s travel operator has a business model built around a very modern malaise: folk seduced by bargains, convinced happiness is waiting in Biarritz, Benidorm and Bruges who might go cold on the idea nearer the time. We book budget ten quid tickets to Paris at 2am while tipsy. We book cut-price Thursday night getaways that our bosses won’t permit us to take. We book weekends away then miss the flight, because, well, Friday night traffic. We book flights when we’re in love and simply know going to Paris would make our love so much stronger, except a fortnight later we’ve split up. It could be argued that easyJet adores our flakiness and poor timekeeping, or that overbooking is sheer greed on the airlines part. But they’re also protecting against losses. And aren’t we as humans part of the problem too. What would a world be like if we only bought the things we seriously planned to use?
My further obsession this week has been working out how cabin crews choose to bump people like Manoj and Viddha. According to airline lore, apparently your best chance of staying on board is to be an unaccompanied minor, a traveller with a disability, be enrolled in a frequent flyer scheme or have an expensive fare.
Often, I have read, bumping people off flights is a bit like a grand-scale game of musical chairs, involving check-in times. If you sat down last, as it were, your seat will now be taken away. And what happens next is up to you, but if we have learned anything this week it is that calm compliance is the winning tactic.
Yes, it may be tempting to inflate oneself to twice the size and hiss like a disgruntled tom cat meeting a pet carrier, yet at some level, I feel the airline security see this as pure sport. Better to disembark from your planned mini-break, go home, have a nice cup of tea, put a colours-wash on, sort out your sock drawer and sleep in your own lovely bed. Let’s be honest: it will be more of a holiday anyway.