Talk About Quality

Tom Harris

Agile Travel — Does it Pay?

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Can you get quality and on-time performance at less cost, based on discipline, openness, and prioritization by value to the customer? Agile says you can. I decided to put it to the test even while traveling to an Agile conference in London (RallyON Europe 2014), by traveling a no-frills airline into Luton, UK. You guessed it, it’s EasyJet, the airline where the only thing that’s free is the orange color scheme that makes everything from the check-in area to the seat headrests look like a children’s playground.

My no-frills experience started while packing. Several readings (or viewings — they have a video too) of the EasyJet cabin baggage policy. One carry-on bag allowed. ONE. They make every effort to be “open and upfront” about that. And two size limits: a normal one that they might still check (for free) if the flight is crowded, or a really small one — 50cm x 40cm x 20cm — that they guarantee you’ll be able to take on the plane.

So I got that into my head. Flying a no-frills airline is easier if you’re prepared. Pack light. Pack only the one bag. Make sure it meets the guaranteed carry-on requirements. (Tip: While EasyJet allows online checkin for all flights up to 30 days in advance, don’t check in until you’ve made up your mind about bags and seats, because after that, at check-in, the prices are higher.)

I measured all the carry-on bags we had in the house, then put them aside and chose a medium-sized day pack instead. Packed minimally and measured. It just fit the guaranteed carry on baggage size as long as not filled too fat. Nice clothes for 3 days, a laptop, a few other small essentials. True, I’ll have to repack carefully each night so I’ll be ready for the return flight. Trading that discipline for the convenience of just throwing everything in to a large suitcase at the end of the trip. Added benefit is that I’ll be able to walk or metro easily wherever I need to get to, hands free. Just the light backpack. Less is more.

Trip to the airport. I was traveling from a warm climate to a colder, rainier London, so I was a bit warm wearing my layered sweater and rain jacket. I took them off when safely seated on the shuttle bus, and to be sure to remember them, I repeated the mantra: “You have 3 items: jacket, sweater, backpack”. The sweater would actually prove useful later — over a short-sleeve polo it kept me comfortable on the air-conditioned flight. No need for one of those airline blankets. Which EasyJet does not supply.

At the aiport. On arrival, I discovered that EasyJet departed from an old terminal rather than the new one I was used to, so I jumped off there and asked my way around. Separate terminal for check-in but I realize now I probably didn’t have to go there. My boarding pass did say that I could have gone directly to security, passport control, and gate at the main terminal. But everything was smooth and not crowded at the EasyJet security and passport areas and shuttle back to main terminal was quick too. Let me out straight into duty free as a transit passenger.

Onboard. The phrase that comes to mind is “nickel and diming“: EasyJet charges extra for everything. But I changed my mindset — can’t think about it that way. Instead, I used the significant savings on the main ticket price to feel better about adding on any extras. EasyJet believes their system is better for the customer: I pay only for what has value to me.

One extra I found worth it for peace of mind was to choose seats beforehand. That way I didn’t have to wonder what seat I would get and how cramped it might be. I probably should have paid even a bit more to get the extra legroom seats because for someone with long legs, the seat spacing was tight enough to hit my knees unless I sat up really straight the whole time. Not that that was so difficult: the obligatory announcement on take-off to “put your seat backs in their upright position” is superfluous on EasyJet as the seats do not recline. Just as well, because if they did, nobody would have any space at all!

The “speedy boarding” extra charge  might have been worth it too, to board sooner, but I made up for it by being first in line for the general boarding. I stood (rather than sat) at the gate for the 10 minutes it took to board the “speedy boarding” people first. In essence, I got to be the last speedy boarder without paying the fee. I guess that’s called advanced flow control … or just gaming the queue.

What about the infamous 50 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm x 1 bag rule? I had never seen it in person so I even brought along a measuring tape to make sure and prove it if I had to. But the EasyJet metal sizer stand was mostly there as a prop to support the gate staff’s emphasis of the 1 bag part. Nobody’s bag was actually tested in the sizer. The tally: two or three cases of, “That’s not one bag, sir, that’s three — please arrange it as one bag and return to the gate when you have done so.” A few got, “That purse, it’s not duty free — you’ll have to put it inside your carry-on suitcase.” Which they actually did, with minimal complaint. One or two people slid by with a regulation carry-on but also another bag.

The real challenge to on-time take-off was when people boarded the plane. Since I had been on the first shuttle bus, and thus already seated by the time most people boarded, and I had a row 8 aisle seat, I had a good view. There wasn’t any pushing or shoving — people were relatively polite and quiet. But to board a 180-seat, one-aisle plane where everyone has the maximum-size carry-on took quite some time as people worked to fit their bags into the overhead compartments. And then, remembering what they would want during the flight, standing in the aisle blocking progress while they got it out. Echoing the recorded announcement, one or two passengers assertively and vocally encouraged people within earshot to please sit down in their seats so we wouldn’t miss our turn at takeoff. I admit that I was one of the two. But in the end, all were seated, only the very last few people boarding had to use their precious under-seat footroom to stow a bag, and we took off 20 minutes late. Since that was followed by the flight staff’s announcement that we would nevertheless be landing on time, I gather that EasyJet includes the slow boarding process as part of their scheduled flight time.

The flight itself. Cramped legroom but survivable, especially if you get up and walk around every so often, which is a good idea on any flight. There is food service, and you pay even for a cup of tea. But if you want one, you can afford it: you saved 80 cups of tea by flying EasyJet instead of the non-budget competitor. They actually came through twice during a 5-hour evening flight, and still had a reasonable selection of hot and cold foods. If you buy more than GBP 5, you can even use a credit card to pay. Otherwise, cash on the barrel — well, on the trolley.

I didn’t buy any food on the plane. I had used my cheap gold card (i.e. not American Express which is great but costs money) to get into the cheap airport lounge, and I ate there instead. But if I had been more hungry, the egg salad sandwich would have been fine.

Newspapers cost money too. I brought my laptop to read from instead. (Essential Scrum by Kenneth S. Rubin.)

During the flight, there was also some kind of duty free service. It’s for people who must have an overpriced, underfed Paddington Bear. To be fair, I don’t really know if they were overpriced, because I didn’t even ask.

They are efficient on the food service. For example, my neighbor’s selection (twice!) was “tea, 3 milks, 2 sugars”. It was only by the second time that I realized how they served that. No pouring here. Instead, a large paper hot cup, filled and covered, and a second paper cup with cigar-sized packs of sugar and dehydrated milk. Worked for my neighbor, and the flight staff came by promptly after each time with a bag to collect trash. Now that I think about it, the food service was much cleaner, quicker, and more comfortable than on full-service flights. No sitting for a half hour waiting for your food while the rest of a 300-seat plane is served, and then another half hour with the leftovers on your tray table, preventing you from resting, working, or even getting up to walk around. People who wanted to eat got to, and yet air was fresh and aisles were clear pretty much the whole flight. Approaching the end of the flight, they came through a third time with food and gifts, and announced they even sell bus tickets!

Cramped? (I was.) Hungry (I wasn’t). But those were my choices. Next time I’ll know to buy extra legroom.

In summary, an agile experience: EasyJet has a system which requires discipline from staff and customers. In return, they provide a quiet, clean, on-time flight for half the price.

Tomorrow morning, EasyJet’s orange cousin, EasyBus!

Written by Tom Harris

November 11, 2014 at 3:09 am

Posted in Agile

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