Priority boarding is a common service offered by budget airlines in Europe, including Ryanair. But in the case of the famous low-cost carrier, when you pay for the service, you may not actually get the service you asked for.
How does Ryanair's Priority Boarding Work?
When you are offered priority boarding by Ryanair, the airline puts it to you like this: "Would you like to be one of the first passengers to board to the aircraft?" (Yes, the English is terrible, I know.)
In most cases (that is, at airports where Ryanair passengers board the plane directly from the terminal), the passengers who have paid for Ryanair's Priority Boarding are allowed to board the plane first, as one would expect from such a service.
But at two airports in Spain (Malaga and Tenerife South), as well as 17 other Ryanair destinations in Europe (thus far, Ryanair's spokesman, Stephen McNamara, has refused to tell me which 17), you do not board the plane directly from the terminal. You have to take the bus. So how does Ryanair's Priority Boarding work here?
When passengers board Ryanair planes by bus, those who have paid for priority boarding are asked to board the bus first. First onto the bus is last off the bus. On a full-to-capacity plane, this places you just inside the first half of passengers, but hardly among the 'first' to board (as is stated when you pay for the service). On a half-full plane, you may be one of the last to board the plane.
See also: How Strict is Ryanair's Baggage Policy?
What Is Ryanair Doing About Their Flawed Priority Boarding Process?
Ryanair's spokesman, Mr. McNamara, had this to say:
"It is Ryanair policy to operate walk-on-walk-off boarding at our airports. Ryanair passengers currently ‘bus’ at just two Spanish airports, where walk-on-walk-off services are not yet available (Malaga and Tenerife South). Ryanair will continue to work with these airports to develop walk-on-walk-off services which ensure a more efficient boarding process. Ryanair handling agents at Malaga and Tenerife have been instructed to carry priority boarding passengers in the first bus, thereby allowing them to board the aircraft before other passengers. Ryanair has received no complaints from any passengers in relation to priority boarding at these airports."
First of all, it is not 'Ryanair policy' that dictates how passengers board a plane, but airport policy. This is not the only airport responsibility that Ryanair claims for its own - they like to suggest that it is the airline that loses the fewest bags in Europe when it is actually the airports that handle luggage, not the airline.
This is also not the first time Ryanair has claimed to have received no complaints when anecdotal evidence has suggested otherwise. This time, I have in my possession a copy of a letter sent by a disgruntled passenger about the Priority Boarding, dated 11 days before the above claim.
When I pressed Mr. McNamara on which other airports have bus-boarding, he refused to co-operate, instead preferring to insult my professional credentials. He went on to tell me that he believes the fact that passengers are paying for a service that they are not getting was a 'trivial, non-issue'.
But there are many people who don't think this is a non-issue, including these Consumer Action Group Forum members.
What Have Other Airlines Done to Avoid This Problem?
Obviously, it is not Ryanair's fault that these airports use buses to get to the planes. And, of course, other airlines are faced with the same problem. So what do they do? easyJet's spokeswoman, Samantha Day, had this to say:
"When a coach is used our procedure is to either, send the coach with speedy boarders and priority boarders to the aircraft first. Or when this is not possible as the numbers are small, the procedure is to send the SB [Speedy Boarders] & PB’s [Priority Boarders] to the front of the coach, these doors open first, so they board the aircraft first."
Simple solution, eh? Ryanair's spokesman is now refusing to answer my questions and so I cannot get a reply from them on this. But I'm sure they're reading, so I am confident they will eventually follow easyJet's lead.
How to Get Ryanair's Priority Boarding Without Paying for it
The following only works if you are boarding a Ryanair plane using a bus shuttle service (such as at Malaga, Tenerife South and the 17 other airports in Europe that Ryanair refuses to name).
As you can see above, first onto the first bus (almost certainly) means last off it. Similarly, last onto the second bus means first off it. The difference between last off the first bus and first off the second bus is minimal - surely only a couple of people.
Therefore, if you wait until the very end of the line to get onto the second bus, you will actually get on the plane only marginally behind those who have paid for the privilege, thus saving you money.
This doesn't get you to the front of the line like priority boarding is supposed to get you, but paying for the service won't achieve this for you either. By being the first off the second bus, you should be able to sit with the rest of your party no matter how busy the plane is.