the man with the pink suitcase

The man with the pink suitcase

by Janice Nigro

I have had exhausting travel days. Recently, I flew 11.5 hours to Munich from LAX, picked up my luggage at the baggage claim in Munich, checked my bag for Roma, re-entered through security, flew to Roma, took the Leonardo Express to the city, purchased a train ticket at Roma Termini, caught the train to Florence, and finally reached my hotel in Florence by taxi.

Flying a low cost airline to a single city, for only an hour and a half of our time, caused more trauma. So I had to ask, is there a rationale for low cost airlines?

At first, the only logic I could see was that there were limited options in getting from Point A to Point B and back again. Because it was winter in Italy, fewer flights were available for our destination and then only from specific cities. After surviving the trip to our destination, I wondered exactly what does the low cost carrier provide that a regular airline does not besides a safe ride and a potentially ridiculously inexpensive ticket. The safe ride is the part that I always have to remind myself of when traveling-focus on reaching your destination.

I specifically avoided these types of airlines when I lived in Europe mostly because I worried about flight cancellations. The fact that these flights tend to depart and return on only certain days of the week can make any potential delay rather lengthy and thus more expensive, which of course may not be an issue if you are in some tropical paradise. So let’s say that when I discovered we would be flying on one, I created some additional very unnecessary stress for the person who booked the flights.

Obviously, low cost fares open air travel to people who probably could not afford it otherwise. Grade school class trips, for example. In addition, it makes sense that business travelers may use such an airline, as they are often only traveling for a day or two. Furthermore, the airline we were flying had been in operation for 30 years and was making money, so there was the proof-the business model must work.

So while the business model works on paper, what is it really like to fly on them?

Again, it is most important to remember the ultimate goal, which is to arrive to your destination safely. The first thing I found out, is that the reservation (and subsequent check-in process) requires many steps. None of this is perhaps different than booking a more typical airline now, except that any misstep results in a penalty of a huge amount of money. For example, if you forget the paper version of your boarding pass, it might cost you 60 euros. Yikes, at home it is easy to print a ticket, but while traveling it can take a few extra steps to print out your ticket. In fact why can’t you use your smartphone like any other airline?

I keep emphasizing the point about arriving safely.The issue is not really about the maintenance of the plane or pilot experience, but rather we the passengers.

It is clear that passengers, in order to maintain the low cost, avoid checking baggage. If you have ever flown on a low cost carrier with this policy, you can see why this is a hazard. It also happens to take extra time to board when passengers have excessive baggage. This policy however also affects boarding generally and makes me wonder whether there should be an air passenger’s education course.

Flights are often parked at a remote location so a bus ride is necessary. On our return, only a single bus was available to transfer passengers on a completely booked flight. One plus about the plane at a remote location is that it can be boarded from both ends. This works if the passengers (it tells you which end to board on the ticket), or maybe more importantly, the flight attendants guide the passengers so that the plane can be boarded efficiently.

None of this happened, so a flight that should have taken about 20 minutes to board, took over an hour. It makes it difficult to understand how these policies translate into a savings for the company, especially if boarding delays occur repeatedly.

One thing I failed to notice was the sign at the gate which declares that only the first 90 passengers are guaranteed luggage space on the plane. Oops…is that why everyone is standing in line already and creating the big nuisance in the airport? I still failed to see how the rule could be enforced when passengers have to be transported by bus to the plane. It can be if there is only a single bus and/or you are not among the first 90 passengers standing in line at the gate (your carry-on will be automatically taken from you).

Somehow you get sucked in and you find yourself adopting “a low cost carrier passenger” mentality. You fight the inevitable-just paying for the bag or other service that you can choose to pay for or not. We actually discussed leaving a bag behind (like where would we do that)-when the ticket price was already pretty much a bargain.

The setting for this trip was in Italy, more specifically Sicily. I admire Italians for their drama, sometimes over even something like the changing of a light bulb. Anything sounds beautiful in Italian. But sooner or later something was going to blow because these were suitcases.

Sure enough, one man (> 90 in line) refused to leave his suitcase. He started to have a small tantrum in the only free area remaining in the bus. I was told to board it and make myself comfortable. Sure thing, I thought. I felt for this man, and then I noticed that his suitcase was bright pink. A pink suitcase. I would have thought he would have been more than happy to give that one up…and discreetly. “Phew, thank you man for taking it from me.” I kind of felt like reminding him of that (whisper whisper, your suitcase is pink, sir), but I wanted the bus to move.

He should have been removed from the flight. It was clear however that the exchange was categorized as a routine minor drama, as he boarded the flight anyway with his pink suitcase. And I wonder what was in it…

Low cost carriers are for sure here to stay even perhaps without customer loyalty/service; the flights were packed. I was surprised to discover that our low cost carrier had been operating in Europe for 30 years. While I was living in Europe, I thought it was going to go out of business. There were also threats to charge even for the use of the toilet, which in retrospect might have been purely for advertising. A bit of a tabloid move, perhaps, because I wasn’t paying much attention to the airline before that controversy.

Admittedly everything gets taken care of in the cockpit, but it’s a zoo in the back. Like an out of control school bus. In the midst of it, the airline has items for purchase and in an odd mix of concepts, a charity (disguised as a lottery) they would like you to donate to.

It was the kind of experience I would not be excited to repeat. It all adds up to another travel experience though-a safe and memorable one. And the man with the pink suitcase created some comic relief on an otherwise stressful day. In the end, we all were able to laugh about the flight, and despite my less than positive attitude, I would perhaps be invited on another trip with my family.

©2015 Janice Marie Nigro/


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