As online reputations go, there’s one UK-based airline that has the lowest of them all – with a TrustPilot score of 0.6/10! Intrigued by this, when booking a flight back home from Edinburgh – London last weekend after a family holiday in Scotland, I decided to experience the airline for myself, so I could form my own opinion.
Checking in for the flight online was straightforward, even if their website’s check-in interface is a little clunky to use. Flybe operate in most regards as a low-cost carrier so I expected to pay extra for checked bags and seat selection (I was travelling on my own with just a backpack so opted for neither) – if I did want to select my own seat this cost £7 – or a little extra for an exit row – so a little more expensive then Easyjet and on a par with Ryanair.
Upon arrival at the airport, I printed my Boarding Pass off at a self-service kiosk (something other low-cost airlines don’t let you do – it’s handy particularly when your phone is almost flat, as mine was!) and went straight through Security. I’d prebooked the No.1 Lounge so got fast-track security as part of the deal, but it wasn’t needed, I somewhat suspect I’d have been through quicker in the regular line which was practically empty!
No more than 10 minutes after arriving at the airport, I was seated in the No. 1 Lounge which has views overlooking the airport’s single runway. This lounge has recently been refurbished, and whilst it felt like they were trying to pack in as many tables as possible, it was perfectly serviceable and the food quality (I had the butternut squash curry – recommended!)/drinks selection was good.
Before long, it was time to make my way to the gate. One nice thing about Edinburgh airport is that the main terminal is quite compact, so even the furthest gates are no more than 10 minutes walk away from the security checkpoint, compared to Heathrow which can be more than double that, or even a transit ride away! As we arrived at the gate, the aircraft had just parked up after its inbound flight from London.
The main complaint reported on Social Media about Flybe is their hand luggage policy, and I was intrigued as to how they’d handle it on my flight. Before I go into details on why they’re criticised for this – a bit of background. Flybe use the Dash-8 Q400 aircraft as the backbone of their fleet, including on the Edinburgh-London route I travelled, and this aircraft type can’t fit standard cabin-size bags in the overhead compartments. As such, Flybe have smaller hand luggage size restrictions than most airlines, including Easyjet and Ryanair (who use larger Airbus/Boeing aircraft).
The issue with Flybe’s interpretation of this is twofold. Firstly, other carriers who use planes of this size (including most of the major US carriers for domestic flights) will allow you to gate check items which are up to standard carryon size, but larger than the aircraft cabin can accommodate, free of charge. Flybe, however, charge £50 to gate check oversize luggage.
The other, related, issue is that they are inconsistent in applying the policy. A quick search of Twitter shows the scale of this problem, with Flybe’s feed being dominated by Tweets such as this one:
As it turned out, on my flight, no hand luggage was checked for size at all (I hung back to be virtually last to board, so I could see whether any checks were taking place). This caused problems of its own, as there were a few bags that wouldn’t physically fit into the overhead lockers! These were kept in the back galley, but had there been more of them it would have caused further issues.
Aside from it taking a while for me to get to my seat due to the aforementioned issues with overhead storage space, the boarding process itself went smoothly – as the Q400 has stairs integrated into the doors they don’t use jetbridges, so out into the rain we went!
The flight itself then had a 45 minute weather delay – not the airline’s fault and considering they’ve also been slated for their onboard communications in the past, I felt Flybe handled this fine on our flight – with the pilot giving updates to us every 15 minutes or so.
Eventually though, we were on our way, and treated to a stunning view of the Forth Bridge as we climbed out of Edinburgh.
Shortly after reaching cruising altitude, the onboard service started. Flybe operates a buy-on-board service, akin to other low-cost airlines. I didn’t buy anything but the pricing was typical compared to other airlines e.g. a snack and a soft drink cost around £5-£6.
With the end-to-end flight duration being 90 minutes, we were only at cruise altitude for around half of the flight, and it took virtually all of that time for the two cabin crew to complete their journey up the aisle with the trolley then come around again collecting the rubbish. It probably didn’t help matters that their card machine was broken so they were taking payments with a manual card imprint device, something I’ve not seen for years!
Before long we were descending in towards London City Airport, following the path of the Thames from the Thames Estuary before landing in the Docklands area of London. Whilst not as steep as when approaching from the west over the city itself, the approach angle was noticeably steeper than that of other London airports like Heathrow, and we touched down with quite a bump!
The domestic arrivals process at London City Airport is very efficient, and with no bags to collect I was on the DLR within about 5 minutes of stepping off the plane! You can certainly see why it’s popular with business travellers.
So, to sum up – personally I didn’t have any real issues with my particular flight. Even with the delay, communications from the Captain were good, and we were allowed to move around the cabin and use the onboard toilet facilities whilst waiting on the tarmac. The onboard experience was similarly passable (though nothing exceptional) – the cabin crew were friendly and helpful, and the seats were comfortable if a bit tightly packed in – I was originally booked in an aisle seat and offered to swap with the particularly tall passenger next to me as he’d have had quite an uncomfortable journey without being able to stretch into the aisle!
That being said, it does look like I was lucky – I was hoping that this might have signalled a positive shift in the customer experience generally after the recent acquisition of the airline by Connect Airways, a consortium with Virgin as a majority partner (who have a reputation for good customer experience across their other airline brands) but it seems that the general passenger sentiment is still negative overall, at least going by online reviews and Social Media posts.
What would I do if I were Connect Airways? A couple of quick wins which would resolve one of the most common complaints almost overnight – first of all I’d get rid of the £50 charge to gate check oversize hand luggage and, at the same time, make hand luggage size allowances comparable with other airlines.
The other thing I’d prioritise is investing in Customer Relations. Flybe are currently advertising a 35 day response time for all enquiries, which simply isn’t good enough. I’d also get rid of the canned Social Media responses and give the Social Media team the training and authority to offer truly exceptional customer services, actually resolving issues rather than just pointing people to other forms of contact.
Have you flown Flybe – and if so what was your experience? Or have you been put off flying them due to their poor reputation? I’d be interested to hear in the comments below.