The branding, market positioning and passenger experience decisions of European low-cost carriers are fascinating, and Volotea’s is the latest I’ve experienced in a long line dating all the way back to the erstwhile Go some 25 years ago. Identity-wise, Volotea’s red-beige-khaki checkerboard is reminiscent of a knockoff Burberry check scarf — and so, in many ways, is its passenger experience, which is an intensely average, commoditised modern Euro-LCC.
Spain-headquartered but with Airbus A320 family aircraft based at 19 airports across the continent, the airline says its market niche is connecting Europe’s secondary cities with each other, avoiding connections. From my home airport in Lyon, for example, it flies nonstop to forty cities in a rough triangle between the Greek islands, the Canaries, and Oslo. The no-connection experience is a persuasive one, both for time saved and given the overall experience of connecting through Europe’s large airports to and from regional centres.
Volotea’s booking path is average enough, with the usual ancillary upsell attempts, and it has a functional app. Booking far in advance at lead-in fare levels, the vagaries of ancillary revenue management meant that buying an extra seat next to me came out better in the cost-for-comfort ratio than an extra-legroom seat on this 3h30 flight. Volotea then allocated me two seats together — the worst on the plane, in the no-recline last row, but without any seat selection fee. The fact that “passenger” WALTON/EXTRASEAT did not have a passport (understandably) also meant that I couldn’t check in online, but there was a minimum of confusion and no actual hassle about it.
Once I was at the airport, an 0600 departure to Gran Canaria meant a 0400 checkin and bag drop, which was hideous from a sleep cycle point of view especially with a twenty-minute queue. That’s the reality of flying an LCC’s home-based aircraft: the utilisation is high so the plane starts its day early and finishes late.
With little to do in the airport at 0430 other than try to nap for an hour on a hard metal bench, at the gate I whiled away the time until boarding. At least it was a gate in the far reaches of the main terminal rather than in Lyon’s frankly miserable low-cost shed halfway across the apron, which lacks services and even adequate seating.
When boarding, I checked off two squares on my mental Low-Cost Carrier Bingo board: the first being that so many people had been sold priority boarding that there wasn’t any sort of priority, and the second being the boarding-not-boarding situation where people are beeped through the boarding pass scanner to then stand in the jetway for fifteen minutes until the crew are ready.
Onboard, the crew were perfunctory in their welcome — indeed, throughout there was nothing of note about them, positive or negative — and I made my way back to my seat all the way at the back of the aircraft in row 30.
I was genuinely surprised how modern the cabin of this fifteen-year-old A320 looked, with grey Acro slimlines featuring antimacassars in a variety of the Volotea faux-Burberry brand colours. I presume it had a full cabin refresh following its change of operator from Aeroflot when it started flying for Volotea in 2021.
It was not, however, clean. Despite being the first flight of the day, there were crumbs all over the place and my seat had a strange series of black tar-like streaks. Fortunately a good scrub with a disinfectant wipe showed that they weren’t sticky, but this seat cover should certainly have been replaced.
The seats were exactly what I want on a tightly pitched flight like this: ultra-slimlines that get out of the way of my knees. Volotea uses Acro Series 3, and if I’m not mistaken it’s the Ultra variant, with the mid-sized table and recline, although not for me in the last row. Pitch was tight but nothing unusual, and I had space for my knees thanks to the signature Acro “bum bucket” shaping.
The one issue with the seats is that the armrests pivot a few inches in front of the seatback, meaning that turning to try to curl up slightly results in a bit of hard metal thrust right into your kidneys.
I was, however, surprised to see the safety card stuck to the tray table and angled downwards. Its tiny diagrams were entirely illegible from where I was seated unless I leaned sideways into the seat next to me. While the crew did offer printed safety cards during the onboard announcements, I find it baffling how any regulator approved this placement — instead of, say, at eye level, where there were a series of advertisements instead.
Volotea offers some limited streaming entertainment — a few movies outside the early window and basic TV shows along the lines of Young Sheldon — but no Internet connectivity. (The streaming entertainment didn’t work on my return flight, for what that’s worth.)
There’s a minimal offering of entirely generic food and drink on board, ranging from 7€ for a mini-bottle of wine to 3.50€ to a cup of tea, soda or a muffin. Sandwiches (or any other fresh food) aren’t on offer so the only thing resembling a meal — on this fairly long flight — was ambient-stored pasta in meat or tomato sauce, or a long-life tapas box. Apart from the muffin there was nothing breakfast-related, and pasta at 6am didn’t appeal. All in all, I was glad to have boarded with a snack and a large bottle of water I’d brought empty from home and refilled in the terminal.
The overwhelming impression, both for this outbound flight and my matching return flight, was that it was… fine, I guess? The experience was an intense sort of averageness, a blending of everything that makes up a European LCC, but with nothing sticking out. This is the epitome of commoditised low-cost carrier travel: passenger experience with nothing to complain about, but nothing to distinguish it, or indeed to recommend it apart from the fact that it exists.
This is a model that has clearly worked well for Volotea, but if a LCC that was cheaper, cheerier or just offered a bit of enjoyment to the experience entered the market, I’d jump at the chance to try them instead.
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Featured image credited to John Walton