Friday, April 13, 2012

Lessons in my laundry: Italian edition

On my travels I found myself in a fine hotel in Central Milan. I came in about Midnight the previous night from London (courtesy the atrocious service of Easy-Jet*).

At 6.15AM I was up for my morning meeting - via a fast-train to Bologna. My shirt was clean courtesy the expensive London laundry. I just wanted an ironing board to press out the wrinkles.

There was not one in the room - so I rang reception. I asked them to bring one up. They said "impossible" which I found peculiar. An ironing board is a pretty standard service in a 4 star business hotel.

Then they explained that they could not get one before 7.30 (which was just before my train left). I said this was a bad fail for a business hotel.

Then they said something that was so stereotypical Italian it left me breathless. They told me it would be against the law to bring an ironing board to my room before 7.30 am.

I told this to my Bologna business contact and he scoffed. Of course somewhere in the 10 million lines of Italian code there is - of course - something that talks about ironing boards. Dysfunctional government (at least by the standards of OECD countries) is an iconic feature of Italy - but this was not government as a problem - it was government as an excuse.

At least Easy-Jet don't blame the government for their bad - even rude - service.


*If anyone knows why European discount carriers are so horrible but Southwest (surely a similar model) is so pleasant (at least in a relative sense) let me know. In the USA I will fly Southwest in preference to any other airline. In Europe I am learning to avoid the discount airlines.


A post script is warranted: Part of my dislike of Easy-Jet had to do with a ridiculous overcharge of GBP12. Trivial really. However when I complained at the counter the discussion had the tone of "I can see you are right but our computer won't let me refund the money so sorry". Silly stuff that indicated process over service. And I had 90 minutes at an airport and was frazzled. Not a good combination. I did not raise my voice - just walked away frustrated.

In frustration I wrote a (nasty) letter to them. I do not think they linked me to this blog - but they refunded the 12 pounds. I think that marks them as several steps better than Ryan Air. I have not quite forgiven but I think I am prepared to give them another go.


Ed said...

I can't speak for SouthWest, but the low cost carriers in Europe famously serve as 'vocational training' for individuals starting out in the airline hosting field. It's virtually impossible in the UK to get your first job as an air steward/stewardess with a long distance, full service (full price) airline, so people go to EasyJet/Ryanair et al to get their hours up before transferring to another airline.

They are also worked extremely hard by the airlines, often serving three or four flights a day. While this doesn't excuse their rudeness, it may partly explain it.

I should say, though, in my years of travelling the general standard of courtesy on western airlines has fallen quite significantly. BA are famous around dinner party tables in the UK (not entirely fairly) for their 'flying battleaxes' but senior, world weary stewards and stewardesses are now a feature on almost all flights I seem to take, irrespective of what class I'm flying in.

Maybe we're just getting old.

Anonymous said...

Two words: Ryan Air,

or perhaps a few more - Michael O'Leary, who's personality drives his firm, and sets the competitive standard that others think they should live down to

ThoseWhoSpeak said...

I have to say that I fly Easyjet all the time and rarely encounter a problem. Usually the staff are more helpful and friendly than on BA and other 'premium' airlines. However I never fly Ryanair as they fly to useless places, have a nauseating interior colour scheme and the website is unfathomably bad.

Also the Easyjet usually the flights are on time (the one I got last week was half an hour early) the notable exception being when the French air traffic control go on strike which is a regular problem.

If you landed at midnight in Milan chances are you had an aircraft and crew based in Italy so perhaps they are a rude bunch compared to the UK based planes.

The only really bad experience I had with Easyjet was flying out of Luton at 6am and the baggage system from the check in had broken. Horrendous queues, last calls, very stressful. One check in agent burst into tears and had to leave. It was the airports fault. In the end the flight was an hour late taking off as the Pilot said he'd rather leave with the baggage.

If you want bad service and late planes on a regular basis I recommend Iberia or Alitalia.

As for Italian bureaucracy - when you encounter it you wont believe you are still in the 'western' world.

Ehwotay said...


i would suggest that Ryanair and Easyjet don't really present that much of a cheaper option once you add on all the extras you have to pay. Generally I find BA comes to within 20-30 quid per leg and are much more civilised.

goodtimecharlie said...

I have flown with Easyjet dozens of times and have never had any problems with them. Ryanair is of course a different matter. But what do expect for astoundingly low prices. My next booked flight to Milan from London Gatwick has "cost" me MINUS £16, once airport charges and taxes have been stripped out.

Nick said...

I think that you are experiencing a well known difference between American and UK/EU service attitudes.

Quite simply Americans make a real effort to be "good" to their customers and at ALL levels of service from premium to economy.

In the UK/EU you are treated like crap by pretty much everyone.
The ironing board highlights this.

Frankly I blame the lack of tipping culture.
The incentive structure isn't set up to reward good service so why bother?

Southwest is also famously generous to their staff and regularly scores very highly on "Great Places to Work" surveys. Happy employees probably have more smiles than the poor people who have to resort to working for the LCCs in Europe where the bottom line is ALWAYS the most important factor.

Finally, I am an absolutely HUGE fan of the legendary Mr O'Leary. He has single-handedly guaranteed that I can fly pretty much anywhere for <£100 rather than the outrageous prices of a BA monopoly. Competition is good.

PS Ryanair is one word.

Anonymous said...

After moving from the US to Europe a few years ago, I learned quickly that many hotels, even the nice ones, are more like than not to have ironing boards in the rooms. And some may not even have them available within the hotel.
After hearing me complain, my uncle, who had been in the military, taught me the military fold for dress shirts. If done correctly, the shirt will come out with minor creases that fade away if left on a hanger overnight, or after being worn for an hour.

Robert in Chicago said...

The joke in America is, there is only one thing wrong with Texas: it's full of Texans. Coincidentally, I think Texans are the closest thing we have to the stereotypical Australian. I also think that Southwest's wonderful character has a lot to do with it being completely molded by Texans.

taxloss said...

for someone so bright, it's astonishing you missed that the italian was asking for a tip/bribe/bung.

Austerity is for the official numbers!

Aharon said...

And, as always, somewhere in the middle lie the French, who lack the commitment to inefficiency of the Italians and the systemic faith of the Germans (to caricature grossly). Years ago I found myself in Paris needing to get back to London in a hurry. I went to the Chunnel booking office and was ushered to an agent (in my recollection, there were several steps in between expressing a wish to see an agent and actually seeing one, but that may be mental embroidery). She laughed at my request, somewhere between gleeful and annoyed, and said, "Today? Impossible. All booked." I asked her to check and, with a world-weary sigh at my naivete, she looked at her terminal. Two hours later, I was on a nearly-empty train.

Anonymous said...

Norwegian and Air Berlin are quite good low cost airlines. Though of course not as cheap as Ryanair.

As regards American airlines, I've never had a worse experience than AmericanAirlines.

First sentence uttered at checkin was "Is this passport a forgery?"

Service on the flight was nothing special. If they had left it at that it would have been nothing but an odd anecdote.

However before we left the runway they had us congratulate the cabin crew for showing up for work. It may have been two days before Christmas but the self-congratulatory nature of this happening made me sick.

Service has nothing to do with whether it is in Europe or the USA. It is all about the DNA of the company with which you do business.

Anonymous said...

That made me laugh. I had a similar experience in Florence about 7 years ago. I called room service at a 5 start hotel and asked for an iron to be delivered to my room. They said regulations didn't allow irons in rooms and that I'd have to use the laundry service (€5/shirt even though I just wanted it pressed, not washed).

Being in Italy, I assumed this was a shakedown and went to the front desk to complain only to have this "regulation" confirmed - with a sarcastic smile and another offer to use the overpriced laundry service. A request to speak to the manager on duty got me the same reply. I gave up and assumed Italy was just a basket case if regulations prevent a hotel guests from using an iron.

As a Texan living in London for the past 15 years, I long for Southwest Airlines punctual service, smiling air stewardess and reliably cheap fares. I've mostly given up on the discount carriers in the UK. Depending on the destination, BA is generally only a little more expensive if you're packing a few bags and book ahead. With age, just not worth the extra hassle anymore to save a few bucks.

CC said...

Hi John,

I'm Italian, albeit I live in Germany.
That with the ironing board was only a ridicolous excuse, it would have been unbelievable also for another Italian.

I don't know EasyJet, but the other discount carriers, that I usually use, like Germanwings or Airberlin, work quite well.

PS: If you are still in Italy and have some free time, don't miss the America's Cup racings in Naples this weekend... the venue of the Gulf and the promenade are simply wonderful!

John said...


You are on the right track to rival Tim Harford as a pop economics writer with this "laundry" series. Looking forward to the next instalment.

Anonymous said...

I also fly southwest by preference - mainly because they do not charge for checked baggage, as most carriers here seem to - plus there is no fee to change ticketing if you want to cancel and rebook a flight. I think it is remiss to continue to speak of them as a 'discount carrier' though - they're no longer cheaper than any other domestic US carrier. See link ( ) - their prices have risen remarkably over the past 5-6 years - pushing them out of the discount carrier segment IMO.

Anonymous said...

O'leary may have brought the cost of air travel down a little but he has increased the chances of you dieing in a plane significantly higher.

OBloodyHell said...

>>> for someone so bright, it's astonishing you missed that the italian was asking for a tip/bribe/bung.

LOL, you know, for a person who comes from a post-service tipping culture, this isn't quite as obvious as you might think.

I also happen to think you're utterly right.

There is something in non-American countries that makes such bribery de riguer, rather than as outside the norm as it is in the USA.

I have a question (not having traveled outside the USA):

What is the best way to approach this sort of thing? How does one broach the question of "how much?"

OBloodyHell said...

>>> She laughed at my request, somewhere between gleeful and annoyed, and said, "Today? Impossible. All booked." I asked her to check and, with a world-weary sigh at my naivete, she looked at her terminal. Two hours later, I was on a nearly-empty train

Hrm. My experience with college led me to the first rule of dealing with a bureaucracy:

If your request is even vaguely reasonable, don't take "no" for an answer. If the bureaucrat you're dealing with has locked in their heels, go over their head.

Eventually, you'll almost always encounter a bureaucrat whose reaction will be, "This is perfectly reasonable -- Why am I being bothered with this? YOU!! Fix it!" and woosh! All obstacles fade.

Clearly you do risk creating an enemy (which might be relevant in repeat circumstances) but you also teach them that you're not someone to obstruct needlessly.

I think it's a good idea to apologize for being such a pain and try and give them an ego-boost-out in the aftermath, if not some kind of reparations -- like perhaps a written kudos for their helpfulness to the upper-level official that you bothered.

Anonymous said...


I feel your pain. In my experience, once you factor in all the other ways the budget airlines in Europe screw you, it's almost always cheaper to fly with a scheduled carrier.

I will only fly EasyJet/Ryanair if I've exhausted all other options. Having said that, I have to get up at 4:30 tomorrow morning to fly EasyJet as it was the only airline flying during daylight hours to my destination!

I hope Australia doesn't have to experience what we live with here.


Damian said...

I saw a documentary some years ago that stayed with me, and it may explain the difference between the service levels of Easyjet and Southwest.

It looked at attitudes within the service industries in the UK, the USA and France. It was a simple look at the attitudes in each country, with examples.

In the UK, service was something that highlighted class differences, and people in service positions resented having to 'serve' another person.

In France, to serve is a chosen occupation, rather than a socio-economic position.

In the US, to serve (using scripted language and KPI's on smiles) is a job description.

Swiss said...

Government as an excuse happens but note this is Italy, where the black market is a larger share of the economy than anywhere else.

I doubt there's a rule on ironing but Italy is hidebound by many regulations that govern all sorts of odd things, from the hours a barber/hairdresser may be open to the sale of vegetables in the street.

What is odd is that for all the myriad of rules Italians ignore so many. You double park in the street just as you don't pay taxes. Laws are optional and your hotel staff just couldn't be bothered to help.

But there are many good people who will help in Italy.

Finally, I have used easyjet many times and the service has been very good. You had a bad flight.

Anonymous said...

I flew with Ryanair and Easyjet when I was in Europe last year and could not believe how good it was. Cheap, efficient, on time. Better than Qantas

CamMi Pham said...

If you have an iron. just use the bed, it should work.

A fashion trick,hang your shirt on a hanger and put it in the bathroom while you shower. The steam from the shower will release the wrinkles from the item. :)

Luke said...

I'm not so sure the hotel was lying to you. An Italian friend from Milan visited me in london recently (via easy jet). Over a weekend, purely in random conversation, we kept coming up with things I did which would be illegal in Italy (I can remember working as a solicitor and a mediator, being an employed rather than self employes lawyer, and putting the weekly shopping in a taxi while I followed by bike).

Yoshi said...

Both easy jet and Ryanair have more extras available for purchase vs the US discount airlines. The service is deliberately atrocious to encourage customers to buy these (esp on Ryanair). In addition, most customer service in the UK is just plain bad, at least from an American perspective- one of the biggest shocks I experienced when moving to London for B-school.

Tom said...

In the Ryanair case I think it is part of the marketing strategy signalling value for money.

It is basically the same thing as $x.99 pricing or the horrible design you see in mail order catalouges.

thosewhospeak said...

As a brit going to the US/Canada I actually miss bad service. Somehow bad service feels more honest than this smily "have a nice day" BS.

Pete D said...

Haha - well John what can I say - long time reader, seldom poster. You could not be more right - Southwest have managed to hit the holy grail of delivering low cost, aggro free air travel.

Easyjet and Ryanair are literally laughable. It is utterly demeaning and degrading to travel with them and I have rapidly realised that only empoverished individuals would ever use them if any alternatives were available. Tragically, however, they provide the marginal supply of air travel to some relatively key spots in Europe and therefore can sometimes appear reasonable value. Nonetheless, when all the degrading and the extras are factored in, they are actually more expensive, and that, my friends, is why BA flights to Rome sell out before RyanAir ones. Please God let them all die.

Anonymous said...

I stayed at the Sheraton Diana in Milan some time ago. No irons allowed in the room - fire regulations or something. Had to use the hotel's urgent pressing service. On a Sunday. At the Sheraton. Cost almost as much as the one-night stay. AR

Anonymous said...

I used EasyJet and Ryanair a fair bit when I was in Europe last year and couldn't believe how good it was.

They hustle people on board, all generally on time and by far the cheapest flights I've ever paid for.

To be honest for such short flights I give customer service absolutely no thought at all.

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