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Playing nice

For years Ryanair has been the ‘bad boy’ of the airline industry, but with attitudes changing and profits growing, Europe’s largest carrier looks ready to conquer new frontiers. Alan Dron reports

As any public relations practitioner will tell you, turning around the popular perception of a company is no easy task. Good reputations tend to be gained slowly and can be lost staggeringly quickly.


Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Ryanair gave the impression that they simply did not care about such things. Draconian financial penalties for passengers showing up at check-in without a pre-printed boarding pass, or for having the temerity to actually want to put baggage into the hold, regularly inspired blizzards of emails exclaiming: ‘I’ll never fly with this airline again!’ 


Those sentiments were exacerbated by the spiky response of the company – and particularly its rumbustious Chief Executive Officer Michael O’Leary – to any complaints. O’Leary was not shy about lambasting complainants as stupid or by retorting to unhappy passengers: “What part of ‘no refund’ don’t you understand?”


As passenger numbers and profits continued to grow, Ryanair could afford to continue to take this adversarial approach. However, eventually even O’Leary recognised profits could be improved even further by being agreeable rather than contrary. Accordingly, in September 2013, he renounced his old ways, remarking – in typical style – that the company should make efforts not to “unnecessarily piss people off”. 


Within a year, passenger numbers and profits were rising even faster than before, leading him to comment that if he had known being nice to customers was so profitable, he would have done so a long time previously.


Ryanair’s ‘Always Getting Better’ initiative is now in its fourth year and the company’s Chief Marketing Officer Kenny Jacobs tells Low Cost & Regional Airline Business that he has never experienced a turnaround initiative produce results so quickly.


That, he says, is partly due to the company’s management culture – “I’ve never seen a business that moves as quickly as Ryanair” – and partly because many of its customers’ peeves were so obvious and easy to fix. 


The company website, for example, was distinctly difficult to navigate. Those outrageous financial charges for minor infractions of the rules caused huge resentment, as did the airline’s rigidity over the size of bags allowed in the cabin. All (relatively) easily revised. 


The website required the most work. More than anything else, its weaknesses constituted a huge missed opportunity for the company. “Three-and-a-half years ago, we didn’t capture customer data,” said Jacobs. A customer could travel with Ryanair every week to the same destination, using the same postal address and the same payment method, but the company wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about them.


“We’ve now got a website that I think is among the best in the world. There are 26 million members of ‘myRyanair’ and 25 million customers have installed the app on their devices. Last June, we overtook Southwest to become the world’s most visited airline website. It’s a testament to the platform we’ve built and the sheer demand that’s out there for low fares.”


Previously, it took 17 clicks to book a Ryanair flight. Today, it is as few as five.


As the ‘Always Getting Better’ programme evolves Ryanair is, in some ways, increasingly resembling a ‘normal’ airline.


The company’s Irish harp motif is now being seen at primary airports such as Frankfurt and Amsterdam Schiphol, the sort of high-cost venues that for years the airline shunned in favour of secondary, or even tertiary airports, that were frequently considerable distances from the cities they purported to serve.


Most of the hefty financial impositions on passengers have now gone and, this summer, the airline began actively promoting connecting flights, initially at Rome Fiumicino and Milan Bergamo. In past years, the airline went so far as to actively tell potential passengers on its website not to attempt to use two Ryanair flights to connect to a more distant destination.


The results of ‘Always Getting Better’ have been startling. Net profits for the year ending 31 March 2017 were €1.3 billion, up 6% on 2015, while passenger numbers jumped 13%, to 120 million. The former figure is expected to climb to €1.4-1.45 billion in the current financial year, while passengers are expected to reach 142 million in 2019.


So, how does Ryanair see its immediate future? >>

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