Ryanair's CEO promises a kinder, gentler future

  • Article by: THE ECONOMIST
  • Updated: October 20, 2013 - 7:23 PM

The Irish low-cost airline’s boss promises it will stop being quite so horrible to customers.

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In this Jan.16, 2013 file photo, Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary meets the media to present new routes operating by Ryanair from Marseille, in Vitrolles , southern France.

Photo: Claude Paris, Associated Press - Ap

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For a business with a reputation for treating customers with an indifference bordering on hostility, Ryanair has done rather well. The Irish low-cost carrier is Europe’s biggest airline, transporting 80 million passengers a year. It is still growing, and raking in pots of cash.

Michael O’Leary, its abrasive boss, says the common perception is that Ryanair’s tickets are so cheap that travelers will “crawl over broken glass” for them.

Why, then, did he use the firm’s annual general meeting in September to announce a new, softer Ryanair? Perhaps he worries that new European rules on state aid will force him to put up prices and that fliers will expect more for their money. Or that he is losing out to EasyJet, a slightly less down-market carrier.

Or maybe all those tales of woe from fliers are weighing on O’Leary’s conscience? OK, scrub that last one.

Newspapers across Europe eagerly print passengers’ gripes about Ryanair’s abrupt service, and are encouraged to do so by the airline’s reluctance to apologize or even comment. Hitherto, it seems to have assumed that such “bad” publicity saves it more by deterring compensation claims than it costs in lost custom.

Now its calculation may be changing, but not by much. The fixes it is introducing are cheap and easy ways of appearing less “irritating and confrontational,” as O’Leary describes his airline’s current customer-service ethos.

Improving the website, which he admits is “crap,” will mean more business.

An unpopular $94 fee for reissuing boarding passes at the airport will be lowered by $16. Although it is portrayed as a money-spinner, O’Leary says fewer than 10 passengers a day have to pay it.

O’Leary also promises that fliers will no longer be stung for small transgressions in hand-luggage size: He blames local agents in some airports for applying his rules with excess zeal.

A new marketing chief will act as spokesman for the airline, and its public relations will be less “abrupt and officious,” he says.

Sadly, this means the public will be seeing less of O’Leary. The world will be less cheerful without his readiness to pull a silly face, or don a leprechaun hat and matching pants, to publicize his airline.

Or teasingly to suggest that his planes may charge for using the toilet or offer discounts for passengers prepared to stand up. Surely he was joking?

Copyright 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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