Like most stories, it started promisingly. In 1985, Ryanair emerged as a plucky upstart destined to shoot holes in the monopolistic, over-priced fuselage of the traditional airlines, a modern day David to poke Goliaths like British Airways and Aer Lingus in the eye with a complacency stick. The company’s marketing reinforced the firm’s Irish roots with a Celtic harp, a symbol of tradition, honesty and history, presented proudly on the tail fins of its aircraft.
Ryanair’s vision was to open the skies to the masses through costs lowered by removing the unnecessary. They would open up new routes between airports at sites an expensive cab ride from where we actually wanted to go, while putting us on first name terms with silly-o-clock departure times. But we accepted it because Ryanair was the peoples’ champion and they would make us both mobile and solvent.
Times have changed. A recent poll by gocompare.com, the price comparison website, named Ryanair the worst airline in the world. The poll results validated a view I share with others – no one likes Ryanair anymore. We still travel with them, reluctantly. We put up with their cabin crew who, with the charm of second-rate market stall traders, attempt to sell us everything from cheap perfume and train tickets to over-priced drinks and lottery tickets. But we don’t like Ryanair. Some people hate them.
In their first year of operation, Ryanair carried 5000 passengers. By 2010, that number had risen to 73,553,580 – evidence, some might argue, of a successful business serving an ever-growing market of happy customers. But Ryanair has grown fat, dumb and arrogant on profits fuelled by hidden charges, not happy customers. And yes, I do understand capital risk, but Ryanair could hang ‘L plates’ on any commercial organisation when it comes to customer contempt.
We travel with Ryanair because, like drug dealers, they’ve got us hooked on frequent travel and regular weekends away, or because businesses under cost pressures insist their staff travel austerity class wherever possible to save money. Some people even bought second homes overseas because low cost air travel made it feasible, while an army of super-commuters learned to work in another jurisdiction, returning home at weekends.
In the same way that a fish rots from the head, Ryanair staff have learned apathy and distain for customers at the knee of Michael O’Leary, the company’s contemptor-in-chief, who practices his art regularly and publicly. This is the same man who said he was mulling charging his customers to discharge the over-priced liquid they sell and call coffee in their on-board toilets.
To call Ryanair’s pricing opaque is a huge generosity. They charge more than payday loan sharks for the pleasure of paying online – the only way to pay for a Ryanair flight. We can accept surcharging to offset modest banking charges, but Ryanair’s approach in naked profiteering. Why the Office of Fair Trading hasn’t hammered them for these practices remains a mystery that Columbo and Poirot couldn’t solve if they set up as a tag team.
If a customer doesn’t take a flight they’ve paid for, they are entitled to a full refund of any tax paid, since no tax liability is incurred if they don’t use the service. No problem, Ryanair says, but they charge a fee higher than the tax paid to process a refund, a practice that feels very much to me like they’re getting their ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ mixed up.
Ryanair passengers have to check themselves in and print their own boarding cards. Failure to do this, or go two ounces over your luggage allowance, and a hefty bill awaits at the departure lounge, even when the flight is delayed by 90 minutes as happened to a passenger I shared a Ryanair flight with recently. If you try to complain at the airport, you’ll find that Ryanair has no ground staff. That’s been outsourced, the perfect alternative to accountability.
If you phone Ryanair to complain, you have to call a premium rate number. I made that mistake once, which was a waste of both time and money because they have no interest in complaints anyway. O’Leary has created his workforce in the image of Millwall FC supporters with their ‘nobody likes us and we don’t care’ view of customers, the same customers who pay Ryanair staff’s salaries and their shareholders’ occasional dividends. Ryanair may not be unique in this regard but they are truly world class when it comes to sucking any joy that remains from the art of air travel.
I have, in the past, invited Michael O’Leary to surrender his Irish citizenship and adopt the nationality of any nation better suited to his personality. I could propose Afghanistan or Libya, but fear that might offend the remaining leaders those countries call their own. Failing that, I’d like Ryanair to remove any link – visual or otherwise – with Ireland from their corporate identity. It impairs Ireland’s brand globally and embarrasses Irish people, at home and abroad.
The real shame is that Ryanair is missing a huge marketing opportunity by not even pretending they respect their customers. They could have been one of the world’s favourite brands was it not for O’Leary’s bully boy philosophy, a view of the world formed, no doubt, during his previous career as a tax consultant. Interestingly, British Airways, one of the carriers that the founders had in their sights in the early days, topped the gocompanre.com poll, despite the fact that they and other incumbents have walked away from many short haul European routes.
O’Leary’s cunning plan has worked. We’re committed low cost addicts now and continue to travel with Ryanair despite the company’s indifferent attitude towards us. We continue to buy their services and put up with their erratic charging structures in increasing numbers, while swearing under our breadths every time we board the rickety stairs to board another flight.
We do this mostly because we no longer have a choice. We don’t like Ryanair, I believe, because the company no longer has a soul, having implanted a calculator where a heart should be. A soul, I presume, was another frill they decided they could do without. But it’s a mistake in the long term.
Far from impairing their passenger numbers or profits, treating their passengers like valued customers, even an occasional smile or apology when things go wrong, might make us willing customers again and would help remove the stench of monopolistic behaviour that pervades everything about Ryanair today, ironically the reason the business was created in the first place.