A SOFTER, fluffier Ryanair is winging its way to tens of millions of customers after the airline's tough-edged boss conceded it has to try harder to be nicer and less "macho".
Renowned for telling his own customers to like it or lump it, Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary has embarked on a mission to make the airline more appealing. "There's something that we clearly need to improve and we're conscious of it," he told shareholders at the company's annual general meeting in Dublin yesterday.
He said Ryanair needs to be "cleverer" in the way it communicates with its 81 million passengers and how it attracts new ones.
"We have to improve significantly those aspects of our customer service that irritate people. They irritate us as well," the outspoken airline chief said.
"We're not suddenly trying to be softer," he insisted. "No matter how good we are – and we are by far and away one of the best corporate stories in Ireland – it doesn't mean we can't improve."
He said that meant addressing some of its "harder edges".
"Some of our policies are implemented with a degree of robustness that isn't warranted," he added.
The airline was this week voted by readers of influential UK consumer publication 'Which?' as being the worst of 100 brands serving the British market. Mr O'Leary said he wasn't out to penalise people whose carry-on luggage was a few millimetres too big.
"We're not trying to penalise people for the sake of a millimetre. We are trying to persuade people, you're not getting on and your handbag is the size of a rucksack," he said.
And despite seeking a softer image, Mr O'Leary insisted he's still the right person to run Ryanair for the next decade. "I've always been soft, just a little bit misunderstood. I can't think of anyone softer, kinder or more caring than myself," he said.
His comments came after the airline charged grief-stricken Dublin surgeon Dr Muhammad Taufiq Sattar €188 last week to change his flights to the UK after his family perished in a house fire. Mr O'Leary said the airline has written to Dr Sattar to apologise and also refunded his money.
The airline boss said he wanted such situations dealt with more sensitively in the future. Some shareholders criticised what they say is a "macho" culture at Ryanair.
"I've seen people crying at boarding gates," investor Owen O'Reilly told Mr O'Leary.
Mr O'Reilly said there's something wrong if people are constantly "slagging off the company".
"I think the arrival of some female members onto the board could possibly be a very important step for trying to get what I would perceive, a rather macho culture in the company, to arrest that before it damages shareholder value," he said.
Out of a total of seven non-executive directors at Ryanair, two are female.
There is a further three people on the board, including the chief executive.
Mr O'Leary said he accepted the blame for the airline's uncompromising image.
"I'm very happy to take the blame and responsibility if we have a macho or overly abrupt culture," he said. "Some of that may well be my own personality deformities."
Ryanair yesterday unveiled a new Twitter account and said it will also revamp its website. But just hours after the Ryanair Twitter page was officially launched, it had been purged of comments made by anyone other than the airline.
"Ryanair carries over 80 million passengers a year so we can't write back on Twitter," a message said, redirecting customers to its website.