How did Ryanair become Ireland's favourite airline?
Much more Mr Nice Guy pays off
Published 08/08/2015 | 02:30
Everyone was suspicious when Ryanair's Michael O'Leary announced a couple of years ago that the airline everyone loved to hate was going to start being nice to passengers.
But with record passenger numbers and burgeoning profits, has Ryanair really changed?
For years, Mr O'Leary had been telling his own customers to f*** off if they had a problem with being stung for high extra charges because their bag might have been a few ounces too heavy, or they hadn't been able to print off their boarding pass at home.
A pivotal point in Ryanair's relationship with its passengers appeared to have been reached in 2013.
In September that year, the airline was the centre of a media storm after it emerged it had charged a surgeon working in Ireland €188 to change his flights back to the UK after he learned his wife and three children had been murdered in a house fire there.
Ryanair later apologised to the surgeon, Muhammad Taufiq al-Sattar, and refunded him the fee.
Michael O'Leary conceded that Ryanair needed to project a softer image.
And that more considered approach to its customers, combined with new routes and services, appears to be paying off.
Last week, the airline revealed that it carried a record 10.1million passengers in July. It's on track to carry 103 million in the 12 months to the end of next March.
Mr O'Leary has long boasted that Ryanair, not Aer Lingus, is now the real national carrier.
Yet, while Ryanair was carrying more passengers, many people still felt - and still frequently feel - that they were 'home' once they stepped on to an Aer Lingus plane. With Ryanair, they often felt there was still an onerous journey ahead.
But the outspoken airline chief and his staff are working to change that. And with Aer Lingus being bought by British Airways owner IAG, Ryanair will arguably have even greater claim to being the only true Irish national airline.
Even Aer Lingus stumbles from time to time. Last month, an 81-year-old Galway woman, Sheila O'Flynn, claimed she had a "nightmare experience" with Aer Lingus during a journey to the Caribbean via Gatwick.
For Ryanair though, their conversion was a long time in the making.
In an interview with the Irish Independent in 2014, the then chief operating officer, Michael Cawley, said the debate about change had been going on for years in the airline's boardroom.
"My job is to sell seats, so I was very concerned," he said. "There would have been a sense from people like myself and some others who said, you know, 'we might do better if we have a different approach to customers'. But on the other side, operations wanted a clean, clinical operation."
But change did come. Allocated seating was one of the first big changes. Then Ryanair allowed people to bring on a small second piece of cabin luggage free of charge. In-flight baby bottle warming was made available, and a slew of charges that passengers hated started to be cut.
Ryanair, which celebrates its 30th birthday this year, had seen how profitable being nice to customers was for rival EasyJet, and knew it was missing a trick.
"If I'd only known that being nice to customers was going to be so good for my business I would have done it years ago," said Mr O'Leary, who last year signed up to remain as chief executive at the airline for at least another five years because he was so enthused about the changes.
It also means a big financial return for Mr O'Leary. He has made about €250m from Ryanair, through share sales and special dividends paid by the airline. That's not even including his salary. He owns 3.7pc of Ryanair, a holding that's currently worth €647m. The value of his stake has nearly doubled in a year.
So has Ryanair really changed its spots with its self-styled 'Always Getting Better' campaign?
Well, it seems the leopard has shape-shifted into something cuddlier.
But as with any business, and especially one flying 100 million people a year, there will always be incidents that could have been handled better, and customers who will have received a poor service at one time or another.
Ryanair is also targeting business passengers by flying to more primary airports around Europe and offering the kind of frequencies they need to do business. It arguably couldn't really attract those passengers in any significant numbers without changing its customer experience.
There's no doubt that Ryanair's transformation has been rapid. At the Irish Aviation Awards this year it even won the gong for customer service - something that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.
For passengers though, the real proof is in the pre-flight and in-flight experience. There are definitely creases to be ironed out. Only a few months ago, my heavily pregnant wife, with two toddlers in tow, was told by staff to get to the back of a regular Ryanair boarding queue at Dublin Airport, despite having priority boarding. She was too frazzled at the time to kick up a big fuss, but those kind of unpleasant wrinkles in the service that will continue to bug passengers.