Smile, it's Ryanair
Michael O'Leary has been trying hard to convince passengers he has put the fun back into flying. Graham Clifford strapped himself into his allocated seat and put the promise to the test
It's been a reincarnation of Biblical proportions. Michael O'Leary, who once described Ryanair passengers who forgot to print out their boarding passes as "idiots", has decided to throw an arm around his collective customers – promising to listen to their views, to change and to improve customer service.
A raft of new initiatives has been introduced by the low-budget airline and this week, for the first time ever, passengers discovered they all had allocated seats on board – whether they liked it or not.
To gauge the impact of this new change of ethos I took a return flight from Cork to London Stansted this week. I wanted to find out if the new changes had actually improved the flying experience and if the renewed focus on 'customer service' extended to Ryanair staff on board.
Would it be all smiles – Pan Am style? I wanted to meet the kinder, gentler and friendlier Ryanair face-to-face.
To start with, I found Ryanair's new-look website much easier to use than that which it replaced – however, the travel insurance section may still cause confusion for first-time users. If you don't want to take out insurance with the airline you must click on 'Don't insure me' – it's located between Denmark and Finland in the drop-down list.
While passengers can now carry a second small carry-on bag for free, one elderly lady on my outbound flight from Cork had to condense her luggage.
The flight attendant noticed a small plastic duty-free bag on the passenger's arm and advised her sternly, but politely, to pack the contents into one of her bags. And so out came the sausages and perfume which were stuffed into a handbag. It was hard to see the logic of the commotion – but rules are rules I guess.
On the way from the gate to the aircraft we had to wait in pouring rain and strong winds on the tarmac. Elderly passengers and young children could have done with a Ryanair crew member sheltering them from the elements with an umbrella but it wasn't to be.
On board the new allocated seating system was causing a bit of bother for some.
When I'd booked my flights I'd been given a middle seat between the window and aisle seats. At 6ft 2in I would always have sought a seat where I can stretch my legs but when I asked if I could move I was told it was not possible because it would "upset the equilibrium".
So off I beavered to where my seat should have been, only to find someone sitting in it. The vigilant air hostess was on hand and asked to see everyone's boarding cards. It turned out the lady by the window should have been in the aisle seat, the man in my seat should have been by the window and the guy in the aisle seat shouldn't have been there at all!
Anthony Buckley, from Millstreet, Co Cork, was puzzled by the new seat allocation system.
"It's a bit of a joke really, I think. We should be able to sit where we can, with our friends or whatever. If I'm not on the same booking as the person I'm travelling with they could be at the front of the plane and I'd have to sit at the back. Then again it's only for an hour and once it's cheap that's the main thing – but really I can't see this system lasting."
It's late in the evening and the smiles I had anticipated are absent from the Ryanair crew on board.
Two passengers behind me were discussing the new emphasis on customer service from the company and, commenting on the staff encountered that day, one remarked "well, if these are the happy staff, I wouldn't want to meet the unhappy staff".
Last Monday, Ryanair reported a third-quarter loss to December (of €35m) but shares in the airline gained over six cent. The introduction of competing low-cost carriers has seen its market share reduced and Michael O'Leary and his colleagues are hoping the emergence of the company's caring side will win back lost passengers.
"You know I was on an Easyjet flight recently from Faro in Portugal to Southend in the UK and the difference it terms of customer care was amazing," explains Carol Matthews of Dunmanway, Co Cork.
She, like me, had been hoping for a hot brew but the trolley cart whizzed by us at such speed neither of us had time to catch the flight attendant's eye.
"What's interesting is that Easyjet's prices are similar to Ryanair's. The staff there speak to you and treat you with respect – it'd be great if Ryanair could start doing the same."
Our flight touches down on time at Stansted despite the stormy conditions outside and while customer care may have been lacking outside the cockpit those in it played a blinder.
The following morning another Ryanair hostess uses the word 'equilibrium' to explain to a bemused passenger why he had to sit in a tightly knit row of three people while empty seats were all around him.
Earlier a young Italian couple, who were clearly in a distressed state, missed their flight by minutes but they received little sympathy at the Ryanair customer service desk in Stansted airport.
A lady, wearing a Swissport airport services lanyard, let out a sigh as they approached and with an outstretched finger directed them back to the Ryanair ticket sales desk where they'd have to pay £110 (€131) each for new tickets. The couple, who clearly had very little English, looked lost.
TThe new day did bring some much-needed light, though. As we took our seats the pilot welcomed us all on board and promised a safe and enjoyable flight while one of the three stewardesses on board did bid passengers 'good morning' and smiled throughout the journey.
Daniel Coyne, from Roscrea, Co Tipperary, tells me he enjoys flying with Ryanair because customer service expectations have traditionally been so low – "if they're nice to me it's a bonus, if they're not I don't feel disappointed".
I sense a headache coming on and ask the smiling air hostess for a paracetamol. While she confirms they have them on board she says I can only have one with the permission of a doctor. Kindly she offers to check and see if there's one on board but I tell her that's not necessary.
As I walk down the steps of the aircraft back on home soil I find it impossible to say I've noticed any difference whatsoever in Ryanair's person-to-person customer service based on the two flights I just had.
True, the new changes and lower add-on charges have benefits but the price of the airfare will dictate their success over a rival every time. And a smile from those in blue wouldn't go amiss.
You could say the airline needs to find its own 'equilibrium'.