independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Mandy Johnston: Don't blame us for being suspicious about Michael's new caring side

'Breaking good': Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary

Michael O'Leary's road to Damascus-type conversion to sensitivity is laudable. However, given Ryanair's track record in customer service, one can forgive the world-weary Ryanair traveller for being just a tad suspicious.

And, boy, are we suspicious. We are as suspicious as a Ryanair check-in attendant with an approaching passenger holding an enormous suitcase under his oxter with a large neon sticker marked "heavy cargo".

Not since Walter White put down the Bunsen burner and left the classroom to take up crystal meth production have we seen such a character somersault as Michael O'Leary's in the past few weeks.

We know why Walter did what he did, but what could Michael be cooking up for the unsuspecting innocents at home and abroad? And why is this volte face happening now? Is O'Leary "Breaking Good"?

The brand and product that Ryanair created and maintained is one of the greatest Irish business success stories of our time.

In developing the initial brand concept for the budget airline, strategists clearly focused on the principle of cheap and cheerful.

And before they even got off the ground, someone somewhere (probably Michael) decided that cheerful was a step too far, so that got flung out the window with no parachute and we were just left with cheap. But does cheap have to mean rude?

O'Leary is a media dream. He gives good copy. He gives great soundbytes. He is never boring. He is a lion for the airline and he believes in everything they do. He is never off message. But does he believe in the new departure? In an interview with 'Prime Time' last week, O'Leary looked unconvincing for the first time. All the usual statistics were there, nine million passengers in August, 80 million passengers per year, two million website visits per day, 9,000 aviation professionals, 94pc of flights on time and on it went. But there was a new angle.

Ryanair has promised to improve its website, its customer service and general approach to how they deal with people and promised to care more and be sensitive. And, for the first time, it looked like the lines Michael was delivering were just lines, not his own message.

As the interview progressed, he told a sceptical and increasingly incredulous David McCullagh that Ryanair's new "consumer communications programme" strategy was about "evolution rather than revolution".

O'Leary has accepted that in some instances "policies have been implemented with a degree of robustness that is unwarranted". Translation, people have been treated badly for no reason.

But in fairness, ground staff and flight crews have perhaps followed their glorious leader and in some instance revelled in rudeness as some sort of badge of honour, which is totally unnecessary.

The premise of their sell is low-cost fares to locations near where you want to go. The rest is up to you. Don't expect much and you will not be disappointed. It gets you where you want to go for the lowest fare possible. End of story, and end of service.

If you haven't experienced the 'Krypton Factor'-type experience of getting on a Ryanair flight then you can stop reading now, because you are filthy rich and flying with Ryanair is probably not for you.

If you have travelled by Ryanair, you will know what it is like to walk in fear to the check-in desk in the hope that your suitcase hasn't gained 10lbs in the taxi since you weighed it at home on your bathroom scales. You are over. More money, please. You need a boarding pass. More money, please. Your name is wrong on the ticket. More money, please.

And if you do happen to make it to the boarding gate mentally unscathed, then your final hurdle is to make sure that your carry-on luggage fits into the blue metal frame before they whip it from you and charge you another €50.

Then you can relax as you make it to the "safety" of the tarmac. Imagine an airline where you feel more relaxed on the apron of one of the busiest international airports in the world than you do inside with their staff.

Why improve customer service now? Maybe it's the reduction in profits last year? Maybe it's to do with the European application for a merger with Aer Lingus? Maybe it is because Michael has found his touchy-feely side? Or maybe he is applying for a new taxi licence? Who knows?

But one thing is for sure: this is happening for a reason. Everything the company has ever done has been brought about by design and not by default.

Their ruthless business strategy has made them a fantastic international success story in financial terms. If their consumer relations plan is pursued with the same vigour and success, then someday very soon we will be flying around in a veritable Disney in the sky. I, for one, can't wait.

Having always done it his way, O'Leary uncharacteristically conceded last week that he has "no doubt made some mistakes".

A word to the wise, Michael, you can't tell someone you are sensitive, you have to show them.

Mandy Johnston is a former Government Press Secretary.

Irish Independent

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