Why an obsession with making fares seem cheap has ruined what made Ryanair great
In its efforts to keep headline fares down, has Ryanair got caught in its own marketing web?
Recently, Ryanair CEO, Michael O’Leary, complained publicly that the airline is facing problems because so many of its passengers have been choosing to avoid paying an additional €5 priority boarding fee that they are causing “handling issues”.
The fee is what you have had to pay Ryanair since January to be sure that you can take hand baggage above a certain size with you in the cabin.
Those who don’t pay the priority fee have larger bags taken off them at the gate and put in the hold (there is no extra charge for this, though obviously you may get held up waiting for them at the carousel on arrival).
According to O’Leary, up to 120 cabin bags are now having to be put in the hold on busy flights.
You might think that the obvious solution to this problem would be to reduce the fee. Then more people would surely be prepared to pay up for the sake of the greater convenience of keeping their hand baggage with them.
But despite the problem highlighted by O’Leary, it has emerged that the airline has recently increased many of its priority boarding fees.
No announcement was made, but the airline has since confirmed that fees have risen from €5 to "from €5/6 to €6/7" depending on the route and time of booking.
Other extras are also prone to higher rates on some routes.
Telegraph Travel has found plenty of examples of fees applying to some flights that are much higher than the fees quoted on the website. Seat selection at €10, rather than the €4 minimum; extra legroom seats from €20, rather than €15; and checked-in baggage at €35 each way, up from the lowest charge of €25 quoted on the fees page.
Ryanair says there has always been a price range on optional extras and that it makes it clear on its website, and higher prices may be applicable on some routes and not on others.
But I think the point here is a more fundamental one: in its efforts to make its fares seem cheap, Ryanair has become addicted to complexity.
Years ago, when the airline first started to strip “optional” extras, like hold baggage, out of its base prices, it was a refreshingly innovative strategy.
A significant number of travellers – including me – who used it for short breaks never checked in hold baggage in any case, so it seemed like a win. We got lower fares, which recognised the fact that it was costing Ryanair less to carry us.
Now the airline’s pricing system has become so labyrinthine – there are so many options, incentives and disincentives – that it has become seriously hard work for customers to work out whether they are getting good value. Instead of rewarding them, some of the litany of extras feel as though they are designed to punish the frugal flier.
Don’t want to pay extra to sit next to your travelling companion? There’s a good chance you will find yourselves separated and sitting in middle seats in different parts of the aircraft. Want to avoid checking in a bag? Pay up or we’ll take it away at the gate.
Ryanair soared to success because it was focused, agile, innovative and efficient. We may not have liked its attitude to its customers, but at least we knew where we stood – the planes were new, they were generally on time and fares were highly competitive.
There were always irritating charges to pay on top of the basic price, but we still felt we were getting good value.
Now it has burgeoned into a behemoth, and it seems to me that it is losing its agility – and that loss is undermining its efficiency.
By making its pricing more complicated, bags at the gate have become a problem. Charges for choosing seats have meant that cabin stewards now have to deal with disgruntled passengers trying to re-arrange their places when they board.
Certainly, I’m not convinced that tinkering with its baggage policy, and making its fares more complex and fragmented, is the best way for Ryanair to convince its passengers that it is – as it likes to boast – “always getting better”.
Read more:Ryanair raises Priority Boarding fees, just months after introducing baggage changes