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Tales from Ireland – Ryanair: The Great Dictator

June 8, 2011

I first flew Ryanair in the early days of Ireland’s second airline. The concept of first-come-first served for seats on the plane was very novel. I remember competing with a scrum of burly nuns in the charge for the best seats. The nuns, returning to Holy Mother Ireland, won out of course.

Its planes were second hand, the fights were far cheaper than the flag carriers, and both the Irish and the British embraced Europe’s first short-haul budget airline –  with patriotic enthusiasm on the Irish side, and thoughts of the extra Chianti to be afforded on the part of the Brits.

Ryanair today is an altogether more sophisticated operation. It long ago eclipsed Aer Lingus, Ireland’s national flag carrier, both in terms of profitability and routes served. It’s success is largely down to its charismatic chief executive, Michael O’Leary, who is, in Irish parlance, one “cute fella”.

O’Leary has parsed the whole flight experience. He charges virtually nothing for the flight itself. But all the features of modern air travel come at an extra cost. Check-in at the airport? Extra charge. Baggage for the hold? Charge per bag. Priority boarding? Extra charge. Met at the terminal by a buggy? Extra charge. Coffee and sandwiches on the flight? Extra charge. If your cabin baggage – one piece allowed, no matter what you buy in duty free – doesn’t fit in their measuring frame, extra charge. O’Leary would like to charge for use of the on-board toilets. He would like to create standing room space on his flights so that he can pack more people onto the flights. If he could find a way to charge for the cabin air supply, he would undoubtedly do so.

Process, process, process. With Ryanair, you follow the rules and fly for virtually nothing. No flexibility, no exceptions. When you check in online, you are assailed by options for which you will pay a premium. My wife says that you need extreme concentration to avoid inadvertently clicking the yes button for one of O’Leary’s multitude of add-ons.

Airlines often reflect the personality of their owners and chief executives. Think of British Airways under the arrogant, snotty Lord King. Virgin under the laid-back, informal and infuriatingly cool Richard Branson. But no airline embodies the values of its CEO more than Ryanair. Its logo is a flying harp.  More appropriate would be a winged middle finger raised defiantly at the world.

The airline has fought battles with advertising standards authorities about allegedly misleading advertisements. It has fallen foul of EU regulations requiring it to maintain an online complaints channel. It regularly runs ads ridiculing its competitors. It ruthlessly uses its purchasing power to negotiate favourable landing fees – not hesitating to walk away from any destination that doesn’t see things its way. And the same goes for its relationships with aircraft manufacturers.

Ryanair’s relationship with its customers is similar to that between citizens and officials of a totalitarian state – fine if you play things their way, stony and unyielding if not. I remember coming back with my family from Pisa a couple of years back. The flight was supposed to land before midnight, but was delayed. It took two hours to get our baggage because, according to the airport information desk, the airline had refused to pay extra staff overtime to unload the bags. So we sat in the hall waiting for our bags with absolutely no information as to when they would appear. Our efforts, and those of a number of angry fellow travellers, to find a Ryanair representative who could tell us what was going on were to no avail. The customer service people seemed to have headed for the hills. Which left the impression that our convenience was of absolutely no importance to the airline.

The Irish attitude towards Ryanair seems to be a mixed kind of pride. Something along the lines of “we know they’re bastards, but they’re our bastards.” And certainly the chippy O’Leary appeals to the innate Irish sympathy with the underdog. Most of the Brits I know can’t stand them, but equally can’t resist the low fares. So they board the flights with the grim resignation of gulag inmates.

O’Leary wouldn’t care either way. He clearly views his job as delivering shareholder value. And he’s certainly doing that. Contrast Ryanair’s financial performance with that of Air Asia, which I have found to be  a delight to travel with, but which does not have a similar record of profitability. The airline also has a good safety record and respectable punctuality statistics, so the balanced scorecard is by no means all negative.

So I suppose I shall continue to use Ryanair when I need to. It’s the epitome of operational excellence, at least in terms of its own internal processes. Customer intimacy? Forget it.

But if I was a Ryanair shareholder, I would be a wee bit worried at the domination of its charismatic chief executive. When the Great Dictator finally moves off, will his creation revert to the grey flabbiness of its competitors?

Meanwhile, an Irish icon flies on, leaving competitors, regulators and disgruntled passengers floundering in its wake.

From → Business, Social, Travel, UK

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