A few years ago I was at a wedding in Dublin – an Irish bride and her new English husband. We were all warned to be on our best behaviour. The English family were strangers – and silent, socially awkward strangers at that. The two families had little in common.
The mother of the bride dreaded the prospect of the contorted small talk that lay ahead. There isn’t enough gin in the world to tide such a mother over safely on a big day out. “I mean, what do you talk to these people about?” she complained. “Ryanair of course,” whispered the bridesmaid confidently.
Within seconds, the shy and reticent were suddenly chatty storytellers, trading diabolical stories of unspeakable public degradation. Ice broken. Job done. You can count on Ryanair – the international code word for consumer trauma – to spice up any uncomfortable social occasion. Booze does the rest.
Previous generations had their war stories; the Blitz and food rationing in England, 1916 and the General Post Office in Ireland – these are examples of the common ties that bind that are readily understood by all. Our generation has Ryanair.
Everyone has a story. My own personal favourites involve the stand-offs at the departure desks between outraged, sweating travellers and stern and surly flight attendants, as customers try to cram their beloved possessions into the narrow cages used by Ryanair to decide whether a piece of luggage is too big to be carried into the cabin.
So why did the company’s normally uncompromising and abrasive chief executive Michael O’Leary suddenly announce a kinder Ryanair? The company wants to make the experience a little more pleasant to attract business customers. What has happened to the man who urged staff to steal pens from hotels to keep down costs? Is Mick taking the Mick?
After all Ryanair will carry 81m of us this year, dwarfing British Airway’s 28m and comfortably ahead of Lufthansa’s 60m. The Irish airline makes just over €7 profit per passenger and is sitting on a cash pile of €3.5bn at a time when other carriers are stretched. It flies to 171 airports across Europe and has just done a deal with Stansted to deliver an extra 7m passengers to the airport over the next six years.
Earlier this year, Ryanair ordered 175 aircraft from Boeing, which should have retailed for $16bn, but industry sources indicate that Mr O’Leary might have got them for half – ruthlessly sensing Boeing’s difficulties and understanding the potency of his own firepower.
Such chutzpah is not the work of a man worried about the future. This type of audacity indicates that the Ryanair model is not broken. If it is not broken, why fix it? For years, the company’s approach has been “cheap is enough”.Management believes that people do not fly to destinations but fly at a price. By offering a price low enough, it will generate demand for a city or a country where there was previously no demand. If you have ever seen Geordies on stag nights in obscure towns of the Italian Alps, you will agree Ryanair has a point.
The management’s view that people will put up with no end of hassle if the price is right was best exemplified by Mr O’Leary’s blunt retort to passengers who complained that they did not even get a cup of tea during a delay. “You only paid a fiver, buy your own tea.” Charming.
So why did brusque, “in your face” Mick turn into the luvvie-duvvie, soft, cuddly and caring Michael last week? The reason might be in the numbers. Ryanair’s recent figures have been disappointing. Yields are down, prices are lower and demand is soft. Shaky numbers that might have been attributed to weak sterling and the warm summer have continued into September.
Ryanair is worried. Could there be a limit to our tolerance of casual slights, hidden charges and a website that looks as if it is trying to hawk everything that has just fallen off the back of every lorry in east London? Could passengers be saying “enough”? The stories may be funny in retrospect but perhaps we could not be bothered with the ritual humiliation to save 30 quid?
The interesting thing about Mr O’Leary is that he does change his mind. The most significant example of this was over the internet. When I first interviewed him in 1999-2000, he was a web sceptic. However, once he saw the power of the net, he changed his mind and embraced it more enthusiastically than many competitors.
Maybe his Pauline conversion is real. After all, he has mellowed in recent years. Could it be something to do with having four children under the age of eight?
Described by those close to him as “sometimes in error, never in doubt”, it is clear that if he has decided that it is profitable to be nice, Ryanair will be nice. Quite what a nice Ryanair might look like is anyone’s guess. Free shoulder massages? Copies of the FT being handed out by smiling representatives at Stansted, urging us all to “have a great day”? It is difficult to imagine. But something has clicked inside the head of the most successful chief executive in the airline business.
If it leads to a change in the Ryanair experience for 80-odd million of us, how are you going to break the ice with an interminable bore the next time you are stuck with one at social gatherings? You never know, we might miss the old Ryanair. Be careful what you wish for.