MICHAEL O’LEARY is late, just like so many of his aeroplanes. “I’m terribly sorry,” gasps Ryanair’s chief executive, as he rushes in 15 minutes after our scheduled appointment.
“You haven’t been waiting long have you? Let me get you a tea. Or would you prefer coffee? Would you like a muffin, or something? No…are you sure? OK … back in a couple of seconds.”
And off he dashes to the counter of the Metro cafe at Stansted airport, hub for the airline’s operation in the UK – looking apologetic and glancing over anxiously at me as he makes his order.
All of which is making me feel just a little bit confused.
You see, The Times travel desk receives more complaints about Ryanair than any other airline – regarding everything from delays, to poor inflight service, to damaged luggage, to lengthy check-in queues.
The Irish-based carrier, which has spearheaded the low-cost airline phenomenon in the past decade and which carried ten million passengers in the past year, crops up time and again in letters. A new complaint arrives virtually every week.
Yet, as O’Leary is only too quick to point out, Ryanair rarely apologises or tries to make up for these problems.
“Are we going to say sorry for our lack of customer service?” he asks rhetorically, putting down his cheese and ham croissant (after offering part of it, most un-Ryanairishly, to me).
“Absolutely not. If a plane is cancelled will we put you up in a hotel overnight? Absolutely not. If a plane is delayed, will we give you a voucher for a restaurant? Absolutely not.”
But isn’t this a bit harsh, I ask. Surely Ryanair and O’Leary – who has agreed to meet Times Travel to counter some of the complaints we have received about his airline – must care about customer service, to some extent? It can’t just be a matter of saying “tough luck” if a flight is delayed – can it? Whatever happened to that old business maxim: the customer is always right?
“Listen,” he says bullishly. “Our customer service is about the most well-defined in the world. We guarantee to give you the lowest airfare. You get a safe flight. You get a normally on-time flight. That’s the package. We don’t and won’t give you anything more on top of that.”
He pauses to take a sip of his tea – something passengers would have to pay for on board Ryanair flights.
You even have to shell out for a packet of peanuts or a glass of mineral water.
“Listen, we care for our customers in the most fundamental way possible: we don’t screw them every time we fly them (O’Leary, I soon realise, doesn’t mince his words).
“We care for our customers by giving them the cheapest airfares. I have no time for certain large airlines which say they care and then screw you for six or seven hundred quid almost every time you fly.”
I’m getting the picture. But the fact is, Times Travel still receives more complaints about Ryanair than any other airline. And many people are sick of the we’ve-got-the-cheapest-flights-so-grin-and-bear-it approach – as the Air Transport Users’ Council (AUC), which monitors airline complaints, testifies.
The AUC says that Ryanair is one of the worst offending airlines; that it seems to “stick two fingers up” at its disgruntled passengers; and that its delays record is poor for many European destinations. Recent findings from the Consumers’ Association also show that fewer people would recommend Ryanair to a friend than any of the other main low-cost carriers: easyJet, buzz and Go.
Isn’t it time Ryanair moved on a bit and stopped thinking about customers as cattle to be transported from A to B?
This sets off an O’Leary tirade, about the “British Airways of this world”, so I ask him about some of the specific complaints received from readers in recent weeks.
For example, several have complained about how difficult it is to talk to anyone at the airline when they have a problem (see Postbag, right). Frustrated customers say they have to make endless phone calls before finally getting through to an operator. Doesn’t this seem as though Ryanair is treating them with disdain?
“Our position is simple,” O’Leary says. “Generally speaking, we won’t take any phone calls…because they keep you on the bloody phone all day.”
“We employ four people in our customer care department,” he continues. “Every complaint must be put in writing and we undertake to respond to that complaint within 24 hours.
“Anyway, do you know what 70 per cent of our complaints are about?” he says, sounding a bit aggrieved. “They’re about people who want to make changes to what are clearly stated as being ‘non-changeable, non-transferable and non-refundable’ tickets.”
He adopts a “complaining” voice, mimicking a customer: “I’ve changed my mind. My granny wasn’t feeling well. I couldn’t travel because I couldn’t take time off work.”
Aren’t you being slightly cruel? “No…because even if you can’t change your ticket and you’ve got to buy a second one, you’re still going to save money compared with buying a single ticket from the major airlines.
“Anyway, with our new system you can make some changes. If you pay 20 euros (£12.30) you can change the time of your flight, but not the name on the ticket.”
Which is a start.
Moving on to other reader gripes, I ask why Ryanair isn’t more explicit about its use of secondary airports that are often miles from the destination that the airline headlines in its adverts.
For example, Ryanair says it flies to Frankfurt, when it actually flies to Frankfurt’s secondary airport, Hahn, 60 miles and a one-hour bus ride from Frankfurt city centre. Although it says so in the small print, surely the use of such airports should be made crystal clear to potential passengers?
“We’ll be happy to do that some day, when other airlines describe Heathrow as being 35 miles outside London,” O’Leary says. “This secondary airport matter is a typical one run up by the big airlines.
“They constantly say low-cost airlines take you to the middle of nowhere. It’s what they said about Stansted ten years ago when we first flew here. They said: ‘Oh, but Stansted’s in Essex’. What? Like Heathrow’s in Pall Mall or something?”
But Hahn is still twice as far from the centre as Heathrow. And it doesn’t have a 15-minute rail link.
“Look,” O’Leary says. “The more experienced traveller fundamentally wants to know: ‘Is that airport close to my destination?’ If it’s the main airport or not, that makes no difference to them.”
Regardless, many Times readers say they are frustrated at lead-in fares that are often unavailable. They say advertisements for #1 tickets encourage them to contact Ryanair, only to find that available tickets are much more expensive. The Advertising Standards Authority has upheld several complaints regarding fares headlined in Ryanair promotions.
This really gets O’Leary going: “When British Airways did its low-fares promotion it was only on a tiny percentage of sales,” he says.
“This compares with 75 per cent of our airfares that are sold in the two lowest categories. No other airline even comes close.
“And look what we did after September 11: instead of sitting aircraft on the ground, we carried more passengers. We gave out 300,000 seats for free. We sold a million seats for #9.99. That’s caring, for you.”
Which brings us back to the whole question of customer service – and O’Leary’s argument that low-cost airlines can get away with a no-frills service precisely because the fares themselves are low-cost. We don’t seem to be getting anywhere.
O’Leary says the proof of the pudding is that Ryanair attracts ten million passengers a year, a number he claims will treble by 2010 – more than BA.
“You can look at us in the most caustic light possible, that we’re cheap Bush Paddies – but you can’t get around the fact that people want to fly with us. In 16 months flying to Hahn airport, we’ve gone from nowhere to an 18 per cent market share.”
So how come we receive more complaints about Ryanair than easyJet, buzz and Go, its low-cost competitors? “Just look at Frankfurt,” O’Leary says. “That growth suggests to me that people really don’t have much of a problem with us, do they?”
First published in The Times, 5 January 2002