I had a feeling that change was in the air at the king of the budget airlines when I spotted a competition. The prize was a flight for two on a flight simulator courtesy of Stansted Airport and Ryanair. As is the no-frills way, I imagined myself running into the simulator to claim my prize, only to find someone already at the controls. Don’t you just love priority boarding?
In reality, the dash for a seat on Ryanair is already history, as the airline embarks on a radical revamp of its customer service experience. With an enhanced range of services — from allocated seating and putting a sock in the ‘on time’ bugle for early morning flights, to a simplified online booking process — Ryanair is on the charm offensive.
After revolutionising the airline industry with the budget approach to flying and soaring to become one of the world’s biggest carriers, tough competition and market conditions led the airline to take a long hard look at its image and approach to customer service.
Never one to mince his words, the airline’s outspoken chief executive Michael O’Leary vowed to stop the things that “unnecessarily piss people off”. Like the ‘pay-per-pee’ saga, when the Ryanair boss famously toyed with the introduction of coin slots and credit card swipes on toilet doors. Perhaps it would have been worth it, if only to hear the crew announce: “Doors to manual and cross legs”.
While the idea eventually disappeared down the pan, it showed the airline was not afraid to trim the frills to maximise the economies of flying. Now the emphasis is on putting a few frills back to woo passengers — particularly families and business travellers who have grown weary with the pared-down budget model.
Of course the flight is only part of the experience and Ryanair has also made some significant changes online. Customer emails carry a crisp new look - they’re clean, clear and have a touch of class to them. They give you a twinge of excitement about forthcoming travels, beyond the fundamentals of the itinerary.
The new look extends to the Ryanair website, where the focus has been on simplifying the booking process. Ryanair says it has cut the booking path from 17 to five clicks. I certainly noticed the difference when I made a recent booking.
My biggest gripe in the past has been negotiating the range of extras, such as travel insurance and luggage, and paying only for the ones I really want. It all felt a bit like a game where Ryanair was trying to catch me out with add-ons, rather than delivering on my needs as a customer.
While I appreciate that add-ons are the lifeblood of budget airlines, it all comes down to balance. On the new site, I reckon they’ve got this about right. Sure, the extras are still being pushed, but I feel more encouraged and enticed to buy them now, rather than muddled into making a purchase.
And while you still have to actively decline the likes of travel insurance by scrolling down a long drop down list, a clear message pops up explaining what to do if you’re already covered. There’s even the option of a live e-mail chat with a customer services rep to help with any queries during the booking process.
Out goes the choice of priority boarding or dashing for a seat, replaced with a more equitable approach. You can either check in and choose a seat for free from 15 days before departure or pay between £5 and £10 to secure the one you want at the time of booking.
So I’ve bought my ticket, checked in and am all set to fly. I’ll be one of an estimated 81 million plus people who’ll be boarding a flight with Ryanair this year. If you stop to think about the sheer number of passengers and the airline’s astonishing growth, it is nothing short of a revolution.
Yet despite a recent six per cent rise in passenger numbers (buoyed by a record December with 5 million fliers), this week saw Ryanair announce a 35m euro loss for the last quarter of 2013. It goes to show that change is always on the horizon in the airline industry. But now it feels more like evolution rather than revolution is in the air. Time to see if easing on the T&Cs with a bit of TLC will do the trick.
I'll let you know how my flight goes.