‘Nice’ is more than a destination: what Ryanair can teach United Airlines

Stuart Jeffries
Michael O’Leary of Ryanair: ‘If I’d only learned in college that being nice was good for business, I’d have done it years ago.’ Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

When I interviewed Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary six years ago, he denied his budget airline had an image problem. “Ryanair is responsible for the integration of Europe by bringing lots of different cultures to the beaches of Spain, Greece and Italy, where they couple and copulate in the interests of pan-European peace,” he said.

“There hasn’t been a war in Europe for 50 years, because they’re all too busy flying on Ryanair. I should get the Nobel peace prize – screw Bono.”

But O’Leary didn’t get that accolade – and one reason was his reputation for treating his customers as boneheads to be milked for every last penny. He charged passengers for checking in luggage and for inflight food, he mused on the possibility of coin-operated toilets, and even considered charging passengers to watch porn. “Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things,” he said once. And his attitude towards complaints was brusque. “We don’t want to hear your sob stories. What part of ‘no refund’ don’t you understand?” he told one interviewer. “I don’t give a fuck if no one likes me,” he added, unrepentantly. “I am not a cloud bunny, I am not an aerosexual.” Like aerosexual were a thing.

O’Leary was so nasty that, a few years ago, had you been asked which airline would get three security guys to rough up a passenger who had the temerity to take his seat on an overbooked flight, smash his head against an armrest, drag him down the aisle as other passengers howled “Oh my God! You can’t do that!” and filmed the incident for videos that would go viral within minutes, you would have bet on Ryanair.

In 2013, Ryanair was considered to have “the worst customer service out of Britain’s 100 biggest brands” in a survey of the readers of Which? magazine. In the same year, two profit warnings showed Ryanair failing to keep up with its rivals, including easyJet, whose friendlier image had attracted flyers. O’Leary’s company recorded a £28.7m loss in the final three months of 2013.

In 2014, though, this rightwing bruiser with the runaway mouth had a Damascene conversion. O’Leary decided that Nice wasn’t just a Ryanair destination, but must be his airline’s new corporate philosophy. “If I’d only learned in college that being nice was good for business, I’d have done it years ago,” he told Bloomberg TV.

As a result, Ryanair introduced allocated seating, thus ending the hitherto defining experience of boarding its flights: a scramble at the gate, followed by unpleasantness over who got the window bulkhead seat. It introduced so-called “quiet flights” before 8am and after 9pm, during which time you could sleep rather than sit red-eyed listening to annoying ads for tat, such as their (to my mind, mutually degrading) cabin crew charity calendar.

It introduced new features such as bottle-warming, changing facilities, free room for children’s car-seats, an extra cabin bag for children and discounts on their checked-in bags. It also allowed passengers to take a second bag without incurring a fine. The company’s website was revamped to make booking less of a baffling ordeal and its customer service became something other than an oxymoron.

The results? A spectacular 66% leap in profits to €867m (£623m) in the first full year since O’Leary mutated into Mr Nice. True, those figures were buoyed by factors such as bad north-European weather and – this was 2015 – a strong pound. And yes, its nasty reputation over workers’ rights didn’t change (Copenhagen’s mayor, for instance, accused it of “social dumping” because of low wages).

But the success story continues. Ryanair is now even contemplating flying to New York, putting it in direct competition with United Airlines. Earlier this month, Ryanair – which remains Europe’s biggest airline by passenger numbers – reported that 92% of surveyed customers were happy with their overall flight experience. Those figures were based on respondents to a “Rate My Flight” function in the Ryanair app which, so far as I can see, allows passengers to rate their experiences according to a five-star rating system, from one star for OK to five stars for excellent, but doesn’t allow them to record that their experience totally sucked. Which, in the interests of transparency, it really should.

Still, in 2017, it’s not Ryanair that has a terrible public image. It’s not Ryanair that provoked an outcry by refusing two young girls wearing leggings to board a flight. And it’s not Ryanair that booted off a legitimate passenger from an overbooked flight. “Unlike other airlines,” head of communications Robin Kiely tells me, “Ryanair does not overbook flights.” Ryanair, then, is no longer at war with its flyers. Just don’t expect O’Leary to get the Nobel peace prize any time soon.