Europe’s love-hate airline, Ryanair, plans to treat customers better in pursuit of more growth

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LONDON – Michael O’Leary knows full well that many people consider him a provocative jerk and his European juggernaut of an airline, Ryanair, an exercise in frustration.

Now he wants you to meet the cuddly new Mick.

Ryanair last year carried more than 81 million people to 186 destinations, bigger than any European rival. It’s positioned to record fiscal 2014 net profits above 500 million euros ($690 million).

But O’Leary says his company has taken a hard look in the mirror — and decided that, to keep up its industry-leading growth rate, Ryanair can no longer be seen as merely the cheapest option for travellers. It must become comfortable, easy, maybe even enjoyable to use.

“We have been needlessly irritating people, from our creaking old website to our interrogation of passengers over the size of their purses,” O’Leary told The Associated Press during a media briefing in London. “For 20-odd years, our focus has been to stack the product high and sell it cheap. We’re still going to do that, but we’re going to let the customer relax in the process,”

Customers have good reason to be skeptical.

Search for “Ryanair” on the Internet and a flood of customer complaints pop up. They range from the airline’s brushoff of complaints to its refusal of compensation claims, its ambush charges on first-time customers, its labyrinthine website menus and opt-out traps that impose surprise extra charges.

But during an hour-long presentation to European media highlighting his reform plans, O’Leary insisted his airline was changing both in style and substance.

For laughs, he displayed a picture of himself cuddling a puppy.

“When I go around saying mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, I’m sorry for what I’ve done wrong — well, this generates huge publicity … Is it just a PR stunt?” he asked.

As usual with O’Leary, it’s a heady mix of both. Ryanair is making real and sudden changes, driven by a new interest in meeting the long-unfulfilled demands of customers:

— Out are strict enforcement of bag weights and sizes, and punitive fees for even minor size infractions. In is a new two-bag carry-on policy that permits people to shop in airport terminals without fear of punishment at the boarding gate.

— Out are long, wearying queues for passengers seeking better seats on planes that have no seat assignments. In are automatic seat bookings.

— Out is a maze-like company website that O’Leary himself said makes “me lose the will to live.”

O’Leary has shifted from his own headline-generating chatter — Why not charge people to use the toilet? he once asked — to focus on new initiatives to build Ryanair’s base of operations in Europe’s main business airports and to offer price discounts to families booking together.

Ryanair’s biggest change is how it plans to sell itself. For more than a decade, it’s embraced the Internet and cut out travel agents, insisting that customers use its Web site only. It also never spent a dime on TV ads.

Now Ryanair’s website is about to change radically, with a new ability to pinpoint the cheapest ticket to any destination up to a year in advance, an improvement that will be highlighted in a first-ever TV campaign. Until now, such an effort might have taken hours and ended in confusion or failure.

Ryanair also is partnering with Google to permit its fares to be searched openly on the Internet, another step the airline long fought in courtroom battles. Travel agents, in turn, will be encouraged to use the Google Flight Plan database to buy Ryanair services when organizing package holidays.

O’Leary said Ryanair’s no-frills business model was recession-proof but as the continent slowly returns to growth the airline can expand more rapidly by rewarding its customers with targeted discounts using a new personalized loyalty program.

His goal is to keep building what is already, by many measures, Europe’s biggest and most successful airline in an era of rising competition with budget rivals.

Standard & Poor’s rates Ryanair the best investment in the airline industry and shares have climbed this month above 7.50 euros ($10.50), a modern high and 50 per cent better than a year ago.

O’Leary said his company would keep growing regardless of whether it treats customers better — but he thinks there’s opportunities for bigger, faster growth with improved service. He wants to reach 110 million passengers by 2019, and plans to expand his all-Boeing 737 fleet from 300 to 400 in the process.

“We’ll grow to 110 million increasingly from business and travel agency distribution,” he said. “The travel agents will put together very low cost packages and Ryanair will become a key part of that pricing.”

O’Leary said he marvels at the fact that — despite a decade of treating customers like cattle and handling complaints with combativeness — Ryanair still has triumphed.

“Just imagine how many more people we’re going to carry and how much more money we’re going to make when we give customers more of what they want,” he said, adding that “as 4 per cent shareholder, I hope to gain handsomely from it.”

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