Comply with me

Sat, Jan 28, 2012, 00:00

INSIDE STORY:Between the bad coffee, anti-trade union stance and not so much as a mobile phone charger on offer, life at Ryanair HQ may not seem like a barrel of laughs but, as staff member after staff member tells CONOR POPE, 75 million passengers can’t be wrong – unless, that is, they’re calling customer service

RYANAIR’S HEADQUARTERS in the shadow of Dublin Airport’s still sparkling Terminal Two is like a well run cult, and there’s no doubting who the leader is. Although Michael O’Leary is nowhere to be seen on this visit to his grey, unimposing and decidedly surprisingly small base, he is everywhere. He is there in the words and mannerisms of his senior staff, who dress down and drop casual insults about rivals into their conversations, and his stamp is evident on the large stapled-together poster in the staff room that exhorts employees to “SELL SELL SELL!!!”

The cabin crews’ target this week is to get passengers to spend €2 but, with the average spend currently just €1.54, they are under pressure. As the afternoon shift starts and blue-clad crews quietly file in to download and print their flight details from the company’s intranet, senior staff push them to sell more. Hampers, provided by suppliers at no cost to Ryanair, are promised to the month’s best performers.

The staff room doubles as a canteen. It is a miserable place. A wall-mounted TV blasts out spirit-crushing scenes from various Ryanair staff parties – again, paid for by suppliers – with nothing more nourishing than vending machine coffee and bars of chocolate available for the pilots, cabin crew, engineers and administrative staff who work at the heart of one of the biggest and most successful airlines in the world.

Bad coffee aside, Ryanair’s story is remarkable. Set up in 1985 by Tony Ryan, the airline’s first route ferried very small numbers from Waterford to London Gatwick. A year later, it started flying from Dublin to London with its Ir£99 return less than half the lowest ticket price offered by British Airways and Aer Lingus, which had monopolised the route.

Passenger numbers grew, as did the airline, but before Ryanair’s third birthday, it had accumulated losses of Ir£20 million. Then a junior executive named Michael O’Leary visited Southwest Airlines, the US low-fares carrier, and the game changed forever. Having witnessed first-hand the airline revolution sweeping across the American Bible Belt, O’Leary came home and, with evangelical zeal, set about resurrecting Ryanair.

For more than 15 years, the airline has relentlessly driven down fares across Europe as it fought countless battles for passengers and control of airports. And the war is nearly won. Ryanair employs more than 8,000 people and operates more than 1,600 flights a day from 47 bases across 27 countries, with a fleet of 250 Boeing 737-800s. Based on passenger numbers, it is the biggest international airline in the world.

Despite the part it has played in opening up our skies, Ryanair remains the airline everyone loves to hate. It is also the airline that seems to hate everyone. There are few spared the wrath of O’Leary. Governments (“numpties”), airport authorities (“overcharging rapists”), other airlines (“expensive bastards”), air traffic controllers (“poxy”) the European Commission (“morons”), Brussels (“the evil empire”) environmentalists (“lemmings”), travel agents (“f***ers”) have all been damned. Even this writer has incurred Ryanair’s considerable ire more than once for having the temerity to suggest its customer service may, at times, be less than brilliant.

That’s all water under the bridge now, however, and while O’Leary may not exactly be greeting us with open arms – or indeed at all – at least he’s not calling security.

FIRST UP IS the 9am conference call involving HQ and every airport Ryanair flies from. Today, there are 44 people on the call and each one has to detail how their staff got on handling this morning’s first wave of flights. It’s like a less glitzy version of Eurovision voting: “Good morning from Bergamo . . . This is Malaga calling . . . Calgari, you are online . . . Hello Dublin.” Every senior executive, including O’Leary, is rostered to host these calls regularly, so there is nowhere to hide for those who make mistakes.

Like sullen teenagers producing their homework for a scary teacher, airport staff must say how many planes departed; how many, if any, left late, how late and why; how many bags did not make it on to the planes, how many passengers were charged after failing to check in online, and how many bags were deemed too big for the cabin and checked in at a penal cost to passengers.

It sounds like O’Leary micro-management gone mad but, like so much Ryanair does, this call has monetary value. “The data about the short-shipped bags is effectively useless, but we want to make the point to the airports every day that we care about the bags,” says director of ground operations David O’Brien. Ryanair cares so much because losing bags costs money. And Ryanair hates losing money. It has a very good record when it comes to lost baggage (I once said it had “quite a good record”, which prompted the airline to send a furious letter objecting to the use of the word “quite”).

Ryanair misplaces 0.25 bags per 1,000 passengers. “The most recent British Airways figure was 16. If we underperformed at that level we would need to ship one million extra bags by taxi each year,” says O’Brien. He has been a Ryanair employee since 1992 and is a mini-Michael. While discussing Ryanair’s training centre at East Midlands airport, which has four flight simulators worth €10 million each, he says, almost without thinking, that they “are probably worth more that the whole Aer Arann fleet”.

This needless aggression aimed at rivals percolates through Ryanair like bitter coffee and is at least partially responsible for the low regard many have for it. Former Aer Lingus chief executive Willie Walsh once characterised Ryanair as “cranky, basic, unapologetic and tolerable” and claimed that while Aer Lingus was “cheap and cheerful”, Ryanair was “cheap and nasty”.

When asked why Ryanair has such a bad reputation, O’Brien points to its 75 million passengers as evidence to the contrary. “It is very easy to indulge a late-arriving passenger at a gate but, if you do that, you are delaying 180 other people and we will not do that,” he says. “Of course, people get pissed off but only when they are surprised. We want to be clear to people, that is not the same as being rude.”

Next door to O’Brien’s office is the operations room, which has space for 10 people. Everyone’s staring at computer screens filled with incomprehensible data. A red tab flickers on one screen, indicating a Polish-bound flight can’t land because of snow. The woman responsible for diversions makes contact with the man responsible for organising coaches who, luckily, is sitting two feet away, while the person who will have to make alternative rostering arrangements sits beside him. It is very cosy.

Hangar Two, where Ryanair’s planes are serviced, is not cosy. It is massive. Christy Duffy, who has been promoted through the ranks to aircraft maintenance manager, has an easy manner but is fiercely loyal to his employer. And very conscientious.

“There are certain things you can cut back on, but you can’t cut back on maintenance,” he says. Planes are rigorously checked after 700 hours flying time and crews work night and day running through various checklists.

Fearing the worst does not keep O’Brien awake at night. “I have confidence in our systems, but that is not complacency,” he says. He knows that Ryanair, given its reputation, has more to lose than most airlines if something goes wrong. “If there is an accident, then people will say, ‘I told you so’, despite our safety record over many years.”

The (entirely wrong) idea that Ryanair cuts corners when it comes to safety is fed by misleading media reports. Late last year, a picture of crew applying tape to a window in a 737 cockpit appeared in newspapers and made it look as if the airline was holding planes together with sticky tape. The truth is that, when a window is bolted into place, a sealant is applied and covered in tape as it dries – a fact that got lost in the blizzard of headlines.

O’Leary is always apoplectic when he reads such stories, but he sometimes has only himself to blame for negative press. Last week on The Late Late Show, he won himself few friends by saying the “customer is nearly always wrong”.

Despite O’Leary’s showboating and endless rudeness towards those who choose to spend money with his company, Ryanair invests considerably in customer care.

THE CENTRE OF operations is located a short drive away from HQ and is headed by Caroline Green. These are good days for her. In December, only 23 Ryanair flights were cancelled – compared with 2,500 in December of 2010. During the ash crisis, Green’s office handled 60,000 calls, emails, faxes and letters every day. Today, there will be fewer than 1,000.

Saying you’re the head of Ryanair’s customer service must be a conversation starter? “I try not to say where I work,” she says, ruefully – she can do without the grief. When asked why people hate Ryanair, she denies it, although not very convincingly. “They don’t hate us. They love us. We are great,” she says, although she accepts that O’Leary “antagonises people”.

She says his bullish media persona can make her life harder. “He has his own agenda . . . What can I say? I think we could do better because people’s perception of us is less than it should be. There is so much that is good about this airline. My main objective is to keep Ryanair out of the papers and keep people from going to the press. Michael is Michael and he has a lot more positives than negatives.”

The ash crisis taught Ryanair a lot, says Green, and it is now better equipped to deal with a crisis. “We are automating things. Letters for insurance claims, for instance, can be done online now. There are areas when airlines get it wrong, but we have done a lot to make things better.”

The calls coming in suggest that O’Leary’s claim that the customer is nearly always wrong is right. Staff are on their best behaviour, possibly because we are listening, but the callers are not. They are cross and grumpy.

One irate man complains that he never got his confirmation email for a flight due to depart days from now. This Vilnius caller is building up a head of outraged steam until it emerges that no confirmation mail was sent because his credit card was declined – a fact that would have been relayed to him via a pop-up window. As a result, the booking was never completed. Sheepishly, he hangs up. Another caller, from Scotland, also complains that he never got his details. Again, it’s not the airline’s fault. The wrong email address was submitted. The problem is resolved efficiently and quickly.

Eddie Wilson is an unusual human resources director, not least because he is responsible for the on-time jingles on every on-time flight – after pleas from staff he recently agreed to drop the wild applause that used to follow the jingle.

Like O’Leary and O’Brien, Wilson is loathe to accept Ryanair does anything wrong, ever. “We court publicity and are always going to get some reaction to that, but based on some of the headlines you’d swear you worked for the Taliban,” he says. He agrees that Ryanair is tough, but says it has to be to survive. “Most companies that are soft and spend their time explaining can’t deliver. This idea that people don’t like us is not borne out by the facts.”

The “75 million passengers” line comes up again. Everyone is on-message at Ryanair HQ.

Wilson says staff are treated well and paid fairly. “Our wages have to be high enough to attract people. There are no salary scales that you see in legacy airlines, so we don’t automatically pay someone who has been here for 25 years more than someone who has been here for two years – and we make no apologies for that.”

But what is a fair wage? According to the Ryanair website, new crew earn between €1,100 and €1,400 a month after tax – not much more than minimum wage – have “great promotional opportunities” and could earn more than €30,000 gross after the first year. Hardly a king’s ransom, but given the company’s virulently anti-trade union stance, there is little room for negotiation.

Unions have described Ryanair as “extremely hostile to the workforce” and said it is “a very, very oppressive regime”. While they are undoubtedly working to their own agenda, it is hard to imagine a wonderful working atmosphere where an employer forbids its staff to go online onsite or even to charge their mobiles on the premises, and thinks it is acceptable to bill new recruits for their own uniforms.

Wilson is having none of it. The way he looks at it, everything is fine. Better than fine. It’s a great place to work. He makes no apologies for the airline’s position on union recognition. “Unions tried to close down this airline – don’t forget that. We are in western Europe, not deepest USSR, so you have to treat people right.”