Not since Saul took his first steps on the road to Damascus shortly after the death of Christ has there been a conversion as profound as the one announced by Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, who yesterday admitted the customer-care culture at his airline was – possibly – “abrupt”.
Speaking at the company’s agm in Dublin, O’Leary said the airline would “try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off” and would stop fining customers whose carry-on baggage exceeds minimum sizes by a matter of millimetres. “A lot of those customer services elements don’t cost a lot of money,” he told gathered shareholders. “It’s something we are committed to addressing over the coming year.”
Any such commitment is obviously welcome but anyone who has been handled by the airline's surly check-in staff or barked at by its cabin crew over the past 20 years will be forgiven for arching an eyebrow and wondering if a leopard can really change its spots. Particularly when the leopard has always denied it has any spots at all.
One of the striking things about Ryanair has long been its sensitivity and its belligerence in the face of criticism – however mild. Several years ago, this journalist wrote a short piece about airlines losing baggage and pointed out that "for all its faults" Ryanair had a good record on baggage handling. Despite this positive comment, the airline was enraged and within hours had written to the newspaper insisting it did not "have a 'good record" but "the best record" and wanted us to "indicate what you mean by 'all its faults' ".
The letter was signed by someone else but had O'Leary's fingerprints all over it. We are not unique in this respect and O'Leary's list of enemies is long and his vocabulary in addressing them virulent. In his eyes, governments are "numpties", airport authorities are "overcharging rapists" and travel agents "f***ers". Not even paying passengers have been spared his wrath and those who have the temerity to infringe one of his airline's many rules have been treated shoddily at best.
Change of heart
Maybe things will change now. “I am very happy to take the blame or responsibility if we have a macho or abrupt culture,” he said yesterday. “Some of that may well be my own personal character deformities,” he added.
So what is behind this change of heart? A survey published by the consumer magazine Which? this week which declared Ryanair was the worst of Britain's 100 biggest brands? Hardly – O'Leary has never given a fiddler's curse about such surveys. Not even the news that his staff imposed a heavy financial penalty on Dr Muhammad Taufiq Al Sattar for moving his flight from Dublin to Birmingham forward by 24 hours after his wife and three children had died in a fire in Leicester earlier this month would have caused O'Leary to make such a shift in corporate policy – although Ryanair did apologise and issue a full refund.
“Money talks and bulls**t walks,” as O’Leary might say. Earlier this month, Ryanair warned that profits for the year may miss forecasts and it has reported a dip in ticket prices and booking levels for the next three months. Other low-cost airlines which don’t come with excess baggage are nipping at its heels and some shareholders are concerned that customer-service issues are hitting sales.
It has made a big investment in new planes and needs its business to keep growing. So it is finally addressing a culture which has besmirched its name for years. As a first step, it will set up a new team to respond to complaint emails and revamp its website to make it more user-friendly. But change starts at the top and unless – or until – the senior management change their customer-service tune it is likely to remain the airline everyone loves to hate.