Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary yesterday pledged to tackle the airline's battered public image after shareholders warned that it was cutting the airline off from a significant section of the market.
Mr O’Leary told shareholders at the company’s annual general meeting in Dublin Airport that nine million passengers flew with the airline in August, making it the first EU carrier to reach this landmark in a calendar month.
However, he also had to apologise to Dublin surgeon Muhammad Taufiq Sattar, who was charged €188 for switching flights after learning of the death of his family in a house fire in Leicester in England.
Mr O'Leary said that the airline has written to Mr Sattar to apologise and express its sympathy, while it has refunded the extra cash that he paid.
“The staff were implementing our policy,” he said, conceding that exceptions should be made in cases such as that of the surgeon’s.
At the meeting itself, Mr O’Leary came under from shareholders who argued that a reputation for poor customer service and a “macho culture” are putting people off flying with the airline.
“We need to remedy a lot of things that make it seem difficult to communicate with Ryanair,” said one. He added that there “is a huge chunk of the market out there” that just refuses to fly with the carrier.
He added that the company’s image could potentially have a hugely negative impact on shareholder value.
Another suggested that Mr O’Leary’s public persona had transmitted itself to the board and to the company. However, the chief executive responded that it was unfair to blame other directors, most of whom are non-executive.
“I am very happy to take the blame myself,” he said.
Mr O’Leary told the meeting that Ryanair’s general level of service was excellent and complimented its cabin crew and pilots several times.
He said Ryanair has the highest rate of punctuality, lowest rate of lost baggage – which he said was one for every 3,000 passengers – and the lowest cancellation rate, which the airline claims is one in 10,000.
Mr O’Leary stressed that it also offered the cheapest fares and guaranteed that passengers would not be hit with fuel surcharges.
“The fact is that 99.9 per cent of people want the lowest fares available,” he added.
However, he conceded that there were areas that needed to be addressed and said he agreed that the company’s image needs softening.
Mr O’Leary formally launched several changes. These will include a revamp of its website that will allow individual customers to sidestep security features that are designed to deter “scrapers” and travel agents attempting to lift the airline’s prices to divert traffic to their own websites.
The feature will remain in place for IP addresses from which bulk bookings are made and those who flood the airline’s site seeking quotes. Mr O’Leary said the company was planning a programme of development that will make its website easier to navigate and speed up the booking process.
A Ryanair twitter page will also be launched and plans are in train to engage more with social media. The airline also intends dropping the €3 charge for downloading its mobile app from October 1st.
Mr O’Leary said the company’s digital marketing strategy would cost more, but it intends to compensate for this by switching a significant portion of its budget from “older media to newer media”.
Earlier this week, the airline announced that it has signed new deals with Stansted Airport in London and Warsaw Modlin in Poland.
Mr O'Leary also confirmed that Ryanair is working on the first stage of its appeal against the UK Competition Commission ruling that it should cut its holding in Aer Lingus from 29.8 per cent to 5 per cent.
It will go to an appeals tribunal. That is likely to hear the case and possibly rule before the year end. If this fails, the airline can go the British court of appeal. If unsuccessful there, it can go to the supreme court.