Ryanair is being mean again but we don’t really care

People may complain about getting vouchers not refunds but they’ll still return for more

The airline’s customers are being told they won’t receive refunds until lockdown measures ease, and are being offered vouchers in place of refunds for cancelled flights. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

The airline’s customers are being told they won’t receive refunds until lockdown measures ease, and are being offered vouchers in place of refunds for cancelled flights. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

 

Ryanair – no stranger to controversy at the best of times – is the latest company to find itself navigating a tricky press landscape as more and more companies find themselves in hot water over their response to the coronavirus pandemic,

The airline’s customers are being told they won’t receive refunds until lockdown measures ease, and are being offered vouchers in place of refunds for cancelled flights. Social media is naturally ablaze with outrage over the company’s latest gambit to save pennies wherever it can, with some beleaguered patrons calling for a boycott of Ryanair altogether.

Meanwhile in the UK, JD Wetherspoon – a cheap and ubiquitous pub chain – is also weathering a storm largely of its own making. Wetherspoon’s chief, Tim Martin, first caused outrage by claiming it was over the top to shut pubs; and, mere days later, indicating he would not continue to pay employees after the closure of pubs was enforced, callously suggesting to his 40,000-strong workforce that they seek a job in Tesco in the meantime.

The internet was again awash with calls to boycott Wetherspoons. And commentators noted that what seemed like a financially prudent (if cruel and exploitative) decision for Martin may not pay dividends in the end, as former patrons refuse to return to his premises in protest when pubs eventually reopen.

Deluge of theorising

Plenty of ink has been spilled over how coronavirus will change the world for good: we will shop online more, we will move away from cities, more people will work from home, fewer people will work from home, the high street will die, the high street will thrive. Amid the deluge of theorising on how our world will be shaped by this unprecedented crisis, we have also been confronted with claims that consumers will remember how businesses behaved, and will adjust their spending habits accordingly.

But consumers have a short memory. And, we often believe our behaviour is guided by a stronger moral compass than it actually is. When lockdown ends, and we can travel and drink in pubs again, will our attitudes change en masse? Will Wetherspoon actually be forced to shutter its doors at the behest of a nationwide boycott? Will we all of a sudden find ourselves willing to pay more to fly with British Airways or Aer Lingus?

It seems unlikely. In fact, the gap between our attitudes and our consumer behaviour is getting wider, as Charlie Palmer, a strategist at advertising agency Uncommon, notes. While we are happy claiming that we want to buy more “ethical” products, or to avoid companies with a loose approach to the notion of “corporate responsibility”, we have seen little appreciable difference in our actual habits. In fact, academics have found that though our ethical considerations might be becoming more sophisticated, this rarely translates into behaviour that favours ethical companies and punishes unethical ones.

There is little moral equivalence between Ryanair being slow to offer refunds and Martin’s callous treatment of his already poorly paid staff. But for both companies, their value is not rooted in whether we perceive them to be good or bad moral actors but in the far simpler fact that they are cheap, accessible and largely democratising forces in their industries.

It is, too, much easier for the average consumer to boycott a company when we can switch to another with no financial cost, and without forsaking convenience. There aren’t plenty of alternatives to Ryanair; and Wetherspoon’s entire raison d’etre is that you’ll get much more bang for you buck than at an independent local.

Cheap and convenient

Whatever criticisms we might throw at these companies – and the thousands of others like them – the fact that that they are cheap and convenient seems to trump many other considerations when we choose where to spend our money. We need to take only a cursory glance at the current good fortunes of Amazon – widely known for its poor treatment of warehouse staff – as evidence of this.

Despite this, we should of course strive to alter our purchasing behaviour wherever we can – opting to support local business, buying Fairtrade where affordable, cutting down on international travel, and being mindful of the impacts of fast fashion. But it is also worth noting that it is not solely incumbent on the consumer to change the world via our purchasing habits: we probably cannot spend our way to a fairer society.

And though we may enjoy calls across social media to boycott whatever company finds itself in the midst of an image crisis, we would do well to remember that the impact is (for better or for worse) often minimal. Our consumer memory is short; we prioritise efficiency and cost over whatever is going on behind the scenes; and the likes of Wetherspoon and Ryanair will likely weather storms of this stripe for years to come.

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