Is Ryanair starting to mind its manners?

A long-term shift in the industry could explain why Michael O'Leary's notoriously cavalier attitude toward his own customers is mellowing.

Good manners cost nothing but Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of the budget airline Ryanair, is an expert at putting a price on things people never expected to pay for. Customers who fail to print boarding passes are charged £70, checking in a bag at the airport can cost £100 and the airline periodically moots the idea of charging passengers to use the loos.

Ryanair ticket sales have historically proved immune to O’Leary’s lack of charm, and his boast that “short of committing murder, negative publicity sells more seats than positive publicity” appears irritatingly accurate. In June 2013, the International Air Transport Association reported that more than 80 million people flew Ryanair in 2012, nearly 30 million more than Lufthansa, the second most popular airline.

This makes O’Leary’s recent about-turn all the more intriguing, because he has announced a raft of concessions to make flying Ryanair a bit less unpleasant. The airline is increasing passengers’ carry-on allowance, decreasing penalty charges and giving customers a 24-hour “cooling-off” period during which they can correct mistakes to their booking. Passengers on early-morning or evening flights will no longer be subjected to headacheinducing public announcements urging them to buy e-cigarettes and scratch cards, or a grating fanfare every time their flight lands on time.

One possible explanation for O’Leary’s mellowing attitude is that Ryanair issued a warning that it might not meet its £480m profit target this year. Ryanair blamed the weakness of the European economies and price-cutting by rivals – but it could also point to a long-term shift in the industry. The gap between low-cost and legacy carriers is shrinking. Low-cost airlines were intended to appeal to holidaymakers on a budget but, having crowded out established carriers on some short-haul European routes, they are increasingly being used by cost-conscious business travellers, too.

Ryanair’s main rival, easyJet, has already introduced a series of measures to attract business passengers. Meanwhile, the low-cost airlines are expanding into markets still dominated by the conventional carriers. October brought the maiden international flight for Africa’s first low-cost airline, Fastjet. The same month, Norwegian Air Shuttle, the world’s fastest-growing budget airline, signalled an expansion into long-haul travel by unveiling plans for a flight from London to New York which will cost £149 one-way. On short-haul flights, where legacy airlines are at a comparative disadvantage, some carriers have tried to emulate their budget rivals. Aer Lingus and Iberia no longer provide free food and drinks on some routes.

In many ways, these changes were inevitable once air travel became a more accessible and, by extension, less luxurious mode of transport. In the early days of low-cost flying, passengers might have been willing to put up with rude treatment for Ryanair’s hugely popular £1 flights, but in a more competitive market O’Leary may be learning slowly that bad manners can be costly.

Has Michael O'Leary learned his lesson? Image: Rex Features

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.