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.