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?

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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