As the sneering Michael O’Leary scores yet again off his passengers, welcome to Twatair
Oh Ryanair, how you spoil one. Last week’s news, it’s true, can’t hope to compete with the all-time greatest Ryanair stories. (I have a special fondness for the one from last year in which cabin crew treated a man having a heart attack with a sandwich. And then made him pay for it.)
Last week’s is just your bog-standard anti-consumer machinations involving a ruling from the Office of Fair Trading and some medium-to-light deviousness on the side. The OFT ruled that levying a fee on anyone booking by debit card was unfair, to which Ryanair responded by removing it. And levying a fee on everyone. Oh yes, and instituting an extra 2% if you book by credit card, instead of, you know, sending them a couple of ducats and a florin by carrier pigeon.
The new £6 fee is no longer a booking fee, it’s an “admin fee”, which apparently goes toward paying for the upkeep of the website. That being the kind of business-optional extra for a company that charges you £1 a minute to “priority” call them. This is a website that, it should be noted, won an award last week from the UK Simplicity Index for being the worst in Britain with many customers complaining about a deliberate lack of transparency.
But really, what’s the point? With most companies, to write stories about how they disguise their fees and charge their customers punitive amounts of money when they fail to read the small print is the kind of thing that makes them get all twitchy and start firing off legal letters.
Whereas Ryanair has based its entire corporate strategy on it. Being a bit bastardly is at the heart of everything that the airline is proud to stand for. When a British woman gained 500,000 votes of support on Facebook last month after she had to pay £236 because she couldn’t print out her family’s boarding cards, Michael O’Leary, the airline’s CEO, stepped in to add his voice in sympathy by saying: “It was your fuck-up and if you screw up you compensate us.”
He pointed out that 0.02% of his passengers also failed to print their boarding cards before getting to the airport ( that’s 15,200 passengers at £60 a pop, or nearly £1m. For printing off a few bits of paper). And what do you say to those customers, Michael? “We say quite politely to those passengers, bugger off.”
Which gets to the nub of it. Because Michael O’Leary is right. We should all just bugger off and use easyJet instead, though I’ve always had a special fondness for Ryanair. They were so cheap! And the staff so comically vile. Plus, I always thought there was an evil genius to their ingenuity. I once flew to Morocco with them and the baggage allowance was 20 kilos on the way out, and 15 on the way back. Really, you just have to hand it to them. They reminded me of a Romanian moneychanger in the early 90s who exchanged my $100 bill for a wadful of lavatory paper. It was a classic bait and switch, so masterfully done, so brilliantly executed, predicated on my stupidity and greed, that I just thought: respect.
Anyway, being vile seemed a small price to pay for being so cheap. Then, last year, I took a flight in America with Southwest Airlines. And suffered acute consumer bewilderment. Because Southwest Airlines are the original budget airline, it’s the ur-Ryanair, the model Michael O’Leary studied and copied from. And here’s the shocker: they’re nice!
They’re so nice they reopened boarding to let me catch my plane. They’re so nice that management books have been written about them. If you look on Amazon, there’s not one but three books devoted to their business philosophy (sample strategy: “Hire people with a sense of humour”). Southwest Airlines are the largest, most profitable airline in the US with the lowest employee turnover. Fortune magazine has twice ranked them as one of the 10 best companies to work for in America.
Ryanair, on the other hand, encourages cabin crew to pay up to £2,000 for a training course, which has no guaranteed job at the end of it. If they do get a job, they can be sacked at any point during their probationary year. And, the icing on the cake is this, they’re charged £25 a month to “hire” their uniforms.
It’s amazing when you think about it. The Irish have had great free PR for donkey’s years. All that craic and blarney and pints of Guinness. If one was going to build a customer-facing business that depended on repeat custom and word of mouth, it’s really not a bad base to start with. Or you could do it the Michael O’Leary way. Here he is on his passengers: “People say the customer is always right, but you know what – they’re not. Sometimes they are wrong and they need to be told so.”
The steward on my Southwest Airlines flight was the friendliest, most charming air steward I’ve ever met. But of course, that’s what happens in companies. The culture is created at the top and reflects all the way down. Michael O’Leary is a twat. Can I say that, Mrs Lawyer? He is. There’s no getting round it. And Ryanair, the airline he has built in his image, is a twattish airline that treats both its staff and its customers with contempt.
I fly with Ryanair for the same reason I tried to change my money on the street with an illegal black marketeer. Because I’m stupid and greedy. But I may have to stop now. Not just because the Spanish pilot union this summer reported that Ryanair was “operating at the limits of legality” in the way it fuelled its planes and is “courting disaster”. Or because the cabin crew have started to remind me of incarcerated veal calves. It’s because the airline’s a twat.