Did I detect some unlikely words cropping up in the Ryanair patter during the airline's recent third quarter results? Seasoned aviation hacks are used to these results press conferences being dominated by a mix of steady profits news and a generous scattering of colourful jibes at rivals and regulators alike. But this time two words took an unusually high profile - customer service.
To many Ryanair and customer service might seem unlikely bedfellows as the airline is something of a poster child in Europe for the embodiment of the stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap no-frills carrier philosophy, thriving in the "what will they do next" publicity of things like making people pay to use the toilets. But in the airline's third quarter release - in the second line no less - there is Michael O'Leary talking of the airline's "improved customer service". In fact there is whole section about it.
To some extent it depends how you quantify customer service. Ryanair argues a 93 per cent on-time arrival rate and losing less than 1 bag per 3,000 flights provides industry leading customer service (does it make it easier to track bags if you price people out of checking luggage into the hold?). Fundamentally this is about doing what you say on the tin. And if you remain unconvinced about Ryanair's December survey of 10,000 passengers showing 93% said they would fly Ryanair again, the airline can point to nearly 80 million passengers this financial year.
"We have been a lightning rod for all sorts of issues," said Ryanair deputy chief executive Michael Cawley when I asked him about whether this is a push from the carrier on promoting its customer service, "we have always had a good relationship with our customer. I'm sure there are bits and pieces that people don't like, a bit like some don't like the mayonnaise in a Big Mac or the caffeine in Coca Cola. We are not out to please everybody, but we are pleasing vast numbers who vote with their feet."
I guess it's up to you whether getting repeat business is good customer service or customer acceptance of the proposition, and whether that is the same thing. Without tempting a tirade of Ryanair stories - my initial article for Flightglobal Pro touching the subject has already prompted one customer service tale (of the £60 charge at the airport for not printing out the boarding card variety) - what do you think?
One of the interesting things about highlighting its customer service credentials is it suggests the airline is now more interested in its public perception than it traditionally has been. This comes at a time when higher yielding passengers would be pretty attractive to Ryanair given that after taking the last of its Boeing 737-800s on order in December, the airline is staring at lower growth levels (unless it brings in more aircraft from elsewhere).
Low-cost carriers have always attracted business traffic, whether they target it or not, and plenty of Ryanair's rivals have made concerted pushes in that direction. Cawley says the airline won't change its approach, but notesa strong take up of business traffic on Spanish routes within just a few years of operating in the country. So while I don't expect Ryanair to become champions of touchy, feely customer service, don't be surprised if they start banging the drum a little louder about those satisfied with what they get.
Want to know more about Ryanair and its challenges over its lack of aircraft order? You can read an analysis I wrote for Flightglobal Pro a few months ago here on what Ryanair might do with its growing cash pile.