One day Ryanair is going to have to be liked

Safety aside, I do think there is a serious question over the impact of Ryanair’s gratuitously confrontational service model on its business model.

CEO Michael O’Leary frequently likens Ryanair to America’s legendary Southwest Airlines – and there’s no question he based much of his model on Herb Kelleher’s airline. (Ireland’s bucaneering aviation community is extremely well-connected in America.) But everyone likes Southwest – even people who don’t fly on it - and everyone dislikes Ryanair – even people who do fly on it.

Last night’s Dispatches programme showed why. After three hours sitting on the ground in a locked aircraft, one passenger, showing Herculean self-restraint, very politely asked the captain if it wouldn’t be possible for the passengers to get a non-alcoholic drink. The captain responded with a staggeringly rude, legalistic retort, revelling in his petty power, that no it was out of the question. The passenger, and I salute you sir, calmly informed the captain in measured tones that he wasn’t fit to command an aircraft (or words to that effect.)

Of course, airline staff have the full weight of the law behind them and can behave as lousily as they like on board aircraft. But given the uniquely dysfunctional service model that the air transport industry provides 60-something years after it was invented, a bit more humility might be in order. (Some passengers behave appallingly of course. And sometimes I don’t sympathise with them.)

As time goes by Ryanair has got more competition coming. Lots more. Most of it will go bust – but that’s been happening forever and the phenomenon has ensured that, until recently, nobody ever made much money out of air transport. Some small UK low-cost start-ups have in fact survived and, more importantly, it turns out that there are entrepreneurs elsewhere in Europe – notably the new EU states to the east who have never known the statism of France, Spain, Italy and so on since they kicked the Russians out. They’re inventing profitable new airlines, so are smart Germans and Swedes and, wonder of wonders, there are even stirrings in southern Europe. (France is another matter of course.) 

Ryanair’s phenomenal growth so far has fundamentally come by re-inventing the airline operating model but, in the market, by grossly undercutting major airlines. It’s a stunning achievement. But everyone else is catching up and Easyjet has already shown that you can do nearly as well without being as cheap.

Soon passengers are routinely going to have a choice which low-cost carrier to fly with. And then Ryanair will need to be liked, not just admired.

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