Europe’s largest short-haul airline Ryanair was once a byword for cheap fares and indifferent customer service. Its extensive route network often provided the only direct overseas air link to and from towns in distant corners of the continent, and its services were nothing if not punctual – while fares could be jaw-droppingly inexpensive. But from penalties for failing to print a boarding pass to disabled passengers having to pay for wheelchairs, passengers could find the Ryanair experience taxing. At times, the low-cost carrier seemed to display something close to contempt for its customers and the service traditions of the sector in a struggle to keep its cost base and prices low.

All that started to change a couple of years ago. Long-serving chief executive Michael O’Leary – who once scorned middle class British second-home owners who were loyal customers on flights to France and the Mediterranean – initiated a brand makeover at the airline, aimed at replacing its “cheap and nasty” image with one that was, in his words, “cheap and cheerful”. Ryanair shed its most unpopular charges, its advertising adopted a softer tone and O’Leary himself appeared to have taken a charm course. In addition, Ryanair brought in a flexible-with-frills “Business Plus” service for corporate travellers, a market rival EasyJet had begun to tap successfully.

This upgrade effort is now beginning to be seen in the airline's IFE, as Ryanair tries to keep pace with its competitors and the pioneering technology they have started to introduce. The airline is not new, of course, to the world of in-flight entertainment and connectivity, briefly trialling pay-per-use entertainment consoles in the pre-tablet mid-2000s, and in 2009 becoming the launch customer for a mobile connectivity service provided by SITA’s OnAir division on 50 of its 200-plus fleet of Boeing 737-800s. However, the latter venture ended a year later after airline and supplier were unable to reach a pricing agreement.

Back in 2004, Ryanair’s trial of US manufacturer APS’s DigEplayer handheld devices would have put it at the vanguard of portable IFE about five years before the first iPads appeared. The devices – similar in size to the compact DVD players of the era – were offered to passengers for an onboard payment. Customers could access a range of programmes, from films to sitcoms. However, most of APS’s other customers were long-haul carriers, and Ryanair’s short flights made movies impractical – especially as the devices could only be used at cruise. English-only content further hampered the appeal of the service, and Ryanair quietly dropped the product a few months later.

Another initiative in 2006 was planned to tap into the appetites of the betting fraternity, as the Irish airline added an online gambling function to its website – intended to pave the way for introducing on-board gambling a year later. A partnership with UK online gaming company gave customers on the ground the chance to play bingo and "instant win" games on Making the service available to gamblers in the skies via mobile phones proved a harder challenge, however, even after O’Leary went so far as to suggest handing out laptops to passengers to allow them to access the site.

Now, after a decade of false starts, the budget airline appears to be entering a new phase of technological confidence. It has set up a “digital lab” with 40 staff near its Dublin headquarters to develop its own products. Its rather dated and garish website has been replaced with a more modern offering, and the airline is launching a series of apps to help customers find and book flights. On board, Ryanair says it is “exploring the possibility of being able to offer customers in-flight entertainment, such as movies or games they could access via their smartphones, tablets or laptops”, and hopes to begin trials “later this year”.

The airline’s chief technology officer John Hurley first announced the IFE initiative a year ago, and Ryanair originally planned to launch it before the end of 2015. Hurley also said passengers would be offered wi-fi connectivity as soon as the price came down. The IFE service, he said, would be trialled on “three to four” aircraft and funded with advertising that would be shown before and after featured content, enabling Ryanair to cover the cost of the service without having to charge passengers. Hurley said at the time that the airline was in talks with “two partners”, although he would not name them.

The more ambitious move – full in-flight wi-fi – was a complicated undertaking, Hurely intimated, with aircraft having to be fitted with a satellite-based connectivity system, including an antenna that added up to 2% extra drag. He said that one possibility was a hybrid satellite-based/air-to-ground service being developed by Inmarsat. “The reality is that the world is going wi-fi,” Hurley said at the time, with modern passengers anxious to stay connected to email and social media while airborne, as well as having the ability to carry out online transactions. “It’s becoming as important as running water for most people.”

The cabins of Ryanair’s 300-plus strong 737-800 fleet are also undergoing a makeover, starting with aircraft at its home bases of Dublin and London Stansted. The yellow that has previously been one of Ryanair's two dominant brand colours is being toned down and “new imagery” is to be introduced, the airline says. Ryanair has 183 current generation 737s on order, as well as options on 100 Max aircraft, and those delivered this year will feature new slimline seats and Boeing’s Sky interior. This includes LED lighting, larger window reveals and overhead lockers that provide more headroom. In addition, a new crew uniform is being introduced.

Ryanair is also bringing in an entirely different interior – on just one of its aircraft. Rather incongruously perhaps for a carrier that prides itself on being the people’s airline, the carrier is moving into business aviation. It is converting a secondhand 737-700 used for crew training into an all-premium, 60-seat corporate shuttle pitched at sports teams and other groups who want to travel together in comfort and haste. As the airline has no plans to expand this charter operation, the opportunity to recline seats and stretch out legs will be a pleasure available to only a tiny number of Ryanair passengers.

Source: Flight International