Ryanair expects to carry 100 million passengers in its current financial year, and the 30-year-old Irish budget carrier seems infused with a new-found respect for its passengers. Or, as chief executive Michael O'Leary puts it: "We've moved from being cheap and nasty to cheap and cheerful."
If that statement sounds glib to the sceptical traveller, O'Leary points out that he has backed up his new strategy with a passenger charter. This manifesto – alongside the new Ryanair website – is certainly a break with the past. "If I'd known it would work so well, I'd have done it years ago," admits O'Leary. He says crews and passengers are happier now, and notes a 5% boost to the load factor.
Bursting with business plans as always, O'Leary is looking for the airline to expand its present fleet of 309 Boeing 737-800s to 550 aircraft – carrying 160 million passengers – by 2024. It still has 170 new -800s on order, and 100 of the new 737 Max on firm order – for delivery from 2019 – with the same number again on option.
When an airline already has 73 bases in Europe, where is there left to go? There is plenty of opportunity, insists O'Leary, with the airline having just opened its newest and most remote base in Ponta Delgada in the Portuguese Azores islands. At present, Ponta Delgada is a one-aircraft base serving Lisbon, Porto and London Stansted.
But the major part of the new plan is to set up Ryanair operations at Europe's "major bases", undercutting EasyJet and the legacy carriers in their home territory. This he deems a natural extension of the new passenger-friendly Ryanair as it bids unashamedly for the cost-conscious business market that EasyJet attracts. In fact, it is essential to attract the more business-oriented passengers who use the hubs because that is where expansion and improved yield will come from, argues O'Leary.
Ryanair's average fare is €46 ($51), he notes, but passengers pay an average of €40 on top of that for the new "Business Plus" service.
The only out-of-bounds airports for Ryanair in Europe, he says, are London Heathow, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt Main, because they are too expensive and inefficient. Ryanair is now – or will soon be – at Brussels Zaventem, Cologne, Copenhagen and Lisbon, and O'Leary says the carrier "will be at all the others within five years".
O'Leary recalls that Ryanair's bid for Aer Lingus – disallowed by the European competition authorities – was a part of the plan to serve the national hubs, which Aer Lingus already does. Ryanair would have acquired a ready-made, mid-market low-cost carrier at the main European bases. But if it couldn't have Aer Lingus, it had to take on the job itself.
Ryanair's chief can even see low-cost carriers feeding the legacy long-haul carriers at their hubs. His reasoning is that the cost of global distribution systems such as Amadeus, Galileo and Sabre has come down so much they could be viable for low-cost operations. He adds, however, that Ryanair does less than 1% of its business through the GDSs at present.
So if O'Leary really has adopted a new philosophy – and it certainly looks as if he has – it could be summed up as: "Never say never." The word "never" used to be one of his favourites. Now he voices the "never say never" mantra frequently, as if to remind himself of the fact that the old Ryanair, like the old O'Leary, is history.
This raises a point of relevance to senior Ryanair executives such as group director of operations Michael Hickey and chief pilot Ray Conway. One of the factors that makes the Ryanair operation work like clockwork every day is its single-type, single-variant fleet. All training, all type ratings, and all spare parts are common.
Yet the mould will be broken with the advent of the 737 Max, however hard Boeing has worked to ensure commonality for those purposes. Conway says he hopes conversion to the Max, for 737NG pilots, will entail computer-based training only, but EASA may not agree.
This raises the question of why Ryanair failed to grasp the opportunity to shake free of Boeing's grip on the airline and go for the Airbus A320neo. O'Leary observes that as soon as Airbus got approval for a 189-passenger cabin for the A320, it was suddenly in the running for the first time. Hickey concedes that, despite the simplicity of the single-type fleet model, Ryanair could split the fleet because they always buy big numbers, and some bases could become Airbus bases.
O'Leary muses that the Airbuses could operate from the major hub airports, providing some visible product differentiation to attract the business market. But he opines that Airbus never really believed Ryanair would break with Boeing so did not try hard enough.
So what does Airbus need to do to get on board? "Why don't you undercut Boeing by 25%?" suggests O'Leary. "You'd only have to do it once."
Despite Ryanair's undeniable success story, O'Leary admits he got some things wrong. The rigid one-bag-per-passenger policy, as well as strict adherence to precise bag size, was actually disruptive to the boarding process, he now accepts. But it had a beneficial side-effect that Ryanair and other carriers still enjoy: it radically changed passenger behaviour.
Now, only 20% of passengers want to check a bag in. They have discovered from experience that for most journeys it just is not necessary. And now, if a flight is full and there is not room for all the carry-on bags in the cabin, the extras are put in the hold for free at boarding and handed back at the base of the steps on arrival.
Likewise abandoned is the extortionate penalty charge for failing to check in in advance, or for losing a boarding card. But that again has had the beneficial secondary effect of disciplining passengers into self-processing mode.
O'Leary does not back down on everything, however. The trademark integral front and rear self-deploying airstairs in its 737 fleet – Ryanair's declaration of independence from ground handling contractors, and its assurance of fast turnarounds – is the most snagged technical component on the aircraft fleet because of its mechanical complexity, but O'Leary insists on keeping it, despite its rather rickety feel.
There is still something of the puritan about the Ryanair chief. Conway says if you were to ask O'Leary for something to write with, he would snap his pencil in two and give you half. Now, having just moved from Ryanair's original scruffy Dublin airport headquarters into a modern, shiny building nearby, O'Leary confesses to being "embarrassed" by it, and makes the excuse that it was built speculatively at the time of the economic crash, and Ryanair has acquired it "for half the price it cost to build".
With further rapid expansion seemingly guaranteed comes the challenge of managing a truly massive, dispersed airline with 100 or more bases. The bases operate – beneficially – under the control of smaller, more human teams, but Hickey insists: "We don't have independent republics." As O'Leary puts it: "We devolve but oversee." Dublin ensures it oversees everything.
Conway does not rely only on the crew recurrent training system to ensure standardisation and quality control, but operates a continuous programme of safety and standardisation roadshows, updated regularly, that visit all the bases. Each location has a base captain who is rostered to be on the ground at base every Wednesday so his or her crews can talk about issues.
One of the most impressive illustrations of Ryanair's system for keeping the bases in touch with headquarters is the daily engineering forum. Every day, immediately after the first wave of departures has been despatched across the Ryanair network, a team of management engineers, each with specialist responsibilities, sits around a table at the Dublin HQ with a conference telephone.
In front of them a spreadsheet of the entire fleet, grouped by bases, is projected on a screen. One by one, every base chief is called to report. Each aircraft is ticked off, every snag described, and if it cannot be fixed with local spares the responsible HQ engineer states how the solution will be provided, and adds it to his to-do list. Deferrable defects are not allowed to build up.
The process takes about an hour, and at its end the health of all 309 aircraft is known in real time, and fixes have been sorted. And at both the Dublin and Bergamo bases Ryanair keeps a Learjet 35 ready to transport spares and – if necessary – engineers to anywhere in the network.
The airline will need lots of pilots for the future, and O'Leary is aware of this, but he says Ryanair has never had a problem attracting them. He plans to go down the multi-crew pilot licence (MPL) cadet training route, and hire more pilots at bases network-wide, so that the base really is their home.
Significantly, he says the carrier will employ more pilots on direct contracts, rather than via the controversial self-employed system, but that this will be an evolutionary process. When an airline gets big, he says, it needs stability.