Fresh, brave, bombastic, arrogant
Matt Cooper on Ryanair's attitude to customer care.
Ryanair may survive last Monday evening's Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 relatively unscathed. The revelations on the programme told viewers little they did not already know or at least suspect about the company's attitude to customer care. Nor did they convince in suggesting real problems arising from alleged security breaches. Many people – airline rivals, union officials, some employees and even customers – may have been disappointed that the programme hardly met the expectations of exposé that had been allowed to develop in prominent media coverage over the previous week.
But some of those expectations were the responsibility of Ryanair. Instead of giving Channel 4 a clear run in publicising the programme, Ryanair decided on pre-emptive strikes to undermine its credibility, a tactic that merely drew more attention to the programme.
Having not seen it, Ryanair was taking a chance that it would not deliver something sensational. It seems, however, that Ryanair had satisfied itself, by way of prior voluminous and engaged correspondence with the programme makers, that the programme had little of danger in it: it was not prone to being hit with major revelations that would have undermined passenger confidence for the future.
Ryanair engaged in a manner now traditional of the company: bombastic attack, led in characteristic fashion by chief executive Michael O'Leary. It sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of anyone who was likely to watch the programme. There was no surprise in any of it as a result.
Channel 4 can blame itself for some of this. After all, it leaked some of the revelations prior to broadcast in an attempt to drum up publicity, using the news media as a proxy for advertising. Then it took full-page newspaper advertisements as well, creating expectations. Had it kept quiet – and not given Ryanair such an opportunity to undermine in advance – the programme might have had more impact.
Instead, Ryanair decided to purchase its own newspaper advertising space on Tuesday launching its latest seat sale, mocking its competitors with an "apology" that it wouldn't be tempting customers away from Ryanair (but making no reference to the Channel 4 programme). It seems Ryanair truly believes the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Given that it has increased its passenger numbers tenfold to 40 million in a decade, despite much media sneering about its customer services, it may have a point.
But things are changing for Ryanair nonetheless. The days have ended when the company could portray itself as the minnow, the underdog biting away at authority and monopoly. It is now one of the biggest airlines in Europe, one of the most profitable companies in Ireland. It is now part of the establishment, if still attempting to show an anti-establishment posture.
Its low prices will continue to find favour with customers throughout Europe. In Ireland it will be applauded by a large audience for its simultaneous union bashing and Governmentbashing over the poor facilities at the country's airports. But its size means such brashness may soon be no longer regarded as fresh and brave. Instead, it may be regarded by an increasing number as arrogance.
Not that O'Leary and his shareholders will care as long as profits continue to fly the share price upwards. But the company will have to be even more careful in the future that it maintains proper standards of safety and security. While the company continues to cut costs wherever it can it cannot take chances here. All Ryanair needs is one major accident, for which it can be blamed as a result of cost cuts and short cuts, and its critics would pounce on it without mercy. The financial consequences in such circumstances for the company could be devastating, no matter how cheap its flights. Which is why it cannot abandon safety. That realisation should be somewhat reassuring to any anxious customers.