James Moore: Ryanair’s turnaround was simple: be nice and make O’Leary shut up

Outlook: What is most striking about Ryanair’s high-flying performance is how little it has taken to achieve it

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The Independent Online

Barely a year after Ryanair found itself in the unaccustomed position of having the word “struggling” used to described its performance, a remarkable turnaround has been effected.

Passenger numbers show that the Irish airline carried 1 million more people in December 2014 than it did in the corresponding month in 2013.

Not only are its planes fuller (88 per cent seat occupancy against 81 per cent) but planes which had previously been mothballed over the winter are now in the skies year-round to cope with demand.

But what is most striking about Ryanair’s high-flying performance is how little it has taken to achieve it.

Let me explain. Last year it really did look as if the wings were finally coming off “Europe’s favourite airline”. Years of treating the customer as, at best, an inconvenience appeared to be finally catching up with it. Profits were on the skids and the share price had nosedived. Even worse, rival easyJet was flying high.

So Ryanair tried a bit of re-branding. Its gobby chief executive, Michael O’Leary, admitted customers were finding him a turn-off and so he shut his trap. The airline also launched what it called its “always getting better” initiative. To some scepticism, it should be said. Leopards, after all, don’t change their spots. And this is the airline whose passengers actually resorted to calling police last February after they were stuck on one of its planes at Stansted for several hours without food or water. It’s not pretty. You can find it on YouTube.

But Ryanair is hardly the only airline to have made mistakes. And they are relatively rare. Of far more concern to the majority of its customers were the everyday annoyances of dealing with a company that insisted its customer service was top notch when their experience was to the contrary.

So it got rid of the worst of those annoyances. The nasty, hard-to-navigate website was updated. Semi-sensible policies concerning carry-on luggage were adopted. So were allocated seats. Some of the more obnoxious surcharges were binned. And the loquacious Mr O’Leary performed something of a vanishing act.

Mr O’Leary’s prescription for what was ailing his company isn’t rocket science: he realised that if he gave his customers a little love they’d be willing spend their money.

If a few more consumer-facing companies followed his lead, it might make for a happier new year for everyone.