For a man who once described passengers who forgot to print off their own boarding cards as “stupid” and who said he didn’t want to hear any more customer “sob stories”, it was nothing short of a Damascene conversion.
But after months of falling bookings, negative headlines and Ryanair’s worst ever PR disaster, the airline’s combative chief executive Michael O’Leary finally admitted: “We need to eliminate things that piss people off.”
Mr O’Leary, who has previously delighted in his “robust” approach to customer service, told shareholders at Ryanair’s annual meeting that he would overhaul the way the airline treated its passengers.
He was speaking just hours after it emerged that Ryanair had charged a man whose family had been killed in a house fire an extra £160 to change his flight home.
Muhammad Taufiq Sattar was in tears at the check-in desk in Dublin, having been told just moments before by police that none of his family had survived the blaze in Leicester.
But despite having paid for a return flight the airline charged him another €187.46 for an entirely new ticket home.
“I don’t want to make a big deal about it but it did shock me,” he said. “I really did not expect them to charge me. I thought, given the circumstances, they might just let me transfer flights, as I had already paid for a return fare.”
Mr O’Leary has apologised and admitted: “I think you have to make exceptions in cases like that.” In a statement, the airline said: “Ryanair offers its sincere condolences to Dr Sattar and confirmed that in the circumstances it will provide a full refund of any monies paid last Friday.”
But it is likely that falling revenues rather than a new-found sense of common kindness are behind Ryanair’s new policy.
Early this month the airline shocked the stock market with a profit warning. It was the first in nearly a decade and came as Ryanair said it had seen a “perceptible dip” in the number of bookings.
The airline blamed the summer heatwave, sterling’s weakness against the euro and fragile economic conditions. The company’s share price fell 11 per cent on the news.
In contrast easyJet – a low-cost rival which has taken a different approach to customer service – announced in July that it expected full-year profits to grow by more than £100m.
Speaking to investors yesterday Mr O’Leary admitted that his personality might be partly to blame for the culture at Ryanair.
“I am very happy to take the blame or responsibility if we have a macho or abrupt culture. Some of that may well be my own personal character deformities,” he said.
But he promised a change in culture including a new team to respond to emails, an overhaul of Ryanair’s website and an end to the practice of fining customers whose carry-on baggage was just millimetres larger than guidelines.
“A lot of those customer services elements don’t cost a lot of money,” he said. “It’s something we are committed to addressing over the coming year. We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off.”
Among the changes will be an end to the Recaptcha security software on its website, a source of much annoyance which requires people to type words seen in distorted text images. Ryanair’s mobile phone app will also be downloadable free of charge, having previously cost €3 or £2.49.
Ryanair will also introduce a registration service that will cut the time taken to make bookings.