The Big Question: Do Ryanair's draconian rules risk driving passengers away?

Why are we asking this now?

Ryanair, the biggest budget airline in Europe, has just announced that anyone buying a ticket from next Wednesday, 20 May, will have to check in online. And from 1 October, it is abolishing check-in at the 146 airports it serves. It is another controversial step from an airline that has rewritten the rulebook on what passengers must do to benefit from the lowest fares.

Just how big is Ryanair?

It has grown from carrying 5,000 passengers in its first year (1985) to 51m last year. It's the carrier that flies more passengers internationally than any other on earth, which makes it the "world's favourite airline" in the terms once used by British Airways. Ryanair's extraordinary growth and profitability is due largely to its obsessive focus on costs. As part of this relentless campaign, the airline has raised the prospect of charging passengers to use the on-board toilets, and "fining" overweight customer. These ideas have been kicked into touch, at least for the time being. But the airline's controversial chief executive, Michael O'Leary, says the move to online check-in will cut costs by £50m a year, with the savings passed on to passengers. In an industry that is suffering massively from a drop in demand, he believes it will allow Ryanair to retain its place as the lowest cost, highest profit airline in Europe.

What's wrong with that?

While many passengers are delighted to bypass the traditional check-in desks and go straight to the bag-drop or the departure gate, the move will disenfranchise some travellers who do not have easy access to the internet and a printer.

Furthermore, all passengers must prove their identity with a national identity card or a passport, regardless of the journey. As the UK does not (yet) have a nationwide ID scheme, that means any prospective British passenger on Ryanair, even on a domestic route such as Stansted and Prestwick, must carry a valid passport. "It's like the Soviet Union," one disgruntled passenger complained yesterday, "demanding to see your ID before you can move around the country".

Is the rule for security purposes?

No. There is no legal requirement for domestic airline passengers to prove their identity. But Ryanair is free to require its customers to leap through whatever bureaucratic hoops it cares to implement. Its new rule will apply to everyone, including infants.

Why is it taking such a hard line?

Ryanair likes to keep its operational procedures simple. As a result, airline staff are instructed to follow a single blunt rule: that the details on the boarding pass must match the passport or national ID card. Driving licences will not be accepted.

What about those 'hidden charges'?

Ryanair has been rapped in the past for adding extras to the cost of a flight. What particularly concerns passengers and consumer groups right now is the £5 "online check-in fee" that Ryanair proposes to charge many passengers. At present, web check-in is free. Frances Tuke of Abta, the travel association, says: "If they are non-optional extras, then potentially they're breaking the law." Furthermore, anyone unable to print out a boarding pass before arriving at the airport will face a £40 penalty. Add to that a £30 penalty for exceeding the "one 10kg bag" rule for hand luggage, and the complete lack of flexibility if you arrive at the airport a couple of minutes late, and anecdotal evidence suggests that some passengers feel the Ryanair has become too hard core in its approach to cost-cutting.

What does O'Leary say?

"Don't be late," he told The Independent. "Don't travel with bags that are one pound or two pounds over the weight. For the vast majority of our 67m passengers, they pay a low fare, they travel on a brand-new aircraft, they don't suffer any delays, they don't suffer lost bags like they do on other airlines. That's why they love me and love Ryanair. I'm selling the lowest air fares in the world."

Is that really true?

Figures suggest that Ryanair's average fare is around £30, far lower than its rivals. But "ancillaries" add a lot to the basic price. Frances Tuke of Abta says passengers are getting fed up with the hidden extras. "If you see a headline price of £3.99 and it comes in at £157, it gets to stage where you don't trust them, you don't know what's going to be added on next, and you decide to deal with a more upfront organisation. You just don't know where you are with Ryanair."

Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyJet – many of whose ideas have been copied by Ryanair – has characterised the airline as flying "from nowhere to nowhere". Ryanair's interpretation of geography is often controversial; this month it launched flights to "Munich (West)", which turns out to be Memmingen, a small town 70 miles from the Bavarian capital. Yet Ryanair has shown that demand can be stimulated by low fares: build a route network and they will come. Some passengers are lured from trains, boats and buses, while other have found a new freedom to travel thanks to fares that are generally lower than any other airline in Europe.

How do rivals respond?

In several ways. British Airways is emphasising the superiority of its product – using primary airports, assigning seats, providing refreshments and giving a generous baggage allowance. The UK's biggest budget airline, easyJet, also seeks to set itself apart from Ryanair – especially in appealing to business travellers. But in reality Ryanair competes with BA and easyJet only on a limited number of routes. It appears to be targeting a different market – whose consumers are acutely price-sensitive, yet simultaneously seem prepared to tolerate questionable "add-ons", such as the £5 per person, per flight surcharge for paying with a debit card - even though the transaction cost to Ryanair is less than 20p.

Looking further afield, many European airlines have adopted some of Ryanair's techniques. Aer Lingus has become aggressively low-cost, and airlines from Spain to Slovakia are cutting out free catering and introducing baggage charges.

So are passengers learning to play by the Ryanair rules?

To an extent, though infrequent flyers, the elderly or infirm may be alienated by the airline's latest dictum. Online check-in is not an easy process; passengers must type in their date of birth, passport number and its expiry date, and if any of these is wrong – even by a single digit – boarding can be denied.

Is safety compromised?

No. Ryanair, like other Irish and British airlines, has an outstanding safety record. Passengers are at far greater risk if they travel by car than aboard a Ryanair Boeing.

Is O'Leary 'doing a Ratner'?

Some commentators liken the chief executive's attitude to customer service to Gerald Ratner, who destroyed his jewellery company with some ill-chosen words. "Do we occasionally piss people off?," says Mr O'Leary. "Of course we do."

But there is a big difference: Mr O'Leary has never disparaged his product, and indeed claims, "I am beloved across the industry, and across the world".

Has Ryanair gone too far?

Yes...

* The latest rule to demand passports for passengers on domestic flights looks unnecessarily onerous.

* Adding a fixed charge of £5 for the right to check in online is a thinly veiled fare increase.

* Other airlines plan to cash in on passenger unhappiness with the hard-core approach of Ryanair.

No...

* Ryanair's cost base remains way below that of any of its rivals.

*Many of the moves that were dismissed as intolerable have been accepted by passengers, albeit through gritted teeth.

* Most regular passengers accept they must play by Ryanair's rules in order to benefit from low fares.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Digital Marketing Executive (CRM, Eve...

    Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Sales / Customer Service Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: The role is likely to be 4on 4 off, days and ...

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones