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.

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