Ryanair's charm offensive and why it pays to be nice

Michael O'Leary is reaping the benefits of not calling his customers "stupid"

Michael O’Leary, ryanair, business

Virginia Mayo / AP

Launching the next phase of the 'Always Getting Better' campaign at Ryanair's Swords headquarters this morning, Michael O'Leary was full of praise for his low fares airline's new, "nicer" programme.

It has "transformed" Ryanair, the CEO said, as he rolled out further changes custom-built to bring a smile to customers' faces, including streamlined bag fees, a website redesign, slashed penalties for boarding pass reissues, options for extra leg room and the promise to make planes "less yellow".

The changes were introduced by a jovial O'Leary, far removed from the foul-mouthed airline chief who once followed the adage of "never apologise, never explain" as Ryanair took a cheap ride to the top of the industry.

So what changed?

Rather than O'Leary decamping to a Buddhist retreat and having an epiphany about how it's "nice to be nice", the figures were showing it was no longer paying to be mean.

Perhaps the turning point came in 2013, as business stuttered (relatively speaking) and the PR turned properly sour. Some flights were only four-fifths full, with growth slowing to as low as 1%.

In August, news outlets learnt the airline had refused to refund a customer for a ticket he'd bought for his deceased mother because she didn't die closer to the date of the flight.

Just one month later, the nadir came when a man was charged £158 for changing his flight after telling them that his wife and three teenage children had just died in a house fire.

Ryanair eventually offered a refund and condolences. A change of heart was needed in the face of no-frills competition that wasn't quite so "cheap and nasty".

In late December, changes were afoot, with the online booking process simplified, an allowance for a "small" second bag on flights, a 24-hour post booking "grace period" and more being ushered in.

The 2014 introduction of new Chief Marketing Officer Kenny Jacobs properly kickstarted the "softening" of Ryanair's image.

Staff were told to be less confrontational. O'Leary was appearing in TV ad campaigns thanking people for flying with his company.

Announcing an upgrade to their profit forecast in September 2014, O'Leary joked:

"If I had known that being nicer to our customers was going to result in higher load factors, I would have been nicer years ago. No one is going to be nicer to our customers now than me".

Streamlining through improved use of technology and falling oil prices kept the cost of the positive changes minimal.

Civil Aviation Authority figures in April 2015 showed that Ryanair was the least complained-about airline of the 37 studied, with fewer complaints per passenger than in previous years.

The Commission for Aviation Regulation also announced that between January and June 2015, they received 50 complaints about Aer Lingus in relation to flight cancellations and only 20 about Ryanair.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary in July 2015, the airline officially joined Facebook, bringing with it social media access to real-time customer information and service.

After watching profits fall in 2014, in 2015 they were at an all-time high. O'Leary once again cited improved customer service as they hit the €1 billion mark.

In February 2016, passengers were being told they could expect even lower fares, due to increased traffic and the low cost of fuel. Along with that statement came the announcement that the company's profits had doubled for the third quarter of its financial year.

That same month, the Sunday Independent reported that O'Leary had joined "the billionaire's club" for the very first time.

As Ryanair's newly-benign head honcho had once said, likely with a smile, "everybody loves a converted sinner".