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It is probably fair to say that Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, is not normally one to strike an emollient tone with his customers. Indeed, over the years he has taken great delight in proving that point.
So it was quite a surprise to hear him tell shareholders at yesterday’s AGM in Dublin: “We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily p— people off.”
Indeed, coming from the man who once derided passengers as “idiots” if they forgot to print their boarding passes – a milder turn of phrase than he employed to describe overweight passengers – this was a truly Damascene conversion.
During his long and brilliant career at the helm of Ryanair, Mr O’Leary has not often been forced on to the defensive. His famous mantra was: “People say the customer is always right, but you know what they’re not. Sometimes they are wrong and they need to be told so.”
But yesterday, with several shareholders complaining that poor customer service was hitting sales, and with the recent, unexpected profits warning – the first in nearly a decade – fresh in everyone’s minds, he was on the back foot.
Envious glances are being cast at easyJet, which has rediscovered its mojo under Carolyn McCall. She has repositioned the airline as a more customer-friendly, upmarket rival to Ryanair and her next pitch will be for the lucrative business travel market.
Some are asking whether the buccaneering guerilla warfare tactics that served Mr O’Leary so well on his ascent are appropriate now he is running Europe’s biggest airline.
His promise to overhaul its website, set up a new team to respond to emails and stop fining customers whose carry-on baggage exceeds minimum sizes by a matter of millimetres is hardly a radical manifesto for change. As he admitted, “a lot of those customer services elements don’t cost a lot of money”. But they are the first signs of a new, customer-friendly strategy.
Does this prove that the customer is always king and you can only get away with insulting your passengers for so long?
The jury is still out on that point. With the company’s share price down 4pc this month and passenger numbers down for the autumn, Mr O’Leary needs to be seen to be steering a different course.
It could be that, with the economy on an upward trajectory and a bit more money in people’s pockets, passengers are prepared to spend a little more for a higher standard of customer service. The days when rock-bottom fares were the only game in town could be coming to an end.
But Mr O’Leary, who once observed that “Germans will crawl naked over broken glass to get low fares”, will take some persuading.