Ryanair Gets Friendlier, Considers Connections for Growth

Many Americans may not realize this, but Ryanair is easily the largest airline in Europe when ranking by number of passengers flown. The airline is massive and it’s highly profitable. For that reason, it has grown like a weed with ease. But as opportunities to grow start to become tougher to find, the airline has had to change. It notably softened its persona a couple years back and continues to push forward on customer-friendly initiatives. Now it’s also considering connecting flights.

When Ryanair first came upon its model in the 1990s, the opportunities seemed endless. Unlike ultra low cost carriers in the US, Ryanair learned early that a reliable operation was extremely important. Combining that with incredibly low costs, low fares, and nonstop flights in markets that didn’t have service before was like lightning in a bottle. People may love to complain about Ryanair, but they still fly the airline because it is cheap, reliable, and convenient.

Ryanair didn’t allow connections, even though its growing network meant those could be beneficial. That led to a cottage industry of others trying to cobble together connections on their own. There was clearly interest in connecting flights, but Ryanair had enough demand for nonstop service that it had no reason to bother with the complexity and cost.

But as with any airline, growth can’t continue forever. There’s still opportunity, but Ryanair has to be more creative in finding ways to create demand for its services. One of those ways is by actually trying to cater to people on a level above just price and schedule.

A couple years ago, Ryanair started the “Always Getting Better” plan which was meant to soften the airline’s image. CEO Michael O’Leary has long been known for his abrasive public demeanor, but it just didn’t matter. Every time he did something crazy, he would just get more press for his airline. It’s a strategy Spirit took to heart here in the US. But he changed his tune a couple years ago when shareholders started ratcheting up the pressure. His response sounded like vintage O’Leary, but he struck an unusual conciliatory tone.

We should try and eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off

And that is what the airline has done. It started with a redesign of the website and a changing of some of its more unfriendly policies. Now in year 3 of the “Always Getting Better” plan, we see even more changing. Some of it is bluster, including the first point about offering even lower fares. But there is some real meat here.

Little Ryanair is finally growing up.

Ryanair Old Interior New Interior

  • Possibly my favorite point is about plans for seating. “New aircraft interiors featuring slimline seats, more leg room, coat hooks, LED lighting & less yellow.” Anyone who has flown those bright yellow bananas know that this is hugely welcome, but don’t get too excited. As you can see above, there’s still some yellow; it’s just much more tasteful.
  • The king of unbundling, Ryanair is delving further into re-bundling fares. It had previously launched its Business Plus bundle to try and attract the business traveler. That was improved in this round so that it now includes ticket flexibility and auto-check in. (It already had priority security and boarding, premium seating, a checked bag, and airport check-in.)
  • It’s also adding a new bundle to fit in between the base price and Business Plus called Leisure Plus. This one will have reserved seats, priority boarding, and a checked bag. Presumably this is what people are booking individually now so this will make it easier (and possibly more lucrative, though I haven’t seen pricing).
  • Back in 2014, Ryanair introduced myRyanair. This was originally just a customer profile that people could set up to make booking and travel easier. But now it’s growing beyond that into a semi-loyalty type of program. Users can get rewards by booking and flying Ryanair, though those appear to be mostly discount coupons off future travel, and it’s not clear that there are any published earning rates. Members also will get early access to sale fares, and they’ll be automatically checked in for flights.
  • Ryanair continues to put more work into its mobile app. People will now have the ability to buy more ancillary services, make one-click payments, and rate their flights directly in the app.

There are a few more pieces to the plan, and you can see it here, but this is all being designed to make it easier for people to book and travel on the airline. If this draws in more customers or gets people to pay for more services, then it’s a win. Considering we’re three years into the plan, it would seem to be a success.

That being said, there is another way to generate passengers: connecting flights. As hub-and-spoke airlines know, the ability to connect passengers allows airlines to fly routes that wouldn’t be supported by local traffic alone. It even goes beyond the traditional hub-and-spoke carrier. Think about something like Chicago to Flint (Michigan) on Southwest. There’s no way that flight exists without connections. There are tons of flights that airlines operate because they can aggregate everyone in a hub and then funnel them on to a single flight. The fact that Ryanair doesn’t do this shows the power of its network.

As Ryanair starts to run out of expansion ideas, the easiest way to fix the problem is to look at smaller markets. And those markets may only work with connecting opportunities. This summer, Ryanair is going to trial selling connections at London/Stansted and Barcelona. I can only assume that Ryanair will do something different than a traditional connection setup, because, well, it’s Ryanair. Connecting people and bags can be costly.

All of these things add up to an airline that is looking to keep its foot on the pedal when it comes to growth. The good news is that this is an airline that appears to be willing to re-evaluate its position in the world when needed and make the adjustments that are necessary.

[Old Ryanair interior via pio3 / Shutterstock.com, new Ryanair interior via Ryanair]

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