Ryanair: don’t be getting too nice, Michael – we love it when you talk dirty
It’s a scene that anyone who regularly flies short-haul will recognise. A packed aircraft ready to depart. You’re in a cramped seat towards the back in the middle of a row of three. The passenger in the seat next to you is going psychotic because the plane has not taken off on time. She’s muttering to herself and slapping the arm-rest in the kind of repetitive routine beloved of polar bears in zoos.
You’re subjected to surround-sound baby screaming. At least five of them are expressing their frustration at being strapped into place. The mothers are anxiously trying to placate their wriggling offspring. Everyone within earshot is politely frazzled.
The doors are shut. You look around for salvation, and find two rows of empty seats at the back, and a third row with only one person in it. You leave your seat and make a dash for freedom, only to be stopped by a stone-faced stewardess and ordered to return. Why, you ask? Load and weight balance, she replies.
That was a bit of an argument stopper. It would have been churlish to have compounded a stressful day for the stewardess by making a fuss. After all, she was only doing her job.
But if I was a naïve flyer, the implications of what she said might have been mildly alarming. Was she saying that if I sat in one of the vacant back rows I might cause the aircraft to ascend too fast and eventually loop the loop? I actually encountered a safety-related weight distribution problem once. Many years ago the pilot of a twelve-seater in Zimbabwe promoted me to the co-pilot’s seat because there was a large man at the back of the plane and he needed someone similarly corpulent at the front. A memorable if slightly worrying experience.
But this was an Airbus A-320 with over a hundred passengers, for goodness sake. Would relocating little me make so much of a difference?
But then I remembered I was on Ryanair, the airline run by an accountant called Michael O’Leary. So money would have been at the root of matter. If it cost Ryanair half a Euro’s worth of extra fuel to fly me in relative comfort at the back of the plane, that would have been half a Euro too much in O’Leary’s highly profitable ledger.
Why was I surprised? After all, this is the man who, according to a recent article by Alistair Osborne in the London Times, has spent 19 years of his 20 in charge of the airline:
suggesting that those who forget to print their boarding passes “should pay €60 for being so stupid” and handling complaints with his renowned bedside manner: “You’re not getting a refund, so f*** off”.
Apparently O’Leary – whose every outburst is greeted with chortling delight by my wife, who is a compatriot of his and equally renowned for her straight talking – is trying to be nicer to his customers these days. The only evidence of his change of policy on my flight was that he now signs himself Mick at the end of his message in the in-flight magazine.
And it doesn’t appear that his new niceness extends to his staff. According to another piece in the Times:
Ryanair has been warned that it is facing a pilot manning crisis that could be puncturing the airline’s much-vaunted punctuality record.
The Ryanair Pilot Group claims that unprecedented numbers of flight crew are quitting the carrier for pastures new, typically joining better-paying Gulf airlines and the fast-expanding Norwegian aviation group that has become the Continent’s third-largest budget carrier after Ryanair and easyJet.
Ryanair denies its pilot group’s claims, blaming falling punctuality this summer on French and Italian air traffic controller strikes. It also says that its annual turnover of flight crew is less than 10%.
That may well be, but on both legs of my recent flight we were late departing and arriving, with no controller strikes in evidence. And given that “less than 10%” has a good chance of meaning “nearly 10%”, you would appear to have nearly a one in ten chance of being on a flight piloted by someone who has been with the airline for less than a year, or by someone who is sufficiently disgruntled to be planning to leave within a year. Not a particularly comforting thought.
I would certainly not be relaxed with a staff retention figure approaching two digits, if for no other reason than the resulting cost of training and induction of replacements, an issue that would surely be close to O’Leary’s bean-counting heart.
For all that, Ryanair is still a phenomenally successful airline, and Michael O’Leary a charismatic one-man PR machine for his company. He is what journalists of old would describe as “colourful”. When you fly with his airline, you know exactly what you’re going to get, and if you’re prepared to put up with its idiosyncrasies, all well and good.
I for one would be sad if the CEO manages to tame his inner beast for ever, because he would deprive my wife of a seemingly endless source of amusement, and rob me of a favourite subject to write about. So I eagerly await a sign that he’s abandoning his sheep’s clothing and returning to wolf mode.
Perhaps he should reassure us by making a subtle change to the airline’s website. When you book a flight with Ryanair, you’re subjected to an endless catechism of questions about your preferences. Do you want to rent a car? Do you want priority boarding? Do you want put a bag in the hold? And so on ad nauseam. Instead of requiring a yes or no answer, wouldn’t it be nice if the airline allowed us customers to reply with an answer that O’Leary would understand?
So how about replacing the No button with one that says “F*** off”?