In Defence of Ryanair

by .

Seven years ago, I committed to never again flying with Ryanair. At Ancona, the cabin crew refused to board a disabled passenger. They already had reached their capacity of disabled people, they claimed, and since this man had not declared his disability, they were under no obligation to let him fly.

I loathe Ryanair, as many do, but they are at least a more honest brand than British Airways. They should be more trusted for it.

In my many talks on trust, O’Leary’s cavaliers crop up a lot in the Q&A. How can a company that is so happily vile to its passengers enjoy full flights and commercial success (its market cap is higher than that of BA)? Surely this defies the adage that only “trusted brand” status translates to bottom-line benefits? The answer lies, I think, in O’Leary’s raw honesty – one that he is quickly keen to celebrate. Actually, we do trust Ryanair – albeit despite ourselves. Not only is the world’s least favourite airline “marmite” but it is radical and triumphal in its honesty, which is itself a trust-builder.

Or maybe it’s just because O’Leary flogs us cheap seats.

Contrast this with the “trusted” brands of BA and Virgin. “To fly. To serve” is classic example of something that accidentally found its way from the ad agency brainstorm into the real world and never should. It by-passed any sense of customer service from the airline along the way. Insisting cabin crew wear Thunderbirds-style headgear as they bid plastic, smiling farewells to disembarking passengers does not make a service culture. BA’s advertising is, in this sense, fraudulent, as advertising so often is.

Everyone loves the pioneering Sir Richard, of course, and the airline is cast carefully in his image. But how do we reconcile the B-Team planetary campaigner with someone whose airline gas-guzzles its ways across the globe and whose financials – within the wider Virgin group – are certainly more opaque than transparent? My hunch has always been that Richard Branson tries to behave like a hippy because, at root, he really isn’t one.

I would love to commission some trust data on these three airline protagonists. My guess is that Branson wins and O’Leary loses, with the national flag-carrier somewhere in between. This defies some of the core principles of trusted leadership and trusted brands: Branson is neither transparent, nor fully accountable. BA is not empowering and struggles to genuinely listen to the needs of its passengers. Their deeds are patchy, and rarely match their words.

Which takes us back to O’Leary and Ryanair. Earlier this week, Management Today quoted him as famously saying: ‘You’re not getting a refund so f*** off. We don’t want to hear your sob stories. What part of ‘no refund’ don’t you understand?’ But at least everyone knows where they stand with the man and his brand. His honesty is strangely compelling. He should probably be trusted more for it. But that doesn’t mean we either have to like him or fly his airline.


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