If you live in — or have ever visited — Europe, there’s a chance you’ve flown with Ryanair at one point or another. Known for its ultra-low-cost flights, this Dublin-based brand is no stranger to controversy and critique — yet somehow, they still manage to remain afloat.
From poor working conditions to cringe-worthy customer service — not the mention what some might call “heavy-handed” extra costs — Ryanair doesn’t have the best reputation in the aviation industry.
However, despite the aforementioned issues, Ryanair has persevered. And in 2021, the brand made some steps towards improving its reputation. Partnering with Trinity College Dublin, Ryanair has launched a sustainable aviation research center — with the goal of powering 12.5% of flights with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2030.
But will a focus on sustainability improve Ryanair’s somewhere dubious international reputation? And how has the brand managed to survive so many scandals? This deep dive will provide the answers.
Ryanair’s Growth & Survival
Source: European CEO
Founded in 1984 by Christopher Ryan, Liam Lonergan, and Tony Ryan, Ryanair’s started small with only one flight route. Over the next few years, the airline steadily grew — adding more routes and aircrafts.
In 1988, Michael O’Leary joined as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) but profits were decreasing. In an effort to turn things around, O’Leary led a company restructuring — modeling their new low fares on the American company Southwest Airlines.
Over the next decade, Ryanair launched services in a variety of new cities and made it onto the NASDAQ stock exchange — which brought in an influx of capital and allowed the company to further expand its fleet by 45 new Boeing 737-900 series aircraft.
In 2000, Ryanair launched its first website — opening floodgates for online booking. Selling flights directly to consumers meant doing away with the necessity of travel agents’ fees — therefore making it possible for the airline to further cut flight prices. Within the year, the Ryanair website was taking 50,000 bookings a week.
Over the next few years, Ryanair expanded rapidly — adding new routes, bases, and aircrafts as quickly as possible. By 2005, the airline was one of the largest carriers on European routes — and claimed to have served “more passengers in August than British Airways on their entire worldwide network”.
In the last quarter of 2005, Ryanair saw even more growth — claiming to have carried 8.6 million passengers and revenues rising to €370.7m. They were on the up and up.
However, in 2006, Ryanair dealt with its first highly-publicized criticism. As part of its “Dispatches” series, the UK’s Channel 4 released a documentary that called to attention some worrying practices on Ryanair’s part. From lackluster security procedures to disappointing aircraft hygiene — Channel 4 made some serious allegations.
However, Ryanair denied the claims and quickly moved on… to charging passengers to check-in at the airport. Though the goal was to reduce overhead costs, this move was not well-received by consumers — with a passenger going as far as to sue Ryanair over this exact policy in 2011.
In late 2006, the airline made its first bid on a rival: €1.48 billion to buy rival Aer Lingus. An offer which Aer Lingus promptly rejected. But Ryanair was determined and made yet another bid in 2008, this time for €748 million, all cash.
Unsurprisingly, this bid was rejected by the Irish government — as they stated that the offer undervalued Aer Lingus and it would ultimately harm competition. After that, Ryanair refocused its energy on expanding its fleet.
Up until 2009, Ryanair had exclusively purchased all its aircrafts from Boeing. However, O’Leary — now Ryanair’s Chief Executive — made the claim that the brand would also be open to buying from Airbus should they be offered a better deal.
However, shortly thereafter, Airbus COO John Leahy denied that any negotiations were taking place between the two companies. This well-timed possible competition for Ryanair’s business sadly didn’t work out for the airline or improve the relationship with Boeing.
By the end of 2009, Ryanair and Boeing’s negotiations had failed.
Starting in 2010, Ryanair struggled with flight disruptions, failed fee-lowering negotiations with a handful of airports, and weak economic conditions. This all led to the company making a €10.9 million loss in the last three months of 2010.
Come 2011, Ryanair shifted gears and joined forces with COMAC, a Chinese state-owned aerospace manufacturer, to cooperate on the development of the C-919 — a direct competitor to the Boeing 737. Clearly, fences weren’t yet mended with their former aircraft supplier.
In 2013, the company made a surprising announcement — they were working on a handful of “customer service improvements” based on customer feedback: free changes of minor errors on bookings (within 24 hours), lower fees for reprinting boarding passes, and free second small carry-on bags.
2016 saw the launch of Ryanair’s corporate jet charter service and “Ryanair Holidays”, a holiday package service that included flights, accommodation, and transfers. And by 2017, the company had once again set its sights on expansion, with the goal of having 160 million passengers by the early 2020s.
While 2018 saw the addition of both Ryanair Sun in Poland and Lauda in Austria, it was a year of internal struggle for the brand. In September, pilots, cabin crew, and other Ryanair employees banded together and called for a strike. A result of the transition from being employed on Irish contracts to contracts from their home countries, this strike forced Ryanair to cancel 250 flights — angering many customers.
Cut to 2020 and the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and Ryanair was again in some hot water. At the A4E Aviation Summit in March 2020, O’Leary made the comment that consumers would get “bored” of the pandemic and be back to traveling by summer 2020.
Obviously, this proved to be false and Ryanair had to release a statement saying that they expected demand to return by summer 2022.
Furthermore, Covid-19 hit the budget airline quite hard — which led to the loss of 3000 jobs and a net loss of €185 million from April to June 2020. And in June 2020, CEO O’Leary even threatened that the airline would leave Ireland due to the Covid-19 restrictions in place.
From November 2020 to March 2021, Ryanair operated at 40% and is now expecting losses between €800 to €850 million from 2021.
While things don’t look too bright for Ryanair currently, they’ve managed to stay afloat during a tremendously difficult time in their industry. Where other brands have had to close up shop, Ryanair just keeps on going.
So what is it about Ryanair— even through all the drama, scandals, and complaints — that keeps consumers coming back? And what can you learn from this spirited brand? Let’s discuss.
What Other Brands Can Learn From Ryanair
Source: Ryanair Corporate
As a brand, Ryanair is by no means afraid of controversy. In fact, they seem to welcome it.
Where most brands would steer clear of making inflammatory statements and drawing negative attention from the public, Ryanair stands by the “all press is good press” approach.
And while that exact approach might not work for your own brand, there are still some things you can learn from this shameless airline — even if it’s what to steer clear of.
1. Do: Stand By Your Marketing Strategies (Sometimes)
Ryanair has been criticized multiple times for engaging in false and misleading advertising — with some campaigns even resulting in legal action and official censures from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
First, there was the marketing stunt in 2009 where O’Leary claimed that they were considering charging passengers £1 to use the toilet in flight. Understandably, this caused outrage among consumers and generated a good bit of publicity for the brand.
A few days later, O’Leary admitted it was just a publicity stunt. However, it drew attention to Ryanair’s recent (real) announcement that they’d be removing check-in desks and only accepting online check-ins. Of the situation, O’Leary commented that it made for “interesting and very cheap PR.”
After all, why pay for official announcements to inform consumers about an important change in your service when you can get it for free with a well-timed stunt? That’s the Ryanair way.
As recently as 2020, the brand was again criticized for its “jab and go” campaign — which was banned by the ASA for encouraging the public to “act irresponsibly”.
The ads, which depicted groups of travelers engaging in close-quarters activities sans face masks or social distancing, “struck a nerve with the public, prompting 2,370 complaints to the ASA.”
While Ryanair complied with the ASA’s orders, it still stood by the ad — claiming that it “showed people ‘holidaying in their social bubble’ and that there were ‘no requirements that holidaymakers be shown wearing face masks or social distancing’”.
The brand also stated that it believed the ASA’s ruling to be “at odds with the success of the government’s vaccination programme” — further strengthening its position.
The Takeaway: We certainly aren’t recommending that your brand starts making outlandish and unverifiable claims just to garner media attention. However, unless you’ve made a clear faux pas, it’s sometimes a good idea to stand by your marketing strategies.
Not every campaign you roll out will be a winner, but that doesn’t mean you have to do a 180 on your entire strategy. Consider why a campaign didn’t garner the reaction from consumers that you planned on — then readjust going forward.
2. Do: Admit When You’re Wrong
Sometimes it’s an ad that falls flat. Other times it’s a target audience you just don’t connect with.
And sometimes, it’s your entire brand and marketing strategy that’s the problem. For Ryanair, this became evident around 2013 when the brand was hemorrhaging customers due to its poor treatment of… well, everyone.
In a London press conference where the company introduced its new and improved eight-point Customer Charter, O’Leary was surprisingly honest. Going as far as “admitting that Ryanair’s philosophy of treating customers who dared to complain with disdain had finally backfired” — Ryanair made it clear that they were making some big changes going forward.
In fact, O’Leary is even quoted saying “If I’d known being nicer to customers was going to work so well I’d have done it years ago” — which is nothing if not exceedingly forthright.
Whether or not Ryanair made good on all of its promises to improve its service is not completely clear. But the brand was bold and plain-spoken enough to admit when it needed to make a change.
The Takeaway: Hopefully, it wouldn’t take years of complaints and ever-worsening customer numbers to inspire your brand to take customer feedback on board. But should you find yourself in a situation where you’ve made the wrong decision — it’s best to be upfront and admit your mistake.
Modern consumers aren’t looking for perfection, they’re looking for honesty and a commitment to growth. When you’re transparent with them, it fosters an increased sense of trust.
3. Don’t: Make Light of Serious Matters for Publicity’s Sake
Sometimes, it seems that Ryanair forgets it’s an international company with a reputation to uphold. Sure, that reputation isn’t the shiniest — but they don’t do themselves any favors by making light of serious situations.
In a recent tweet, the Ryanair Twitter account made an attempt at humor by posting a divisive chart entitled “Coronavirus alert levels in UK”.
The chart, which pokes fun at the recent controversy surrounding Downing Street’s illegal pandemic parties, is meant to be of the moment and sarcastic. However, it fails to hit the mark and has rubbed many consumers the wrong way.
By making light of a situation as deadly and devastating as Covid-19, Ryanair once again took on a somewhat tone-deaf, unsavory tone. To be fair, their goal may have been to push the envelope, anger users, and gather some more free PR.
But as we’ve seen in the past, this approach hasn’t always worked out well for Ryanair. And by poking fun at something like Covid-19, they will likely alienate a large number of potential customers.
The Takeaway: While it’s fine to cultivate a witty, somewhat facetious sense of humor in your brand communications, you need to be careful how far you take it.
Some topics will never land well with the general public and you’ll risk upsetting consumers, losing their loyalty, and hurting your brand image.
Ryanair does nothing without intention. And while we may not agree with or condone all of its marketing tactics and company policies, we can’t deny that consumers keep on coming back for more.
According to the NATS Aviation Index, this is because — at 79% — price continues to be the most important factor when choosing an airline. And Ryanair works hard to keep their prices as low as possible — even if that means treating employees questionably or allegedly putting customers at risk.
However, 71% of those surveyed stated that they’d “never choose an airline with a bad reputation.” Clearly, Ryanair will need to consider their brand marketing approach and reputation going forward if they want to bounce back post-Covid.
And if they want to figure out what it is consumers really want from them? We recommend trying out our brand tracking software. After all, 32% of consumers value airline reputation — what’s yours, Ryanair?