MIAMI – Another month, another step closer to Ryanair resembling a ‘normal’ airline. It’s probably not a description ebullient CEO, Michael O’Leary would necessarily relish, but the facts speak for themselves.
Three years ago, in a Damascene conversion, Ryanair decided to actually be nice to passengers instead of persisting with its hitherto unrivaled degree of spikiness towards customers’ complaints.
It swiftly reaped the benefits in terms of yet higher passenger numbers and a vastly improved public image. So startling was the turnaround that O’Leary told to the financial television channel, Bloomberg TV: “As long as it boosts profitability I don’t think there is any limit to my niceness.”
On the commercial side, too, there have been major changes. For years, Ryanair rejected any form of link with other airlines. Now, it is on the verge of launching feeder arrangements with several.
The first, announced last month, is with Spanish airline Air Europa. Not well-known in North America (although it does operate into New York – JFK), it is the third-largest airline in Spain after Iberia and the low-cost carrier, Vueling.
A 47-strong fleet is headed up by eight Boeing 787-8s (with 14 larger 787-9s – to be delivered from 2019-2021) plus 12 Airbus A330s. The bulk of the fleet is made up from 737-800s, the same type that forms Ryanair’s huge fleet of almost 400.
Air Europa operates around 20 long-haul flights from Madrid, mainly to South America. It is a SkyTeam alliance member with Delta Air Lines and the Air France-KLM Group.
In the first phase of their link-up, Ryanair passengers can book Air Europa flights on the Irish airline’s website. The second phase, starting later this year, will allow Ryanair passengers to connect on to those long-haul flights through Madrid.
For Air Europa, the deal instantly strengthens its competitiveness and opens up vast swathes of connectivity: Ryanair operates to 54 destinations from Madrid. It is, after all, by far the largest airline in Spain, offering more than twice the number of seats than even national carrier Iberia.
For Ryanair, the deal offers additional revenue, with Air Europa paying a commission for all passengers that Ryanair funnels into the Spanish company’s long-haul services, explained Ryanair Director of Communications, Robin Kiely.
Who would take responsibility if baggage goes missing or if passengers miss their initial flight and then risk missing their connection?
“If and when the connecting service comes into play, we will do it on routes where we have high frequencies,” said Kiely. That would give passengers a chance of getting on the next Ryanair flight and still achieve their connection.
Kiely remarked: “If we didn’t think we could do this, we wouldn’t.”
Similarly, Ryanair is looking at launching connecting flights with other airlines, perhaps as early as later this summer. In the frame are fellow low-cost carrier – Norwegian and the Irish flag-carrier – Aer Lingus; as with Air Europa, Ryanair would feed passengers on to their long-haul sectors.
Negotiations with Norwegian and Aer Lingus have been ongoing for some time, with the Norwegian connection closest to being launched. The only things still to be ironed out are technical details such as enabling the companies’ reservations systems to talk to each other.
“We’re not quite there yet,” said Kiely. “We thought we would be by now.”
For Ryanair, this is a huge change from an airline that was once so firmly wedded to a point-to-point philosophy that, its website actually, carried a warning to prospective passengers not to use its flights to connect with others – even its own.
Increasingly, it has been edging towards having passengers make connections; just last month it initiated trials connecting a batch of its own flights through Rome Fiumicino, linking destinations in four European countries.
“Starting with an initial 10 Rome routes, customers will be able to transfer on to their next flight without having to go landside and have their bags checked through to their final destination,” said the Chief Commercial Officer, David O’Brien.
Assuming the trials are successful, O’Brien concluded “The new service…will be rolled out across the entire Ryanair network.”
Given the density of the Ireland-based low-cost carrier’s network in Europe – it has opened up services to places many Europeans have never heard of – that could be a formidable network and a rival to legacy carriers.
O’Leary is clear that the bulk of Ryanair’s business will remain point-to-point, but any additional sources of traffic through connecting passengers from other airlines are obviously welcome.
He has said in the past that it could operate feeder arrangements for big names such as Lufthansa, Alitalia and TAP Air Portugal. Indeed, he has said on several occasions that such a link-up might be Alitalia’s only way to survive.
Most European flag-carriers have unprofitable short-haul networks and coming to some arrangement to have at least some of that work taken by Ryanair could be an attractive proposition.
So powerful is Ryanair in Europe now – it will carry around 130 million passengers this year – that other airlines are anxious to get a slice of the cake to which Air Europa is helping itself: “Since we launched the Air Europa partnership, 10 other airlines have approached us about doing similar deals,” Kiely told Airways.
The airline is branching out in other ways. Ryanair Rooms is a website that connects with international hotel-finding websites such as hotels.com to offer everything from hostels to five-star hotels worldwide – not just within Ryanair’s European bailiwick.
That helps to pull in additional trade, not to mention a cut of any bookings made with the hotels through the site. The airline also offers car hire and holiday packages.
O’Leary has said that linking up with other airlines is the company’s latest enhancement “as we continue our journey to becoming the ‘Amazon of travel.’”