Ryanair: why cheap doesn’t need to be nasty

by Chris Fairbairn

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

Leopard changes its spots: budget airline turns around its image – but should it have been needed?

RyanAir CEO, Michael O'Leary, was at Edinburgh Airport to announce the next set of expansions for the company over the next year. (c) Wullie Marr/DEADLINE NEWS For pic details, contact Wullie Marr........... 07989359845WHEN it comes to capturing the imagination of the public, airline magnates certainly have the knack.

At one end of the spectrum we have Sir Richard Branson – an almost legendary figure who could easily be described as the pin-up for any back bedroom entrepreneur, but who is a man with a compelling back-story of hard graft, a canny business mind and a respected public persona.

Then we have Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. The charismatic founder of EasyJet first entered the public imagination with hit ITV show ‘Airline’ in 1999.

Stelios and Easyjet have since gone on to establish a by and large cheeky yet favourable public persona, expanding the big orange firm into gyms, hotels, buses and car rental reaching as far as in Ibiza – in part down to a strong brand association.

Stelios, a Brit of Greek origin has kept this image up years after the hit tv show and was even reported recently handing out free meals to struggling families in Athens.

Last but by no means least we have Michael O’Leary. The notorious boss of budget Irish carrier Ryanair gained a steadfast reputation for his brazen public persona and as a man with the bloody minded belief that any publicity is good publicity and even hugely negative reports could lead to increased sales.

RyanairO’Leary built his reputation on abrasive quotes, often while abusing the people most of us would call ‘the customer’. Consider this gem on his airline’s notorious non-refund policy: “You’re not getting a refund so **** off. We don’t want to hear your sob stories. What part of ‘no refund’ don’t you understand?”

Or this insight into how to offer customer service: “People say the customer is always right, but you know what – they’re not. Sometimes they are wrong and they need to be told so.”

This resulted in many high-profile cases of public outcry and shock as he suggested various inflammatory measures to be introduced, making the airline a byword for bad customer service.

First up, O’Leary broke news that Ryanair were to force desperate passengers to spend a penny – or more accurately a pound – by individually charging for onboard toilet use.

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Then came a real lightbulb moment – by fitting more passengers onboard, the firm would make more money with a further reduced price option for customers happy to forego the luxury of a seat on a plane. By taking a leaf from the football terraces of yesteryear and introducing a standing area this could be achieved. Remarkable – but it never came to fruition and the typified the anti-PR stunt synonymous with the carrier.

In 2006, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary as part of its Dispatches series, “Ryanair caught napping”. The documentary criticised Ryanair’s training policies, security procedures and aircraft hygiene, and highlighted poor staff morale – clearly Ryanair’s brand personality was doing no favours for its staff.

Then came the famed turnaround, suddenly Ryanair announced that it was changing… ‘Always Getting Better’ was the advertising and PR key message that heralded a new dawn for the firm – a drastic change of direction in response to falling profit.

However it had already lost ground to its big orange nemesis. Rather than ‘unnecessarily p*ssing people off’, Easyjet was focusing on improving the customer experience – keeping up a positive public image, upgrading it service and steering clear from controversy that O’Leary so often left in his wake.

The figures back this up. Despite Ryanair serving around £20 million customers per year it is still well behind Easyjet in terms of revenue and profit and without the positive brand image that enabled Easyjet to diversify into other areas of business.

The Verdict

Ryanair 3Ryanair’s brash PR certainly served a purpose. Michael O’Leary was able to generate mountains of column inches and Ryanair grew from a tiny operation flying only between Waterford and London to Europe’s largest airline in terms of passengers carried.

But it clearly had its limits; its major rivals Easyjet through a more positive approach have been able to run a more profitable business with a favoured brand image that has allowed them its expansion into other markets.

Had Ryanair taken this approach earlier, perhaps they too would have been able to occupy a place in the public’s heart, rather than just being the cheapest (albeit regular) option.

With good PR taking a strong place within a marketing strategy, businesses have a platform to not only reach a bigger audience but also to encourage brand loyalty, enabling expansion and increasing the bottom line.

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Chris Fairbairn of Scottish public relations agency, Holyrood PR in Edinburgh

Chris Fairbairn

Chris Fairbairn is an Account Director with award-winning public relations agency Holyrood PR. He is part of an expert PR team delivering PR services to a wide range of clients from headquarters in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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