Inside Ryanair HQ: Meet the people with the unenviable task of dealing with complaints, and take a peek inside Michael O'Leary's costume cupboard.
Caroline Green looks like a City broker. Dressed in a cream bouclé jacket, she is expensively coiffed and wears immaculate make‑up; she would blend in seamlessly among the Square Mile's professionals. Instead, she has what may be considered one of the world's worst jobs: she is Ryanair's head of customer services.
She works in the much-berated low-cost airline's new offices on the edge of Swords retail park, outside Dublin. With its slide (a notice at the top, dictated by the truculent CEO, Michael O'Leary, says "not suitable for pregnant women [...] or gobsh‑‑‑‑" ), primary colours and play equipment, the office feels like a mix between a kindergarten and an on-the-cheap version of Google HQ. Michael O'Leary is normally found on the first floor in a large glass office, with his PR team along the corridor. The big boss isn't in the day I visit: he's on holiday (the Algarve, staff think).
The past year has seen Ryanair attempt a Damascene conversion when it comes to customer care. It has introduced family-friendly services such as milk-warming and fully allocated seating and now allows a second small cabin bag. The penny had dropped: low fares were not enough to keep people coming back when passengers felt treated like cattle.
Caroline has been at Ryanair for 17 years, saying that working for the airline "is like an addiction". Her team of representatives sits on the third floor, but Ryanair also outsources to call centres in Debrecen, Hungary, and Bucharest, Romania. In total, there 200 full-time customer services employees.
Does Michael O'Leary's notorious tongue make her job more difficult? He was once quoted as saying: "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." Caroline claims to ignore such comments, and that Kenny Jacobs, the chief marketing officer, now tends to speak on the company's behalf.
"Michael says things that don't apply to the business," she says. "He'll say in his own way for himself and it's not the way that the business is run."
Michael O'Leary in quotes 2009: "One thing we have looked at is maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in the future." 2013: "We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily p‑‑‑ people off."
Clodagh Rochford, a customer services manager, deals with the big stuff, including refunds based on medical issues. Death certificates are needed if passengers are hoping for a refund in the case of a bereavement. I ask if this clause was introduced after the case in which a doctor whose family died in a fire was charged €188 ($A265) to change his flight – Ryanair later refunded him in full. Clodagh says they deal with requests for refunds on a case-by-case basis and often have an office discussion before deciding whether to grant one. She insists that complaints have dropped significantly since Christmas 2013. The latest figures about passengers' grumbles point in the right direction too. Civil Aviation Authority figures for 2013 show that it received 35 complaints about Ryanair per million passengers, compared with 174 for US Airways and 139 for Virgin Atlantic.
Siobhan O'Neill is manning the phones. Mondays are busiest, when she will take about 50 to 60 calls. Has she noticed a change in customer response since Ryanair's sleeker website was launched in November last year? "Yes," she says. "Before, I would be on the phone with someone and they would be like, 'What's going on here?' "I can't help but feel she has the patience of a saint. I listen in on one call with a passenger who wants to change a flight from Faro to Porto. Siobhan checks all the details, and after about 10 minutes the customer decides he no longer wants the alteration. Another person waffles on about the Mozart played while he was waiting to be answered. "Sometimes you can get people who just want to chat: people go on for ages," Siobhan says.
I then sit with Amy Malone, a reservations supervisor, as she replies to some of the thousands of messages sent via the website. One man emails to say he has seen the price of his flight decrease since he booked, and is asking if he can be refunded the difference. The answer is a firm no.
Found among the horse pictures covering the office walls, Richard McEneaney, who trains cabin crew, is unremittingly smiley. I tell him that people think Ryanair crews are moody and are just being told to sell, sell, sell. Has their training changed to make them nicer? He thinks the reforms mean customers are calmer at boarding. "That makes the job a lot easier for our crew and also for our ground staff, because they were the ones that were implementing our policy. Some of them possibly didn't agree with it but understood operationally what the point was."
And is it true that ground staff get a bonus for spotting cabin luggage that might be over the 10kg limit, and charging customers for it? No, comes the swift reply. Caroline explains: "They're looking at a flight now, if it's booked. We've got 189 seats, if there's more than about 140 on it, the crew are told to go and have a look and see if there are any bags that might be put into the hold, free of charge, because it's really preventing a problem happening. The last thing we want from a punctuality and a service perspective is that you get all these people on board and then suddenly there's no room."
So who would apply for a job with Ryanair? One of Michael O'Leary's most infamous lines is: "Staff is usually your biggest cost. We all employ some lazy b‑‑‑‑‑‑‑ who need a kick up the backside, but no one can bring themselves to admit it." How do you train staff when the view from the top is so negative? Richard replies diplomatically. "I think a lot of staff need encouragement, and that's where training comes in."
I put it to Ryanair's head of communications, Robin Kiely, that in the past the company's PR strategy went something like this: Michael O'Leary says something outrageous (Robin laughs when I ask if his boss has been media-trained: "What do you think?") The press report outrage. Sales of Ryanair tickets rise, as do profits. But something stopped working.
Was it the profit warning in September 2013 that prompted the customer service and marketing revolution? Did attempts ramp up after easyJet's announcement last November of a 50 per cent rise in full-year profits? "No, but easyJet were way ahead of us in lots of ways," Robin admits. He explains that the company's strategy is now to be seen as cheap and savvy, not cheap and tacky.
All of which goes some way to explaining why the CEO's costume cupboard is now staying firmly locked. Robin shows me its contents: leprechaun bloomers, a selection of wigs and a Twitter bird onesie. Michael O'Leary traditionally donned them for photo calls. But no more. "New Ryanair" is attempting to be sophisticated.
Have I begun to warm to the airline? Well, perhaps. You have to treat what Ryanair provides as a bus service in the sky. You mustn't expect too much – and it's vital that you read its terms and conditions before you fly. All the same, it can fly you to the Dordogne for £19.99 ($A35.54). You are never on one of their planes – with their pocket-less seats – for long. You don't have to eat the food, or buy any of the products peddled on board. Pack light, consider it DIY travel, and you're quids in. Now Michael O'Leary's leprechaun outfits are locked away, maybe it's time to (whisper it) consider flying Ryanair again.
Ryanair in numbers
84 million passengers in 2014
300 Boeing 737-800 aircraft in operation
1,600+ flights per day
69 bases across Europe and North Africa
The Telegraph, London