The Southwest Effect in Ireland? Does the RyanAir brand come close?

This is a guest post by Rob Mark from in Chicago. We’ve decided to begin a little cross-posting here at SimpliFlying and at Jetwhine.

A commercial pilot and journalist, Rob has been writing Jetwhine as the blog of “aviation buzz and bold opinion,” for two and a half years. His posts are never dull because you never need to try to figure out where he and his co-writer Scott Spangler stand on an issue. Enjoy.


spirit1 For as long as I can remember, Southwest Airlines, now the largest U.S. domestic airline, created in the 1970s by Herb Kelleher and Rollin King, has been the low-cost airline others most want to emulate. The need to copy isn’t just about money, although Southwest has a profit history better than any other airline in the world. Most Southwest look-a-likes have, in fact, been dismal failures.

Southwest has a record of solid labor relations – despite last week’s pilot contract rejection – and a culture of customer fun in an industry that most others have never been able to duplicate. Southwest simply delivers a solid, consistent service at a fair price that keeps passengers coming back. To me, an airline that actually still responds in writing to a customer complaint says quite a bit.

The airline’s no hidden fees policy has also carried it quite a long way at a time when competitors have tried charging for everything short of breathing space. True, Southwest did appear to break with tradition last week when it announced some new fees, but charging for the work related to managing unaccompanied minors as well as pets carried in the cabin is something the average man or woman on the street will most likely never notice.

On to Ireland

When Ryanair opened for business in 1985, many analysts thought the Dublin-based carrier could evolve into a European airline modeled on the success of Southwest. Having had the opportunity to fly Ryanair a few times, I can tell you that the Southwest folks probably have very little to worry about on that front, something my first flight on the European airline confirmed. At Southwest, boarding is by group to bring some sort of order to the process of putting folks in their seats. In fact, we spoke to Southwest’s Doug Lawson about just that topic last year.

When boarding at Ryanair, they essentially open the terminal doors, aim passengers at the airplane and yell “go.” It’s every man, woman and child for themselves to find a good seat using both the front and rear doors. There was nothing even remotely funny about watching people run like crazed dogs for the Boeing while I tried to make sure they didn’t mow down my family in the process. To me, Ryanair’s business model is not so much about low cost as it is about being cheap. Even ads for the airline tout “cheap.” And when a company is cheap, consumers should beware.

michael o'leary jetwhine In March, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary made news by suggesting pay toilets might be a good idea aboard his airplanes where flights are often no more than an hour per leg. In the U.S., we laughed, especially when O’Leary’s press officer confirmed that the CEO often makes this stuff up as he goes. Then last week O’Leary confirmed he’s in talks with Boeing to find a workable pay toilet solution, one that will help Ryanair remove two of the three lavs on the Boeing 737 to make room for more seats.

Making passengers pay to use a toilet is sure to become one of the largest revenue losers in the history of the airline business. But it also opens the door to a discussion about how Ryanair is fast become an airline at which the wheels have finally begun to come off the wagon. The company has clearly crossed the line between what passengers will accept and what they will not. O’Leary just doesn’t seem to realize it because he’s in business to make money, not run an airline.

I always thought no one could be less customer-focused than United Airlines. Clearly I was wrong. The only thing that really worries me is that some airline bean counter here in the states might think Ryanair is on to something. They are of course. It’s just not anything good for airline passengers. And if you do fly Ryanair in the future, you just might want to bring along a can of Lysol to kill the germs. It’s going to get messy over there.

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is the Founder and CEO of SimpliFlying, one of the world’s largest aviation marketing firms working with over 85 aviation clients in the last ten years. Nigam is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior executives globally, from Chile to China. Nigam’s impassioned and honest perspectives on airline marketing have found their way to over 100 leading media outlets, including the BBC, CNBC, Reuters and Bloomberg, and into leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He writes a dedicated monthly column in Flight’s Airline Business, challenging the typical assumptions about airline marketing. His new book on airline marketing, SOAR, is an Amazon bestseller that’s shaking up the industry and inspiring other industries to learn from the best airlines. Born in India, raised in Singapore, he now lives with his wife and two young daughters in Toronto.
Shashank Nigam
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Showing 4 comments
  • Oussama Salah

    I agree Southwest has been the 5 stars of LLC and has been emulated by every startup that made it or failed. You can not be a Southwest look alike and make it without having the same work ethics and customer focus. Having worked for Air Arabia a low fare carrier makes one understand the focus on passenger service. How far a simple smile (Air Arabia has a one day course called Smile) and a kind word from a cabin crew or ground staff and listening to what passenegrs require can go. People used to shake their heads when you tell them there are no pillows and blankets on board, but explain to them the trade off in overhead bin space between pillows/blankets and their carry on bags and they light up, nevertheless Air Arabia listened to its customers and provided a reusable light weight kit that has a plastic inflatable pillow, an earphone and a blanket for a fee of course for less than $10 which you can buy, passengers loved it. The idea is listen to your customers and give them what they need and they will pay for it but do not impose fees on passengers, they are not stupid, actually they are very smart and vote with their feet eventually.

    You want to be as successful as Southwest you have to adopt ethics and practices similar to Southwest, I know Air Arabia broke even in year one (2004) and has been expanding and profitable ever since through hard work, attention to service as much as a legacy airline and a drive to succeed and do a great job.

  • Martin Hedley

    One reason why RyanAir may still do as well as Southwest in the long run is the primary reason I fly Southwest.

    I do not like the idea of paying to use the lav. I’m not really keen on paying for everything else – but I fly Ryanair and I will do so again. I must admit the sandwiches and tea they had from Stanstead to ‘somewhere near Hamburg’ were great for the price – better than airport food oddly. BUT Ryanair will get me there when I expect 99.9% of the time, even if a little late.

    The primary reason Southwest is my primo carrier in the US and therefore my most travelled airline, is reliability. Yes the service is fun, the fare rules are the best in the industry, I never feel like I’ve been shorted – BUT they always get me where I need to be on time or very close to it.

    I now fly transcon on Southwest too. I have found by sheer agonising reality that the major airlines like to mis-connect me in the middle of the country when returning from the East Coast. They tell me the late inbound missed the outbound, it of course was never their fault, and now I have to spend a night with two extra meals at my own expense in Minneapolis, Chicago or…. So I get home, or to business meetings about 12 hours late. Contrast that with Southwest, who may require a change and a one-stop, who may look on the schedule like they take 90 minutes longer – but they get me where I need when I planned to be there. Most often, and I have records to prove it, I’m back before the other guys.

    As a frequent business traveller, there is no substitute for Southwest. And that’s why Ryanair will always be a winner for me in Europe – even while I’m moaning and complaining about the fees.

  • Tony Fitz

    I fly Ryanair quite alot and hate it. The entire experience is a disaster where its only redeeming feature is the cheap ticket price. The level of panic you experience as a passenger with Ryanair is completely unnecessary especially if you have small kids with you. Ryanair’s main competitor in Ireland is Aer Lingus who compete on most routes with Ryanair. It is a delight to fly with them but most times its a few euro more expensive.

    If Ryanair experience a serious plane crash or something where the customers feel safety is comprimised then the attraction of a cheap ticket price will disapear and be replaced with safety concerns. If this happens then customers will desert Ryanair and the airline will lose billions and perhaps go bust. They are on a customer support knife edge.

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