A brief history of low fares
Only two decades ago, flying was one of life’s great treats. Luxurious, exciting and infrequent. People remember their first flight. In recent years, the experience of flying has become more trick than treat, with the arrival of ‘low fares’ airlines.
The low fares model, pioneered by Southwest Airlines in the US, has made frequent flying accessible to more people than ever before. Nothing short of a transport revolution. Here’s how low fares are possible [infographic]. Unlike some European low fares airlines, the success of Southwest Airlines, operating since 1971, was not based on low prices alone. Its mission statement is to deliver a satisfying journey at a reasonable price. The reason; Southwest believes ‘it’s in the customer service business – it just happens to fly airplanes’. The result; healthy balance sheets, loyalty and countless customer service awards.
Unlike Southwest, the real cost of low fares is not reflected in the price. These ‘no frills’ airlines strip away all but the bare bones of the service they offer travellers. In dismantling the service, compromises are made, dramatically reducing the experience for customers. The already hard-to-take term ‘cattle class’ is being downgraded.
Coupled with a degraded service, there’s a sinister trend with low fares airlines towards puerile charges, antagonising customers and ‘dirty’ marketing tricks. Yet, huge profit and dominance on many routes for these airlines. What would the Wright Brothers think of their life’s work?
Outside the spirit of the law
At the forefront of this trend are Ryanair. Being Irish, I’ve witnessed Ryanair’s growth since it started the low fares revolution in Europe. I fly Ryanair when there’s no other choice. I fly with trepidation, wondering what trickery will be used to add additional costs to the flight. Booking tickets online or checking-in luggage, the threat is always there. John Fingleton, Chief Executive of the Office of Fair Trading (OTF) has accused airline Ryanair of “taunting consumers” with “puerile” charges when booking ‘free flights’. Wonderfully put but Ryanair continue unchecked and unchanged. The OFT and other UK consumer groups are rendered ineffective.
Legally, Ryanair gets away with this taunting by cleverly operating “outside the spirit of the law, but within the narrow letter of the law”, say the OFT. This leaves consumer groups ineffective, shifting responsibility to UK law, which can’t keep pace with a business. Above the law and outside the reach of consumer groups, Ryanair generated €340 million profit in 2010. Even after the ash cloud cost them €50 million. CEO Michael O’Leary took away a bonus of €20 million. In terms of profit, who’s to argue? This post aims to expose some of the tricks used by Ryanair.
Ryanair basic truths
- Ryanair are cheap
- The advertised fare is not the cost
- Rather than please, Ryanair aim to deceive
- Carelessness costs customers
- Ignorance is billed
- There’s no reward for customer loyalty
- It really is cattle class, so join the herd!
Review of Ryanair.com
At first glance, it’s difficult to see how the Ryanair web site competes online with other airlines. EasyJet produce a web site that is visually appealing, less cluttered and easier to use. But looks can be deceiving. The look and feel of the Ryanair site heavily supports its brand image as cheap and unsophisticated. Any designer worth their weight will tell you that the Ryanair colour pallet is nothing if not stand out. Differentiation is everything for Ryanair. Looking deeper, there are clever and deliberate tricks designed to catch the unsuspecting, underneath the brash and unsophisticated exterior of the site.
Ryanair site is deliberately designed to deceive but is it missing a trick?
Make no mistake, thought has gone into the design of the Ryanair site. The site demonstrates a clear understanding of human psychology in its design. Dark patterns, which we see later, and Persuasion trigger techniques are used at key points on the site. As highlighted by David Jarvis, a persuasion trigger known as Social Proof is used on the Ryanair site. This technique plays on the fact that we like to observe other people’s behaviour to judge what’s normal. We then copy this. On the site the power of default settings are used to influence people’s behavior. People see the default as being the ‘recommended option’. Persuading people to believe that the majority of people take options like a cabin bag, SMS confirmation and travel insurance. Otherwise, why would it be opt-out? For more about persuasion triggers see Persuasion Triggers in Design by David Travis.
Removing travel insurance is deliberately difficult – a good example of a Dark Pattern, where the interaction and information are crafted to be tricky. Users have to opt-out. Should people opt-out, they’re asked to opt back in later. Selling it a second time. As is seen from the screen shot below, the placement of the opt-out option in the middle of the drop-down menu, titled ‘Please select a country of residence’ and amidst countries, is designed to deceive. As a usability professional, this page makes me want to cry.
A dark pattern designed to deceive
Poor ease of use
Online is Ryanair’s primary route to market. But they’re missing a big trick here. The site is difficult to use. Poor ease of use is proven to:
- Forfeit revenue
- Erode brand
- Frustrate customers
Exacerbated by the poor brand presence and unsophisticated aesthetic, the ease of use of the site is hampered by:
- Poor error prevention, messages and handling
- Lack of customer support information
- Confusing navigation
- Inconsistent interaction design of buttons, tabs, tables
- Inadequate feedback on search results (returning no results, no alternative suggestions provided…)
- Nonsensical URLs
- Animated GIFs, banners, cross promotions
- The list goes on…
Booking a ticket
The most important journey for customers, the booking process, is laden with points of error. Next steps are lost in the visual clutter or animated GIFs, banners and cross sell. Deliberately poor default settings make this process longer than other airlines. Delta, for example, have a 4-step booking process, which is very compact. The shortest booking processes are not always the best but Virgin America have a 7-step process. This becomes overwhelming with tick boxes and beyond the tolerances of mainstream users. Ryanair could learn from Delta and Easyjet. Ryanair make it difficult for people to give them money by making the booking process long and difficult. Surprising given how sparing they are elsewhere. In a site full of tricks, they’re missing a very big one. Designing the site with ease of use as the objective would benefit Ryanair’s precious bottom line. Although not a primary concern, it would also make customers happy.
Improved ease of use would lead to:
- Higher conversion rates
- Increased brand presence
- Improved booking process
- Better user experience
Ryanair brand strategy
Love or loath, the Ryanair brand strategy has made Ryanair one of Europe’s most distinctive brands. They aggressively apply this strategy. In the process, they buck trends and fly in the face of best practice. Boeing, who know a thing or two about aircraft design, say that the interiors of aircraft are designed considering what colours and patterns are most restful to weary travelers. Colour psychology, as on the Web, plays an important role in developing the overall look. Studies show that people in different cultures associate certain colors with similar emotions or concepts. Blue/green is nearly unanimously associated with peace. Yellow, Ryanair’s second brand colour, is favoured throughout the cabin. Yellow, as in nature, is highly visible to the eye. This is why many road signs are bold yellow. The yellow wavelength is long, making it the strongest colour, psychologically. The right yellow will lift our spirits and our self-esteem. In its cabins, Ryanair uses too much of it. There’s no escape. It’s everywhere. The tone is very bright, cheap and attention grabbing. To me, it gives rise to fear and anxiety rather than peace. To Ryanair, it reinforces its brand value of cheap and unsophisticated. It boldly differentiates without consideration.
The British Advertising Standards Authority, which monitors ads for accuracy, decency and fairness, recently said that Ryanair had been misleading consumers about the availability of low fares. It referred the case to the Office of Fair Trading, an unusual step by the ad authority, whose decisions are generally heeded. A spokesman for the Advertising Standards Authority cited Ryanair’s “unwillingness and apparent inability” to comply with British advertising codes. The Advertising Standards Authority marketing experts say Ryanair’s public disputes appear to be part of the airline’s branding strategy.
Similar to its cabin and web site design, the heart of its advertising strategy is differentiation of the finest, most deliberate and offensive kind. However, different to in-cabin and online, their ads use a lack of colour to differentiate. A Ryanair ad always follows the same model:
- Black and white
- Tacky copy
- Poor execution
- Always offensive
‘Hot fares’ deliberately designed to outrage
From this stripper dressed as a schoolgirl announcing “hot fares” to an image of Churchill declaring “beat terrorism” after the 7/7 attacks, the sky is the limit. Ryanair often make specific attacks on famous people. Gordon Brown, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and even the Pope have all been aggressively and deliberately parodied. Once the ad is out there, what happens next always follows the same routine:
- Public backlash
- Formal complaint
- Ryanair kicks in with PR campaign
- O’Leary makes more incendiary claims (usually nonsense)
- A controversial £25,000 ad campaign becomes a million-pound piece of brand strategy
This deliberately controversial approach reinforces the brand’s image as cheap and unsophisticated. Resulting in Ryanair being one of Europe’s most distinctive brands. I don’t like this advertising. Individually they’re not clever or pleasing. However, collectively as a piece of brand strategy, it’s astoundingly successful. All ads support what could be Ryanair’s brand values:
- Low fares
- No nonsense
With 66 million customers and brand recognition sky high, perhaps they’re redefining brand strategy. Instead of making customers value their brand, they just want people to recognise it, good or bad!
How to cut the cost of flying Ryanair
If you’re flying Ryanair, here are some tips on how to cut the cost:
1. Low fares
Firstly, the advertised fare is misleading because it does not include extras, fees and taxes, as shown below. They’re ‘always’ part of the ‘basic’ price. It pays to become familiar with the Ryanair table of fees.
Rising cost of flying Ryanair
2. Book early for better deals
The later you book, the more you pay. The last 30% pay for the first 70%, it’s thought. So, get in early to get the best possible price.
Don’t pay for travel insurance, you don’t need it. Ryanair’s travel insurance is a lot more expensive than most insurance companies, while its cover is considerably less comprehensive. Which?, a British consumer rights publication and web site, has a page on Suggested Minimum Travel Insurance Requirements. Ryanair’s insurance falls well short of this. For example, Ryanair’s policy only offers £50,000 of medical cover; Which? recommends a minimum of two million pounds.
Across the airline industry, there is an upward trend in luggage costs [infographic]. Ryanair leads this trend. With one of the lowest baggage allowances of 15kg and some of the highest costs in Europe. The cost grows exponentially with every kg over allocated luggage weight. Being aware of luggage allowances is vital to avoid extra charges. Recent changes to checked luggage allowance:
Rising cost of luggage on Ryanair
- Ensure you check in online. It cost £6 online compared to £12 at the airport check-in desk.
- Never check in bags at the airport. Bags can cost £30-£40 more than checking it in online.
- Ensure bags weigh no more than your allocated baggage allowance – either 15 or 20 kg. Every kg over costs £20.
- Watch out at peak travel months, July and August. Prices can increase by up to a third.
- Cut the amount of baggage you take. If there are two of you, put all your stuff in a single bag.
- Again, never check in bags at the airport.
To find up-to-date allowance, visit the Terms & Conditions page on the Ryanair site.
5. Online Check-in
Ryanair will charge you for the ‘privilege’ of checking in. Both online and at the airport, check-in costs. It pays to check in online. Check-in online is £6 per person, per one-way flight. Check-in costs £12 at the airport check-in desk. Five years ago, it would have been thought absurd to have to pay to queue and check in at an airport. It still is. To avoid higher charges, ensure you check-in online before going to the airport.
6. Priority boarding
If you are a family with small kids, elderly or need help boarding, buy priority boarding for £4 per person, each way. It can make that part of the experience a little better. Ryanair policy is to board disabled customers last!
- If you’re travelling in a group, buy priority boarding for one member and let them secure seats for the rest.
- Do not lose your printed boarding pass. The charge to reissue a hand written one is £40.
7. Prepare before boarding
You can bring food and drink on-board. It pays to. The cost of even water is extortionate on Ryanair. Here are some fairly recent costs:
In 2010, web site thisismoney reported that a sandwich that costs around £2 in a supermarket and £2.40 at an airport, can cost as much as £4.39 on board. £3.95 with Flybe. The biggest mark-ups were on items such as crisps, shortbread and muffins. Jaffa Cakes have a 556% mark-up, muffins 736%, and shortbread costs ten times its retail price on one airline.
If rumors are to be believed, Ryanair may soon charge for using the toilet. Lets hope it’s not a long flight!
8. Card charge
Many budget airlines charge to book with a credit/debit card. Only Ryanair charges per person, per flight! That’s £20 for a couple of return flights! Mr Fingleton says ‘Ryanair has this funny game where they have found some very low frequency payment mechanism and say: ‘You can pay with that,’. The £5 booking fee per flight can be avoided using a Mastercard pre-paid card. Cleverly, Ryanair chooses a card that very few people have. Previously it was Visa Electron, but as more people began to take out cards to beat charges, it switched this to pre-paid Mastercard. If you take out a card make sure that you know exactly what you will be charged for it to be issued, to load it up, to spend money, to withdraw money from a cash machine and for monthly or annual fees. Compare these things carefully if you are using the card to save on Ryanair flights. After all, if you don’t fly much, a card could end up costing you more than Ryanair would charge.
9. Terms and conditions
Lengthy but worth a skim read. Points to note are:
Except as provided in Articles 4.2, 10.2 and 10.3 of their Terms and Conditions, all monies paid for flights operated are non-refundable.
10. Happy path; checklist for happier travels:
- Book flights early to save more
- Remove travel insurance when booking
- Check in bags online; none if possible, or under 15kg, but no more than 20kg
- Print boarding pass and bring to airport
- Make sure your bags don’t exceed baggage allowance
- Check in online anytime within 15 days of flight and up to 4 hours before flight
The sky is the limit, if we’re willing to pay!
With 66 million customers and brand recognition rocketing, for Ryanair the sky is the limit. As long as we’re willing to pay the ‘full’ price, Ryanair will continue as one of Europe’s most distinctive brands. Perhaps paving the way for others to adopt the Ryanair model, rather than the Southwest Airlines model. Travellers need to be aware of the hidden cost of low fares. Puerile charges and lack of transparency are the tip of the iceberg. There’s deliberate taunting of customers, dirty tricks, bending of the law and lip service being paid to consumer groups. The result is the downgrading of the whole experience of flying to ‘cattle class’. If that’s the price we’re willing to pay, and price is all that matters to us too, then get in line, join the herd!
Accept that in choosing low fares, we’re giving a thumbs up to price over service. Complaining about service is futile. Unlike Southwest Airlines, they’re not in the customer service business. If you’re not happy, then pay a little more elsewhere and help preserve airlines that care about delivering a satisfying journey at a fair price.
Don’t be fooled by Ryanair. Behind the brash exterior, a sophisticated and deliberate brand strategy is always at work, aggressively reinforcing Ryanair’s brand image as cheap and unsophisticated. This is what drives Ryanair’s success. With more tricks than a circus, it’s surprising that Ryanair is missing a trick online. Making their site difficult to use is proven to frustrate customers, forfeit revenue and erode brand.
I don’t fly Ryanair, where there’s a choice. I hope there’s always a choice. I tip my hat to Southwest Airlines. I acknowledge that Ryanair, a small airline 20 years ago, have differentiated themselves brilliantly. I can’t help but feel that if they carried through further on the Southwest Airlines model, their lives would be easier and we’d all be happier.
Peter Merholz – Becoming a Customer Experience-Driven Business