In 2017, Ryanair announced to the world that it planned to become 'the Amazon of travel'. How feasible is this long-term goal, and is the budget airline's customer experience a hinderance to fulfilling it?
It may have the worst gender pay gap in the aviation industry and been responsible for the cancellation of nearly 700,000 flights last year, but Ryanair is now the fifth largest airline on the planet - and the largest in Europe - with over 112 million passengers per year.
What's more, the Irish airline claims 92% of its passengers are satisfied with their flight experience.
Despite this, a raft of brands now compete for the airline customer’s attention, spend and data. This includes traditional high street agents (like recently rebranded TUI), online agencies (OTAs) such as Booking.com and Expedia, aggregator and metasearch sites (like Kayak and Skyscanner), as well as the airlines themselves and even the airports.
To claim a greater share of wallet, all of these companies are attempting to meet the leisure traveller’s every need - before, during and after a trip.
All of these facts have led to Ryanair provocatively declaring late last year that its intent was to become the ‘Amazon of travel’:
"In the next couple of years, we want to become the go-to place for all travel needs. We’re going to be a travel business that happens to have an airline at its centre" - Kenny Jacobs, Chief Marketing Officer, Ryanair
Since the launch of its ‘Always Getting Better’ programme in 2014, Ryanair has updated its notoriously difficult website and introduced a new mobile app. It now enjoys the most online traffic for any airline, a remarkable feat given its decision not to engage in any PPC activity.
But for the airline to be genuinely recognised as the “go-to place for all travel needs” it would need to look beyond aviation and compete with Booking.com who, according to SimilarWeb, have ten times more traffic.
Monthly website visits (Source: SimilarWeb)
Increasingly, carriers are losing out to OTAs, aggregators and metasearch sites in the battle for the customer. Airlines have responded by trying to curb their usage and Ryanair is currently fighting a legal battle with Expedia regarding its scraping of prices on Ryanair’s website.
A business model built on friction
Despite recent progress, it would be to naïve to overlook that fact that Ryanair’s historic customer experience is the exact opposite of Amazon’s.
Amazon’s business model is based on convenience, removing friction and eliminating barriers to purchase - whether it’s one-click payments, 4-digit voice codes and ‘Just Walk Out’ technology.
Contrast this with Ryanair, whose business model has historically relied on friction to drive revenue. Its website has long been full of what experience designers call ‘dark patterns’ - that is elements of a user interface that are purposefully misleading, steering users toward a specific path, usually one that costs more.
Over the last 4 years, Ryanair’s ‘Always Getting Better’ programme has gone a some way towards addressing this high-friction approach, thanks to a new website and app, allocated seating and tailored business, leisure and family products.
But the airline still attempts to upsell customers with ancillary products, using barrages of webpages and pop-ups filled with up selling, cross selling and affiliate marketing (Flexi Plus fares, Ryanair Rooms, reserved seats, insurance, car hire to name but a few).
It would be to naïve to overlook that fact that Ryanair’s historic customer experience is the exact opposite of Amazon’s
From getting better to getting worse?
It now seems the experience the brand offers is further regressing.
Passengers now have to pay for £5 for Priority Boarding to avoid having their main cabin bag checked into the hold at the departure gate.
They’ve also announced a shortening of the check-in window for passengers who have not paid for reserved seats - from 4 days to 48 hours. The new check-in policy is likely to encourage weekend-break travellers to pay for reserved seating, or be forced to find ways to check in online while abroad.
On top of this, the Civil Aviation Authority is examining whether Ryanair is deliberately splitting up groups so they have to pay to sit together. The brand stands accused of operating a secret ‘pay up or we split you up’ policy, whereby if passengers don’t pay for reserved seats, their party is unlikely to be sat together and, instead, spread over several rows.
It’s no wonder that whilst Amazon tops the UK Customer Satisfaction Index, Ryanair doesn’t even make the top 50. Between January 2017 and January 2018, Ryanair suffered the biggest fall in satisfaction of all airlines included in the UKCSI, of 4.7 points.
An alternative vision: The Google of travel
Instead of looking to Amazon for inspiration, Ryanair would do well to consider the popularity of Google Flights, which demonstrates the size of threat Google poses to those brands hoping to own more of the customer journey.
In the US, the volume of traffic that carriers such as American Airlines, United and Delta are getting from Google Flights has tripled in the last 2 years. So it’s no surprise to learn that Google is seeking to win more and more of the leisure traveller’s time, data and attention.
Positive sentiment towards Google Flights is significantly higher than established players like Ryanair (Source: Great State analysis of online mentions of Ryanair and Google Flights)
With a spread of relevant products and services across the customer journey, Google already has insight into a traveller’s tastes, preferences and patterns of behaviour.
It’s easy to imagine a joined-up ‘Google Travel’ experience with all these services - Calendar, Search, Flights, Maps, Trips and Mail - working together to power a leisure traveller’s full itinerary: recommending destinations, finding best value flights and places to stay, as well as navigating things to do and sights to see.
A more leisurely future
Competition from low cost carriers like Ryanair has caused prices to fall (the average air fare has fallen by 50% over the past 30 years). But it has also increased the burden on customers - forcing them to jump between the websites of different brands, providers and platforms as well as multiple sources of information, inspiration and reviews as they plan their perfect trip.
There’s a huge opportunity to reduce the customer’s cognitive load through artificial intelligence accessed through simple and natural interfaces (specifically voice and messenger platforms).
Travel brands like Ryanair should be aiming to replicate the levels of service associated with an expert agent but at mass scale - digitising and making accessible all the benefits of an informed and personal touch to everyone, irrespective of budget.
Imagine how much easier a traveller’s life would be if they could turn to a digital concierge at each stage of their trip - whether that’s handing off the booking of flights and transfers, arranging a late check-in with a hotel, making a restaurant booking, or acting as interpreter.
Defining and designing a great consumer experience is no mean feat - especially in a sector like leisure travel - but, with the right skills and spirit, there’s no reason why brands shouldn’t better meet customer expectations.
About Matt Boffey
Boffey is co-founder and director of consulting at Great State. A specialist in keeping brands relevant by improving the experience they offer, the Oxford PPE graduate has previously worked at agencies including DDB, Grey, Wieden + Kennedy and R/GA. He created the ‘Good Food Deserves Lurpak’ strategy which has now been around for over a decade and powered the brand to No 1 in its market. He authored the plan for Adidas’ activation of its sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympics, making the brand the most talked about at the games. He developed Adidas’s global football strategy that has seen it steal the crown of the world’s most valuable sports performance brand in soccer back from Nike.