NEWS
02/09/2018 08:07 BST | Updated 03/09/2018 11:37 BST

Ryanair: Is The UK's Love Affair With The Budget Airline Finally Over?

It's been a bad year for the budget airline – and an even worse one for many of its passengers.

REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Being left on the runway for hours, boarding a plane to find vomit on the floor, or suffering injuries after an inflight depressurisation: these are just a handful of the experiences Ryanair passengers have reported in the last 12 months – and that’s only when they’ve managed to make it onto a plane.

Since its foundation in the mid-1980s, Ryanair has – for the most part – gone from strength to strength, but in the last 11 months damning headlines and seemingly endless streams of negative feedback on social media raise the question of whether the UK’s love affair with the budget airline might finally be over.

The company’s recent troubles began last autumn, when more than 400,000 passengers were affected after roughly 50 flights a day were cancelled, some at incredibly short notice. Just last week, Ryanair hit the headlines again when cheques compensating passengers for cancelled flights bounced

But because the majority of Ryanair passengers are not ABTA or ATOL-protected (these financial protection schemes only cover holidaymakers who have booked a package trip, not flights directly with an airline), a cancelled flight may be just the beginning of a traveller’s problems and the compensation process can prove tricky.

Last year, in the midst of the main bulk of cancellations, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) enforced action against the airline for “persistently misleading passengers” during the compensation process. While their action did not include a fine for Ryanair, it compelled them to improve their communications with customers, slamming them for “failing to provide the necessary and accurate information relating to their passenger rights”.

Ryanair ended 2017 by being voted joint worst airline in the world in a Which? survey of over 11,000 passengers – along with low-cost Spanish outfit Vueling – and after a quiet start to this year, by late July strikes were affecting some departures, as cabin crews and pilots separately took industrial action.

Things got so bad that boss Michael O’Leary waived his annual annual €1m bonus. Ongoing crisis talks with Irish pilots threatening more strikes are so far not proving fruitful and addressing the latest cancellations, a Ryanair spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “Regrettably almost 200,000 Ryanair customers had their flights cancelled in July because of repeated ATC staff shortages in the UK, Germany and France, adverse weather, and unnecessary pilot and cabin crew strikes.

“Ryanair, together with other European airlines, calls for urgent action by the EU Commission and European governments to address the effect of these ATC staff shortages which are disrupting the travel plans of millions of Europe’s consumers this summer.”

Meanwhile, social media is full of declarations from travellers who have vowed to “never fly Ryanair again” after being forced to sit separately from travelling companions, experiencing poor customer service or having their flight cancelled – and if they’re unlucky, all of the above.

Helen Dempster, 30, won’t be setting foot on another Ryanair plane anytime soon. Together with two friends, she travelled to Thessaloniki, Greece, for the May bank holiday weekend earlier this year and made sure to check in online for the flights as early as possible, 48 hours before take off.

Despite their speediness and the fact they were all on the same booking, Dempster and her friends were separated on both journeys. “They assigned us seats that were weirdly aligned but completely different,” she said of her return flight. “The three of us were all in separate rows, exactly five apart, on the same side of the plane, all in the middle seat.

“When we went to change them, we were told we’d have to pay around £8 each to change our seat. It just seems ridiculous to me that we checked in as early as we could and yet this was all they could find.”

Helen Dempster
Helen Dempster, right, says she won't fly Ryanair again

Dempster claims numerous passengers on her flight were also separated.

“There were people split up from their husbands, there were some split up from their children,” she said. “Everyone was standing up waiting to see if anyone was going to sit next to the person they wanted to sit next to, and this bizarre swapping game was going on.

“When we talked to the staff, they were genuinely nice and sympathetic, coming up with the ‘it’s company policy’ line, but it seems like a bizarre policy.”

For her next trip abroad, Dempster will travel to Majorca with her boyfriend and has paid “almost twice the price” to fly with British Airways instead of a budget alternative.

“Ryanair are deliberately giving bad service to people who can’t afford more expensive flights or don’t want to,” she said. “I think that’s why in future, I’m refusing to let that be my guiding factor.

“I’m going on a romantic trip with my boyfriend, I don’t want to be sitting halfway across the plane from him.”

A second passenger, who asked not to be named, recently returned from a two-week family holiday that ended in disarray when Ryanair cancelled their flight home after the passengers had boarded the plane.

Earlier this month, the 34-year-old went on a two-week holiday to Spain with his partner and 20-month-old son, which “means travelling in general is fairly chaotic”. After netting bargain flights, he ended up paying more than £170 for extras including baggage, priority boarding and seats that were together. 

On the way home, and with all passengers on board the plane, it was announced that the flight could not take off due to thunderstorms.

“We ended up spending three hours on the plane,” the disgruntled traveller said. “It was one of those where it was half an hour and then, ‘oh it’s going to be another hour’, and another, and another.

“Then they said they would speak to the operations team about taking off and then they cancelled the flight.” 

While the passenger acknowledges weather wasn’t Ryanair’s fault, it was the way they dealt with the saga that left the family unhappy. Using his own mobile phone, he had to go online and reselect a flight for his family,  managing to get one for the next day. They then queued for more than an hour at a customer services desk to be told to sort their own accommodation and expenses for the night. 

JOSE JORDAN via Getty Images
Passengers have faced lengthy delays

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the passenger will not be travelling Ryanair for another family holiday.  ″[It’s] the whole cost, cost, cost thing,” he said. “You find a flight for a certain price but by the time you fly, you’ve almost doubled the cost.

“And then just the fact it’s cancelled. We were lucky to get a flight the next day.”

Plenty of other dissatisfied Ryanair passengers contacted HuffPost UK to share their stories. One was making her way home from Valencia via Barcelona, after her flight to East Midlands Airport was cancelled “with four hours notice”.

Travelling with her partner, they had to pay for their train to Valencia and a room for the night ahead of the new flight, along with all food and drinks costs for their unplanned extra 24 hours in Spain. They have not received an apology the inconvenience or any guidelines on how to apply for compensation.

Another was in the middle of trying to complete a compensation form for a flight that was “cancelled with two hours notice” on Friday 10 August.I have tried online chat tonight with the most unhelpful person ever,” she said.

These anecdotal stories give the impression that the game may finally be up for Ryanair. But is it all talk? The all-important passenger numbers tell a different story.

In July, the company reported a 20% decline in profits year-on-year, but the decrease wasn’t driven by a fall in passengers. Ryanair flew 37.6 million people between May and July 2018 – a seven percent increase compared to the same period last year – and cited rising fuel prices and costly strikes as the cause of the drop in profits. This did cause the airline’s share price to drop, but just six weeks later, it had recovered from the blip.

Despite the horror stories, travellers are still flocking to Ryanair’s website and booking flights in their millions. Why? There’s one thing Ryanair still consistently trumps its competitors on: price.  

PA Archive/PA Images
Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary

Ali Syme, 28, is a Scottish expat who lives in Spain and works in Gibraltar, for a company with Dublin headquarters. He flies to the UK and Ireland “roughly once every two months” for both business and social reasons.

While media reports about Ryanair are filled with stories of cancellations and hellish wait times, Syme himself hasn’t had any of these problems. 

He told HuffPost UK: “If it comes down to two airlines then i’ll just go with the cheapest even if it is Ryanair.

“I just pick the cheapest one,” he continued. “I don’t have to worry about, ‘Well will this be comfortable?’, ‘What kind of chair do I need?’. I’ve never been on a flight longer than three and a bit hours with Ryanair, because you can get across Europe in that time.”

Syme also offers a diplomatic perspective on cancellations due to strikes: “When it comes to industrial action or the weather, I think, ‘well it could be Ryanair or Easyjet’.

“It’s the air traffic employees who decide the weather stuff and airport staff everything else.”

There are plenty of people with complaints but also, it seems, enough who share Syme’s laidback attitude, willing to risk cancellations and delays in order to bag a bargain – it’s just that they aren’t so vocal on social media. 

A Ryanair spokesperson said: “The UK consumer has the greatest love affair with low cost carriers in all of the EU, given close to 60% of UK flights to and from Europe are on a low cost carrier, far higher than the EU average.”

Back in 2013, boss O’Leary was his typically confident self during an interview that came after a patch of bad press.

“Short of committing murder, negative publicity sells more seats than positive publicity,” he declared to Campaign Live. “Negative publicity generates so much more free publicity that it sells more tickets.”

It seems he may well have been right.