Ryanair and the dogfight to own the leisure traveller

Ryanair is now the fifth largest airline on the planet - and the largest in Europe - with over 112 million passengers per year. Despite revealing the worst gender pay gap in the airline industry, and on top of last year’s cancellation of the flights of nearly 700,000 passengers, Ryanair’s fortunes are seemingly flying high. But, with an increasing array of competitors vying to own the leisure traveller, we’ve analysed exactly how airlines like Ryanair need to improve their customer experience in order to stay relevant.

A dogfight to own the traveller

Over the past decade, the number of flights taken by people from the UK has risen by nearly a quarter. A staggering 160 million passengers take to the skies from Britain each year, which is more than any time in history. On the face of it, the airline industry is in rude health.

But a raft of brands now compete for a customer’s attention, spend and data. This includes traditional high street travel agents (like recently rebranded TUI), online travel agencies (such as Booking.com and Expedia), aggregator and metasearch sites (like Kayak and Skyscanner), as well as airlines and 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. Succeeding in this aim means expanding beyond their brand’s core expertise and owning more phases of the customer journey.

The ‘Amazon of travel’

Ryanair CMO Kenny Jacobs has provocatively declared his company’s intent 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 Ryanair to be genuinely recognised as the “go-to place for all travel needs” it would need to look beyond airlines and compete with Booking.com who, according to SimilarWeb, have ten times more traffic.

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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: Delta has blocked access to Tripadvisor in the US. Lufthansa places an $18 surcharge for bookings through 3rd parties 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 traditional 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 1-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 - 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’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.

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Better delivering for customers end-to-end

Instead of aspiring to become the ‘Amazon of travel’, Ryanair (and others) ought to consider where improvements to their customer experience are more easily made - and where they can turn disappointment into delight.

To that end, we’ve conducted analysis of a typical leisure traveller’s customer journey, looking for ‘expectation gaps’ - opportunities for optimisation and innovation that arise when there’s a disconnect between what a category or company offers and what customers expect.

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A framework to help spot expectation gaps in the travel industry (Source: Great State)

For example, at the booking phase, group travel is an increasingly important market segment. But when it comes to making group bookings, all of the major airlines (including Ryanair, British Airways and easyJet) disappoint, requiring the customer to email or phone up for a quote.

One company looking to exploit this expectation gap is small, but fast-growing Hungarian airline Wizz Air. Their ‘Flexible Travel Partner’ scheme allows you to purchase up to 9 unnamed tickets, then add the relevant names online up to 3 hours before departure.

W!zz Welcome To The World Of Opportunity

At the pre-airport stage, Virgin Australia have found a way to be more relevant via their innovative new remote baggage check-in service - enabling travellers to check-in bags at locations such as cruise ports, conference venues and hotels. Bags are taken to the airport, securely and conveniently, allowing customers to head straight to their departure gate.

Google taking off

The popularity of Google Flights 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.

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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.

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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.

An AI-powered future

Google hints at what the future of customer experience might look like for the leisure traveller.

Whilst competition has caused prices to fall (the average air fare has fallen by 50% over the past 30 years) 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).

Leisure travel companies 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.

Join us for a breakfast debate

We’re hosting the next in our series of lively breakfast debates on June 14. Please join us and a panel of brand leaders to discuss exactly what leisure travel companies need to do to keep hold of more traveller attention, spend and data.