Apologies to those of you about to fly out on holidays by budget airline. I hope this doesn’t put you off. But then again, you deserve everything you get, don’t you? No one can surely claim to be surprised by the customer experience they are about to receive. This is Ryanair, a member of the cheery ground crew at MP2* airport, where we had just queued for hours to get our luggage checked in through the heaving mass of desperate bodies clawing for attention like the would-be passengers on the last helicopter out of Saigon in ’72, a process that caused my normally passive and polite wife to pass colourful comment in her native French tongue, This is Ryanair, came the response, You don’t like it? You p*ss off. At which point I knew there was a revolution in process in the realm of customer services – Anti-Service, a culture of contempt for customer, actively working to lower expectations, where businesses revelled in their lack of pretence, daring you not to choose them, to surrender to their terms if you did, cutting prices, and all unnecessary frills, to the bone so as to make every ticket purchased some kind of Faustian pact, and every trip a white-knuckle trial by fire that you would have to psyche yourself up for days beforehand. Or maybe that was just me.
But for all their Jack Sparrow bravado, sorry Captain Jack Sparrow bravado, even Ryanair can’t resist playing the game. That’s because the whole anti-service thing falls down when it comes to additional discretionary spend beyond your bucket seat cost. Let’s consider delicious snacks.
I happened to be flying, despite myself and all previous experience, Ryanair this very week, on return from the Wallace family summer vacation. If anyone can find a better way to come back from Morocco midweek please enlighten me, I’m up for it. But anyway, I’d psyched myself up, installed all family in their priority, speedy boarding seats (bet you thought I was a cheapskate, but we were lording it in row 6, no expense spared) and we were airborne. Ten minutes in comes the announcement. In a moment, we will begin taking orders for our range of delicious snacks. And I realised they are hypocrites. Delicious? A bit gratuitous non? Why not just snacks. I looked around me, was anyone who was previously only vaguely hungry now fully transformed into a state of ravenous hunger by the word delicious? And this is Ryanair, these words are given live, read from the script by Svetlana/Consuela/Doreen with their own personal interpretation that only adds to the dissonance. Take my word for it as a veteran of these flights, Delicious is never ever intoned as Delicious, there’s always an intonation. Let me if you’ve heard any of these:
Delicious as in: ‘is this how you pronounce this word?’
Delicious implying: ‘That’s what it says here so I’m going to have to read it, Geneva convention I think’
Delicious channelling a Die Hard Bruce Willis: ‘I know it’s not delicious, think this is easy for me? Think I enjoy it, that I’d be doing this if they weren’t holding my wife hostage off-screen?’
Delicious channelling the late great Alan Rickman in the same film: ‘Delicious and I mean it in a deeply disturbing twisted and deviant way that you dare not think of..’
Delicious from a snarling ‘Git ahht my pub!’ Eastenders Barbara Windsor.
All live interpretations, I’d love to hear of other variants. EasyJet sadly don’t do live, they’ve got some pre-recorded dude, presumably high on aviation fuel fumes when he did his session in the studio with Clem Fandango, because he is scarily - maybe Jack Nicolson in The Shining, or come to think of it, just about any role - and way-out-of-proportion enthused about their offering – ‘Our Inflight Bistro Service’ – selling this as a pending Michelin-starred gourmet smorgasbord prepared by a squad of artisan chefs working through the night rather than a battered and rusty cabin trolley of soggy cardboard re-heats heading down the aisle.
Back to Ryanair, about to offer a range of duty free fragrances featuring some exciting scents.
‘What’s an exciting scent?’ I asked my eleven-year-old. Is that the same as the smell of fear coming off row 5 at take off?’
And we pondered what it would be to catch a whiff of something in the nostrils and think ‘That’s exciting.’ both agreeing it was unlikely to be Eau de Sky Hi, even at 30% off alleged high street price. It’s a question for any philosopher of our age. Meanwhile, the flight was delayed and I had a bet with my eleven-year-old that they would replace the cheesy fanfare tape they play when they land on time with some kind of blast of mournful blues, ‘We gonna be late, everyone gotta wait’ etc. I lost. Still, Ryainair do have a sense of humour. The pilot and co-pilot must high-five each other with cracked grins each time one of them gets to say ‘Sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight’ knowing full well the conditions outside the sanctity of the cabin.
But airlines do lead the way in the rapidly developing world of tailored customer experience, categorising, then ruthlessly projecting according to the differing strata of customer, again in search of discretionary spend. Take B.A. Anyone remember when they used to board plane by seat numbers? Showing my age. But how would you receive it if I prioritised who could read the next bits of this post first. Obviously if I did, I would invite the high-achieving, alpha male/female thought-leaders in Platinum Class to read first. Come on, swagger forward. Then I’d bring in those aspiring to be such but now reading in Gold and Silver Class next. Your day might come guys but at least you can hurry importantly past the others as you read now. And next any slow readers, infirm of sight and mind in the undistinguished mob can come forward, in front of the undistinguished mob itself, too average to upgrade to Silver, yet alone Gold, come on show some ambition. And finally, stowaway’s; sorry, any highly developed primates – high functioning chimps/orang utans – if you could wait for the stowaways to slip through unnoticed before you start to read.
Last time I flew B.A. there were about nineteen categories of passenger. The forward call was like an award ceremony and took longer than the flight itself. And I could swear the Gold’s and Silvers had their passes scanned more lovingly than the rest of us. Or maybe that was just me. Ryanair only have two classes of passenger; Desperado, and Desperado Quicker On. They get them to line up against each other, like a Viking shieldwall of hand luggage, like its all about to kick off in front of the Excalibur Stone that is the size checking box. It’s a pity B.A. don’t get their categories to line up similarly, just for the spectacle.
Next time you take a flight, I dare you to take a look at your fellow travellers. A mixed bunch. There will be a chaotic mix of lifestyles ages, hairstyles and fit-for-travel outfits on display. If you want to see the full variety of human life just study your planeload; business folk to stag do’s, couples to teen football teams. And yet, in the scheme of things, remarkably tolerant and well behaved during what is a stressful, cramped experience over which they have no control. All of them arrive at the gate with goodwill, just wanting to get on with it. Yet highly, rightly, sensitive to being taken for passive fools. Why do Ryanair describe their snacks as delicious? Because they are not like the rest of the service. If they were perceived as being the same bucket priced commodity junk as they rejoice as the tickets, no-one would buy.
Anti-service and uber-classification/categorisation of service must have their uses; airlines wouldn’t pursue them if there wasn’t profit as an outcome. The challenge for me is all about goodwill. If you run a perfect service then there is nothing to ever worry about. Yet if things happen – delays, a computer system crash, the onboard bistro service gets left behind in Luton by mistake – any service provider is at the mercy of its customers’ patience and goodwill, which traditionally would have been built up diligently through consistent excellence. My personal belief is that it’s all been disastrously eroded, by default or design. Through delicious snacks, exciting scents, Plutonium Class travellers, and congratulating yourself for arriving on schedule. All about projection with not a moment’s thought as to how it’s received. Which is why air rage is err, all the rage, and instantly combustible. Or maybe that’s just me.
*MP2 Airport is an unventilated warehouse baking in the sun next to the real airport at Marseille Provence masquerading as a Terminal. Don’t be taken in by it.Back