Ryanair’s story is one of rapid evolution. Chief Technology Officer John Hurley explains how caring for the customer, technology and connectivity are now at the helm of further evolution and change.

John HurleyQ. Why the strategy change for the ‘new’ Ryanair?

Ryanair has seen a phenomenal rise in Europe thanks to great coverage, low prices, a strong on-time departures record, the fewest cancellations and much more, as our corporate results show.

We’re now 30 years old. In fact, when Boris Becker won his first Wimbledon Tennis Championship, we were making our first flight from Waterford to Luton Airport.

It was going very well. Our simple strategy focused on excellence in coverage, choice and price – and it was paying off. In theory, we thought all smart Europeans would keep using us, and we would grow forever. While we grew, we needed to get better.  

We undertook a serious rethink and developed another very simple strategy. We’re a useful airline, we thought, but now we have to be more likable as well.

To cite English folklore, and perhaps being a bit flippant, we needed to be less like the Sheriff of Nottingham and more like Robin Hood. With that, we launched our ‘Always Getting Better Programme’, with a focus on listening to customers and being nicer to them.

Q. Is it working?

Yes, it’s working very well. The Ryanair of a couple of years ago brashly presented our CEO Michael O’Leary sitting astride a model of a Ryanair-branded Boeing 737-800 aircraft. That’s given way to a preference for showing a picture of him cuddling a puppy dog.

In the online sphere, our website – which had become known as an obstacle – was greatly improved with a brand new one introduced in late 2015, which has been a mammoth and very serious effort to focus better on the customer experience. On top of that we’ve rolled out a new app.

Our new approach has been working like a dream. We’re as good as fully hedged on oil prices, so all of our profitability and improvements have all come from being nice to customers. It was the only thing we changed. As Reuters pointed out our strategy of being nicer to customers has had a bigger impact on performance than the lower oil prices which benefited some other airlines in the short term.

So the future for Ryanair is a great customer experience, at the right price, with the right choice – and all of it underpinned by technology.

Q. What’s IT’s role?

IT is essential to our strategy of providing a great customer experience. To demonstrate how seriously Ryanair takes technology, as part of the travel experience, we set up Ryanair Labs in November 2014 to create a digital travel team representing a state-of-the-art digital and IT innovation hub. The new post of Chief Technology Officer was introduced too.

The vision was to rip up the playbook, putting the customer at the center, and using data to drive a better experience for customers across the travel sector. Essentially, we're an established airline. We have a user base that’s fond of us, so this is a unique opportunity to try some different things and move forward from there.

We have a new customer charter and 50% of its items are pure technology plays; I'd argue that actually probably 90% of the effort is technology-related.

So technology enables our focus on putting customers at the center of everything, not the airline, nor the airport. It has to be the customer and the customer experience – whether it’s at home in bed booking or at the airport traveling, the customer comes first.

Q. What trends do you see?

Everything that's paper is dead. It's all in the mobile device: your pagers are going; so too are cameras and video cameras. They’re all dying technologies. In the future I see, your passport will go digital. Eventually, driving licenses will go away. Wallets are already going; boarding passes have gone digital. The future is digital.

The future is your mobile phone; it's an immensely powerful computer in your pocket. There's a lot of talk about wearables but your mobile is your hub, your data. What customers need is the right information, at the right time and the right location – meaning information is location-sensitive.

You don't want to be walking through an airport getting pinged about various promotions if you’re close to the gate and hurrying to get there. We need to be conscious and aware of what is happening to customers.

I like to think differently about things. This is not a strategy, but some ideas we’re playing with are to look at outside travel for a second at LinkedIn, Facebook, Foursquare and so on. They're all breaking their apps up, whereas many airports and airlines are guilty of piling on more and more features.

In doing that, your app gets very bloated, chunky, heavy and slow – and potentially buggy. You become all things to all people. But it's actually a very poor user experience. You want one-click to get somewhere; like the Amazon model. The more features you've got into an app, the more complicated it becomes.

Q. How might you solve that?

Maybe you could have five apps? I'm not saying we're going to…we're not. But to get people thinking differently, let’s just consider it. You could, for example, focus on Discovery, Day of travel, Destination, Return and Post trip.

With Discovery, for example, you’re looking for somewhere sunny and you don’t want to be logging on and looking for boarding passes. You want a ‘tinder-like experience’ which presents you with images of, say, Portugal, Spain, Germany or Austria which you simply flip through and press to choose; it knows who you are, you’re then in the app and integrated with your Apple Pay and you click to book.

On your ‘Day of travel’, it's a different experience. You might wake up to find there’s a delay on the way to the airport, or you could be facing unexpected queues at security. Micro moments like these cause panic, and your app needs to guide you. 

The future has to be removing stress from people's travel experience. And it must address all the things that are part of the travel process, like having insurance, extra bags and so forth. It must all be simple, allowing you to press a button and go from there.

Q. And at the airport?

Then it's a different kind of experience. Suddenly it's almost as if the app should hand over to the new owners of the person to address what’s now needed, such as fast-track, special offers, and gate information.

At this stage, electronic points of sale must be integrated and information must be coordinated. If a person's bought a coffee, why offer coffee again? All of these elements must be addressed, meaning we must get smarter, we have to share data, we have to become more integrated.

Then there’s in-flight entertainment to consider, as well as Wi-Fi, which is just too expensive at the moment and must become ubiquitous. Once that happens, it'll tie everything together properly once and for all. And, of course, dealing with extra flight bags must be simpler and done digitally, going the same way as everything else – on the mobile.

And when I say mobile, that could be a range of devices, phones or tablets. Except the biggest problem with mobile is battery life. If your mobile battery runs out during your travel and you’ve been using it through the journey, that’s a huge issue.

Q. What about the final stages?

For the Destination, Return and Post trip your app must help with things like transfers, gifts, train tickets and car travel; and as customers move from being at the airport, we need to think of things like ‘What are the special offers? Or is there a particular event happening?’ for example.

And then for the return journey you have different worries. You know how to get home but your biggest concern might be ‘do I have milk in the fridge?’ or ‘do I need to prepare a school lunch?’ You have a different mindset, you're a bit more anxious. The app should give you offerings, information and ancillaries to address that experience.

Our own app has buttons for check-in, boarding pass, flight info, hotels and cars – with a sixth called ‘Manage trips’, and this is where we see our activity with airports, hotels and others, which demands that they have data from everybody.

Q. So it needs a concerted effort?

Yes, we have to work together as a community to make the travel experience better. That means sharing data to better serve customers and to take the pain out of the journey so that people travel with us again.

That includes interconnections. Ryanair don't do connections, but our savvy customers do. We'll fly them from a destination to an airport in order to connect. They want to know about their ongoing flights, so we can't just be looking at what's in it for us. We have to look at the passenger and the customer from the customer’s point of view.

So as an industry we need to think about the whole experience, not all the great features in our apps that we can bombard people with. Think about simple information at the right time, to improve the person’s experience.

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