Ryanair Sifts Passenger Data to Mirror Amazon’s Personal Touch

Ryanair Holdings Plc Chief Executive Officer Michael O’Leary spent all of last year befriending the discount carrier’s clients. Now he wants to get to know them really well.

After decades preaching the “cheap and nasty” approach, Ryanair is angling for a new generation of fliers. The pitch? Taking a cue from retail giant Amazon.com Inc. with one-click buying, recommendations based on past purchases and personal info miraculously auto-filled. All available via smartphone.

The airline has doubled the size of its digital-technology team in six months in a project dubbed ‘Ryanair Labs,’ and is combing through customer data in advance of the rollout of a new website in October. The surge in activity comes as O’Leary targets a 30 percent increase in passenger numbers to 120 million by 2019, seeking to out-pace rivals led by EasyJet Plc.

Ryanair Chief Commercial Officer Kenny Jacobs, speaking from the company’s new creative-friendly base in Dublin, says Europe’s No. 1 discount carrier has previously been more focused on attracting new customers than retaining existing ones.

“That approach was a bit like saying, ‘it’s a bucket with lots of leaks, just keep pouring more water in,’” Jacobs said. “We’re now saying ‘let’s shore up the leaks.’”

The digital push follows 18 months spent repositioning the brand to appeal more to families, the middle classes and business travelers by emphasizing quality and reliability and serving bigger airports, while remaining a market leader on pricing in the manner of retailers such as Aldi, the German discount grocer that’s perfected the art of no-frills shopping.

Ideas Wall

The carrier has recently embraced social media, joining Facebook Inc. Wednesday after establishing Twitter, Instagram Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. accounts and opening a YouTube channel.

Ryanair Labs has tapped developers from sources including Google Inc., which has a European base in Dublin, International Business Machines Corp. and Irish sports-betting company Paddy Power Plc. The 200-strong team is located in an office with Popsicle-colored desk dividers and a wall-length ideas board, part of the company’s new creative-friendly headquarters featuring pool tables and putting strip to aid inspiration.

Carriers from Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. to Gulf No. 1 Emirates are refining digital strategies, focusing on mobile-first websites and personalizing data, said John Thomas, head of L.E.K. Consulting’s global airline practice in Boston.

“Enhancing the passenger experience picks up customers,” Thomas said. “People don’t like to travel because they lose control, so anything airlines can do in terms of giving them choice is important in maintaining a direct relationship.”

Hit Boost

By bolstering its online presence, Ryanair aims both to enhance its brand and win repeat business without recourse to the costly loyalty programs favored by network carriers.

The carrier has already made website changes and pared the number of clicks needed to buy a ticket, boosting U.K. user numbers 10 percent year-on-year, according to Hitwise, which collates digital visits. The all-new website will be built with mobile devices in mind, reflecting a shift in how users buy flights, with features like fare comparisons and one-click purchasing for passengers who repeatedly fly the same routes.

The aim is to customize the sales process and make it as relevant to the individual user as possible, said Dara Brady, who heads up digital experience at Ryanair Labs. Passenger preferences and credit card and passport details saved on MyRyanair will allow for further customization and streamlining.

Car Rental

Personal information could even be the difference in winning customers in particularly competitive markets, like the area north of London between Ryanair’s biggest terminal at Stansted airport and EasyJet’s home-base at Luton.

Ryanair will also seek to leverage personal data to boost ancillary revenue spanning booked seats to rental cars, and cold-target clients with deals likely to appeal to them.

Retailers have until now put airlines to shame in making personalized online shopping commonplace, with companies such as Amazon tracking habits and making customized offers designed to solicit further spending. Even newspapers provide a link to help readers buy the dress a pictured celebrity is wearing.

Ryanair is already using supermarket-style methods to distinguish between social categories, helping the company to offer more-targeted promotions to business travelers, empty-nesters, domestic commuters or young city-breakers. And it promises to stop short of bombarding passengers with deals.

“The website shouldn’t keep trying to sell you the same thing,” Brady said. “It should be the right offer at the right time.”

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