Ryanair Chief Pledges Gentler Touch as ‘Macho’ Culture Backfires

Ryanair Holdings Plc head Michael O’Leary said Europe’s biggest discount carrier must boost service standards to help lure travelers put off by the Irish company’s notoriously abrasive approach to its own clientele.

“I’m conscious that we need to eliminate a lot of minor things that irritate,” O’Leary told investors at their annual meeting in Dublin today. “We do need to soften the image when things go wrong. We need to be quicker and more responsive.”

O’Leary said he’ll tone down a purist stance on low-cost flying that, while attracting 9 million passengers a month, has made Ryanair a no-go zone for some potential customers, with the carrier the lowest scoring brand out of 100 in a customer survey by consumer magazine Which? published this month.

The 52-year-old chief executive officer, who has cultivated a take-no-prisoners outspokenness, said he may need to moderate his own comments to help win over more middle-class flyers in Britain and Germany who view his company as too down-market.

“I’m happy to take the blame if we have an overly macho culture,” he said. “There is a large slug of potential customers who we need to attract to try Ryanair.”

O’Leary, who said he’s still the right person to run Ryanair, said a more considerate approach could help avoid the kind of negative publicity attracted this week in U.K. media after the airline charged a man 188 euros ($254) to switch flights after his wife and children burned to death in a U.K. house fire. O’Leary said his company regrets the decision and wants to “respond sensitively.”

EasyJet Challenge

The CEO made the comments after announcing an overhaul of its website that’s also aimed at becoming more customer-friendly and closing the gap to what he says is a superior booking process at EasyJet Plc.

The carrier will also introduce a Twitter page and drop a charge for its mobile phone app, while a redesign of the website’s booking system due to go live in December aims to make it easier to navigate and quicker to locate price quotes.

As part of the same strategy, Ryanair will introduce a passenger registration service next summer that will cut the time taken for bookings, and the carrier said it plans to divert more of its marketing budget away from “old media” and into mobile and social media platforms.

O’Leary says he’s also prepared to sell tickets via agents rather than solely through Ryanair’s own mechanisms, targeting another area where EasyJet has made the running by linking with corporate buyers to add business fliers.

The CEO, who said the rehash of the carrier’s digital marketing strategy will be the “primary focus” this winter, is under pressure to review prices and operations after saying Sept. 4 that annual profit may miss targets.

O’Leary may also need to consider how the image is affecting shareholder value, Dublin-based investor Owen O’Reilly said in an interview after the AGM.

“He’s a fantastic CEO,” O’Reilly said, “But why does EasyJet portray itself as ‘not Ryanair?’ I have seen people crying at check-in.”