CAN RYANAIR KEEP FLYING HIGH?

As the no-frills flights market matures, must Ryanair move on from its price focus to sustain its enviable profits?

This week Ryanair announced a huge leap in annual profits despite one of the toughest years in passenger aviation history.

While its competitors' year-end figures have been hit hard by the effect of the Iraq war - during May, British Airways' profits only just crept into the black and easyJet plunged £24m into the red - Ryanair's bottom line has continued its smooth ascent.

Ryanair remains Europe's most profitable airline by some way. But what makes the Irish carrier stand out is its unique approach to marketing.

Even David Magliano, director of strategic marketing at rival easyJet, is quick to praise Ryanair for shattering many precepts of marketing theory.

"Ryanair has demonstrated there are many, many people who are not prepared to pay for better service - let alone a brand - a fact that should strike fear into the heart of every client marketer," he says.

Indeed, despite an annual turnover of more than £400m - equivalent to the UK sales of Walkers or Coca-Cola - Ryanair has few controls on corporate colour or font. It also shuns advertising agencies for a fast turnaround in-house team producing down and dirty tactical ads.

Famously, Ryanair ran an ad accusing British Airways of being 'Expensive ba****ds', which was rapped by the Advertising Standards Authority. And more recently it has run a string of controversial executions featuring Saddam Hussein and Iraq's propaganda minister.

Former sales and marketing director Tim Jeans, now managing director of MyTravel Lite, explains that Ryanair's advertising is deliberately designed to look "cheap and unpretentious". It forms part of a mission to cut through air travel's previous 'jet set' image that can leave consumers disappointed when they confront the reality.

"Ryanair has been supremely successful in stripping air travel of its aspirational status, which so often promises much and delivers little. Ryanair promises nothing and thus manages to exceed the expectations of most of its passengers," says Jeans.

Eschewing the ever-popular positioning of airline tickets as a passport to paradise, Ryanair instead treats them as just another commodity. Most consumers buy on price and price alone, it argues.

So while BA aspires to be 'The world's favourite airline' and Virgin Atlantic advertises the pampering of its 'upper-class' cabins, Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary will talk only of price, turning his back on disgruntled customers.

When asked by a journalist last year about Ryanair's performance in handling customer complaints, O'Leary responded: "Generally speaking, we won't take any phone calls, because they keep you on the bloody phone all day."

But as the airline approaches its 18th birthday, and potentially a new level of maturity, can it be expected to mellow out a little?

Even for Ryanair, whose history has been a roller coaster, a tremendous amount has changed over the past 12 months. At the beginning of this year it saw Go - its main rival brand at Stansted - disappear, subsumed into the more downmarket easyJet at Luton.

Then Ryanair bought up its next biggest rival, KLM's similarly up-market Buzz, for £12.9m. This gave Ryanair control of 50% of the take-off and landing slots at the burgeoning Stansted airport.

Meanwhile, Heathrow-based BA began its most serious retaliation against Ryanair with a combined 'quality and low fares' blitz. A flurry of new regional low-cost carriers, including Birmingham's MyTravelLite and East Midland's bmi baby have come into the picture. And a new venture capital-backed operation, called Now, announced it was setting up in Luton, offering all seats on a plane at a fixed price.

Waning enthusiasm

Another motive for Ryanair to reassess is evidence that the novelty of 'no-frills' travel might be starting to wear off among British consumers.

The airline, surprisingly, managed to sell only 520,000 seats of the 'one million flight giveaway' it ran over the Easter weekend.

Last summer, the media hit out at the low-cost carriers for the first time in earnest. They were criticised over punctuality, the inconvenience of some secondary airports and levels of back-up when things go wrong. Ryanair, in particular, took a slating.

And the airline has faced further criticism this year. After taking over Buzz, Ryanair did away with 14 of the smaller carrier's 24 routes from Stansted. Other passengers booked on Buzz flights were forced to rebook at a higher price on Ryanair.

The company laid off 470 of Buzz's 600-strong staff, but said it was actually saving 130 jobs, as Buzz was on the verge of bankruptcy before it stepped in.

Significantly, last autumn Ryanair named its first customer services director - Caroline Green, who previously ran Ryanair Direct. It also bolstered the customer care team, which until a year ago consisted of just four staff ,despite the airline carrying more than ten million passengers a year.

The airline has started publishing its punctuality figures and promoting a new service charter that promises modern aircraft, better airports and friendly in-flight service. So will we see a softer, more cuddly, customer-centric Ryanair in future?

"I'm not getting that impression at all," says one respected airline analyst. "I'm seeing exactly the same approach backed by ever-more outrageous claims from O'Leary."

Indeed, the only real shift in O'Leary's tactics appears to be diverting his vitriol away from the more established carriers toward a new target, easyJet.

"Attacking BA is like kicking a dead sheep at this stage," O'Leary said recently. "The low-cost airlines have comprehensively won the argument against traditional airlines. It's time to reposition ourselves."

The immediate result was a highly critical ad campaign at the height of the Iraq war, which claimed to reveal 'lies' about easyJet fares. One ad depicted the former Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf issuing the lines: 'We are beating the Americans' and 'EasyJet have the lowest fares'.

Later, O'Leary worked up one of the airline's most bizarre publicity stunts. On May 13, shortly after the terrorist bomb attack in Saudi Arabia, he tried to conduct a mock military operation at Luton Airport, aimed at easyJet. It involved a Ryanair-branded WWII tank and airline staff in combat fatigues singing songs about easyJet. They were banned from entering the airport.

"There have been no major shifts in our marketing strategy," confirms Sinead Finn, Ryanair's European head of sales and marketing. "It's about low fares and getting noticed.

"My focus is on marketing new routes, particularly from our new hubs in continental Europe, such as Milan-Bergamo and Stockholm Skavsta," she adds. "The main thrust is public relations. It is the most cost-effective form of marketing."

Less than half of Ryanair's passengers are from the UK, but the marketing model applied remains the same, regardless of the location.

Ryanair's entire advertising strategy is based on getting the maximum bang for each buck, which is why it uses such hard-hitting campaigns.

The ideas for these apparently come from any member of Ryanair's staff.

"I don't see any value in paying for outside agencies when we have 1800 employees with an average age of only 28. At the moment I have a bank of 250 different advertising ideas," says Finn.

But as the brand gets bigger, is she concerned about a lack of consistency in style and image?

"No. Our brand image is created out of our low-fares approach. We lead the industry in this. We actually have great control over our advertising because the in-house department has such close relationships with all the main European newspapers."

Finn insists that criticism about overstepping the mark into insensitivity holds no fear either. "All publicity is good publicity," she argues.

Chris Avery, airline analyst at JP Morgan, says: "It's all geared toward getting the Ryanair name at the forefront of consumers' minds and making sure Ryanair.com is the first site people visit when they are thinking of flying to Europe. Everything the airline does is designed to attract media discussion, from the ads to the mass of press releases it puts out."

Avery believes Ryanair is in no danger of alienating consumers. "If it hadn't been for September 11, the low-cost airline market would be growing even quicker. The European consumer is committed to low-cost air travel for the long term. Ryanair and easyJet are still exploring niches with rock-bottom prices."

So why is Ryanair now attacking fellow revolutionary easyJet? Finn says it is emerging that there are only really two low-cost airlines in Europe and that Ryanair is the purist.

"The difference between ourselves and easyJet is that it flies to primary airports, which slows aircraft turnaround and adds costs. The result is that its average fare is 69% higher than ours," she says.

But easyJet's Magliano thinks Ryanair simply needs a new arch enemy.

And who better than easyJet, Europe's biggest low-cost airline since it took over Go last year? "Picking on another airline is a great motivational tactic for staff. Maybe it feels that slating BA is no longer popular with the public," he says.

While Magliano says he admires Ryanair for its clear business model, ruthless cost-cutting and disciplined approach to marketing, he argues that it is not always an innovator.

"Ryanair was very late using the internet as a distribution tool and quite late in realising how to use publicity to promote its cause. Richard Branson was the innovator here, followed by Stelios, easyJet's founder."

Spreading the word

While easyJet has decided to take a step back and is in the middle of a fundamental 'brand review' to see how it can relate to the new age of European air travel, Ryanair will continue applying its idiosyncratic marketing approach to an ever-growing geographic footprint.

The carrier has launched 41 routes since the start of the year - a record rate of openings. Finn says she spends most of her 12-hour days on planes or abroad, spreading the Ryanair word and fighting the vested interests.

She adds that the airline is in discussion with 50 European airports about starting routes or expanding existing services, and with a further ten about setting up bases. "Our low-cost formula doesn't limit us. We continue to change mindsets and the face of travel," says Finn.

She is referring to Ryanair's pioneering spirit, which opens up new routes - its Stansted-Newquay service is flourishing. It competes with trains and ferries as well as other airlines - an example being its route from Stansted to Dinard in Brittany.

It will not be an easy year. In March, O'Leary forecast that average fares would fall by about 5% in the financial year starting April 2003, creating even more pressure to cut costs.

And yet analysts are already talking about Ryanair achieving net profits of between 285m euros (£205m) and 305m euros (£219m) for the financial year to March 2004.

Many see the dozens of European airlines whittling down to just five within a decade: BA, Air France, Lufthansa, Ryanair and easyJet.

The Ryanair brand, with its maverick approach, sits strangely among such big names. But taking into account this airline's history, attitude and current performance, it's the other four that start to look vulnerable.

RYANAIR FINANCIALS

2002 2001 2000

(pounds m) (pounds m) (pounds m)

Turnover 381.2 301.6 222.3

Pre-tax profit 105.3 76.3 54.2

Source: Hoover's Online

TIMELINE - RYANAIR

1985: Ryanair launches with a 15-seat turbo prop plane flying from Waterford in South-East Ireland to London Gatwick.

1986: The airline begins flying from Dublin Airport. Cut-price scheduled services compete directly with Aer Lingus and BA. It carries 82,000 passengers.

1991: A loss-making Ryanair brings in new management and relaunches as a 'no-frills' airline, modelled on Southwest Airlines in the US.

1995: Ryanair is the biggest passenger carrier on the Dublin-London route, carrying 2.25 million passengers a year. Rival no-frills airline easyJet launches.

1997: European Union fully deregulates the air business and Ryanair launches services to Paris, Brussels, Stockholm and Oslo. The airline floats on the Dublin and Nasdaq stock exchanges.

1998: Puts in a $2bn (£1.2bn) order for 45 Boeing 737-800 series aircraft, phasing out the One-Eleven fleet.

2000: Launches Ryanair.com. Within three months the site takes more than 50,000 bookings a week.

2001: Begins operations at first continental European base - Brussels Charleroi. Unlike long-haul carriers, which are devastated by the events of September 11, low-cost airlines flourish.

2002: Announces partnership with Boeing involving the acquisition of up to 150 737-800s until 2010. Opens 21 routes.

2003: Ryanair buys KLM's struggling low-cost airline Buzz. Many of Buzz's regional routes are to be axed. Ryanair will carry about 24 million passengers this year.

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