It was a long time coming, really. On a cold winter’s morning, Ryanair announced it had hatched a new plan. Ryanair Holidays. Package holidays on a budget launched due to “incredible demand”.
That was in 2016. Just two months later, Ryanair Holidays was effectively shoved into one of those baggy bin bags proffered by cabin crew towards the end of a flight. The Irish airline accused its holiday software provider of “screen-scraping”, canned the entire project and hasn’t tied a blue-and-yellow ribbon around a package holiday since.
Actually, it has doubled down in the opposite direction. Not only does Ryanair not sell holidays, but Michael O’Leary has waged war with the Online Travel Agents (OTAs) which do, brandishing them as “pirates” and “scammers” for their mark-ups, cancellation fees and baggage charges, which (before you call pot/kettle) can indeed be far more than Ryanair’s own fees.
Central to Ryanair’s campaign against OTAs is that they do not always pass over accurate customer information, making it hard to issue refunds or flight updates. So last summer the airline introduced an ID verification system for anyone who booked an OTA package holiday featuring a Ryanair flight. A way to ensure contact details are correct, says Ryanair. “Invasive”, and a complex hurdle to encourage customers to book directly with Ryanair, say the OTAs.
The hullabaloo came to a head earlier this month, when leading agents including Booking.com, Kiwi and Kayak unexpectedly pulled Ryanair flights from their websites, a move which would reduce short-term passenger numbers by 2 per cent, according to the airline. But even a small drop like this can mean a downturn in profits.
With that unplanned shortfall in mind, it didn’t come as a great surprise when Ryanair this week announced a brand new collaboration with the biggest OTA of them all: Loveholidays, which Ryanair’s Dara Brady says are “legitimate” and “invested in the customer” (read, not pirates). Is it not just a knee-jerk reaction to that 2 per cent drop in bookings? It is “certainly not in response to that”, says Brady.
Whether you believe that or not, it’s certainly a historic moment, as this is the first time that Ryanair has agreed to a formal partnership with an online travel agent. What’s in it for each party? Ryanair gets customer details, assurances of zero mark-ups, and bookings galore. Loveholidays can now offer its customers the full Ryanair inventory, the luxury of dodging the verification process, and a guarantee of the best possible prices.
A truce, of sorts. But what underlies this decision is a cold truth for Ryanair: for the business to continue to thrive (it wants to carry 300 million passengers per annum by 2034, up from 168 million in 2023) it will need package holidaymakers’ bums on its seats. But these are going to have to come from a third party because unlike easyJet’s and Jet2’s holiday strands, the notion of a Ryanair Holiday would never take off.
They could try again, sure. And it wouldn’t be too surprising; package holidays are booming as customers seek certainty with their holidays. Jet2holidays has laid on an extra 850,000 seats for 2024. Tui has upped its capacity by half a million, and easyJet holidays (which launched in 2019) has almost doubled its offering to 2.2 million seats.
But what they offer, along with the best Atol-protected online agents, is a friendly voice on the other end of the phone, and reassurance of refunds and support if things don’t go to plan.
Ryanair, on the other hand, has built its brand around its no-nonsense approach to customer service. Last year, the airline charged an elderly couple £110 to print their outbound boarding passes when they accidentally brought their return passes to the airport. Ryanair was unapologetic. The passengers (Mr and Mrs Jaffe, aged 80 and 79) were “correctly charged” because they “failed to check in online”, it said.
The British public is willing to lower its standards for an hour or two if it means a cheap flight. But will we cut corners for the holiday itself? Its service remains bare-bones, and add-ons remain central to the business model: the boarding card reissue fee is £20, the flight change fee is £45, and the name change fee is £115.
What would a Ryanair Holiday possibly look like? Surge pricing for hotel sunbeds? Hourly towel fees? Scratch cards on request?
For now, with Booking.com and co baring their teeth, Ryanair has little option but to dip its toe into the world of package holidays with this latest partnership. Because yes, the British public likes cheap flights. But what we really love is going on holiday.