Why Spirit Airlines’ and Ryan Air’s Customer Experience is Better than Yours

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I’m partway through a European holiday with my wife, celebrating 25 years of marriage. Okay, actually 26, but that’s a different story.

When a friend heard we were flying Ryan Air, she told me, “Uh oh. Pay attention to the experience you receive.” Interested, I did pay attention. And I realized that Ryan Air probably has one of the better CX programs out there.

Before you get ready with that hate email, first let me explain!

We all love to hate Ryan Air and their U.S. equivalent Spirit, low-cost airlines that go all out to remove any frills. Frequent travelers, such as myself, have a reason to hate them. We’re used to our luxuries, and since we’re often not paying for the tickets ourselves, we want to fly with an airline that includes those benefits we’re used to, such as upgrades to nicer seats and occasional free glasses of beer or wine. Contrast that to these airlines, who will charge you for everything from carry-on luggage to hot coffee (at least on Ryan Air), and don’t even offer wi-fi at any fee.



So, why do I compliment their CX department?

Let me be clear that it’s not because we recommend that our clients remove any services without being explicitly paid for it! It’s not the specific model I endorse – it’s the single-minded focus on delivering an experience target to their specific customers’ needs.

I’m not their target customer. While Spirit will certainly serve Joe Business Traveler, they’re focused on Jane Family Traveler. (Note: I have not spoken with anybody from Spirit or Ryan Air while writing this, so am making some assumptions.) They’ll provide service for Joe, of course; but their primary customer Jane isn’t focused on the upgrade and a free beer. She’s more interested in finding an affordable way to take her family on vacation. She sees the flight as a method of transportation – nothing else. Jane probably isn’t deciding between Spirit and United – her alternative is more likely to be driving to vacation, or skipping it altogether.

This likely led the company to question all the assumptions inherent to air travel. It’s easy to complain about how Spirit charges for carry-on baggage, but those bags add to loading times, which limits how quickly they can turn around flights, which limits how many flights they can do a day with their equipment. In order to provide what their customers most want (inexpensive flights with a minimum of convenience), they’ll reward those who can skip the carry-on. They’ll even give a bit of a discount to those who will check their bags, since this will speed loading.

Do you need wi-fi? Jane probably doesn’t, and adding wi-fi to the flight increases the complexity, which means higher cost. Joe needs it, but Jane’s satisfied without it, so these airlines don’t invest in that capability. The experience is stripped down, not because of a poor customer experience program, but because it’s ruthlessly focused on giving their target customers what they want.

It reminds me of an interview I heard with a CX leader at Southwest Airlines. Their focus on low cost means that they can’t offer assigned seats or food on their flights. What are the top requests in surveys?

Assigned seats and food! But their tight focus on customer needs keeps them focused on this, as opposed to customers’ wants. Their focus has led to some non-negotiables in their experience.



These non-negotiables don’t come from thin air, but instead from a solid understanding of their target customers’ true needs. Adding food or assigned seats will cause delays in loading passengers, which will add costs. So they don’t do it.

We all love to hate on Spirit Airlines and all of their fees, but their entire experience is designed from the ground up on clear insights into their customers.

Can you say the same about your customer experience?

10 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the great post Jim! I think every company can learn something from “no frills” companies when it comes to creating and delivering a great experience. They take the time to be crystal clear about what you will be getting and what you won’t. They don’t use fluffy language and they don’t dance around things. You go in eyes wide open. One of my favourite examples is Public Mobile- a lower cost wireless company – they had billboards that said “Less for less”. I wish more companies took the time to do this – be clear and clearly communicate the experience they provide – and you don’t have to be “low cost” to do this. Setting expectations is critical. There would be more happy customers and employees if more companies took the time to do this well.

  2. I’ve never flown on RyanAir or Spirit, but I have flown many times on now-defunct PEOPLExpress. Back in the day, I flew Newark to Brussels, Belgium for $99. Nothing in the way of amenities, but their brand promise was fulfilled. I got a dirt cheap flight to Europe, and was delivered safely to my destination – on time! Compared with the pricier alternatives I had, I felt like I had robbed a bank.

    I think the confusion with customer experience is that many equate more customer frills and perks with better experiences. Through this lens, when each company executes without any glitches, Nordstrom’s CX always outperforms Walmart’s, Qatar crushes RyanAir. But this is not the case. CX is optimized when a company fully delivers its promise. I might like the ambience at Nordstrom, but when they screw up even slightly, my overall experience won’t be as good as it is at Walmart, assuming I got a rock-bottom price there, and had friendly interactions with their staff. That’s what I expect

    Ryanair’s customer commitment is contained in a single statement in their Code of Business Conduct and Ethics., and it’s among the shortest I’ve read. It’s also the most straightforward:

    For our customers, Ryanair is committed to fulfilling their needs in an honest and fair manner. The Company is committed to generating sales through price, quality and the ability to fulfill commitments. (please see https://investor.ryanair.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Ryanair-Code-of-Ethics-2018.pdf)

    By adhering to that ideal from marketing to operations, Ryanair apparently delivers an excellent customer experience. Had Marketing promised white linen tablecloths in coach, but only delivered sporadically, I trust customers would come away with a different feeling.

  3. It’s funny. I have never understood the need for food on a plane when the flight is an hour or 2. The food is generally rubbish so why would anyone want it. Why travelers can’t go without coffee, beer, wine & bad food on a short business or recreational trip has always baffled me. Safety and punctuality are what I look for but clearly I’m different.

  4. This is a unique take on the issue of experience, particularly in linking it to a maniacal focus on the primary need of your target segment. From that perspective it’s sound. Unfortunately not every type of airline (or business) has the luxury of servicing one primary need (low cost) for a niche segment. This is where complexity and cost comes into play, followed by confusion and conflation 🙂

  5. I like this article. Actually, it really tells us how the airlines to segment customers that they have to focus. Just like an old motherhood quality example of the Quality segmentation. If you buy a Honda car and you won’t expect it as Benz kind of condition. Another point that raised up from this article is about how well you know about your majority customers expectations. For sure we can’t satisfy 100% of all customers want but what is their common need: on-time boarding and arriving or good hygiene environment for the budget airline.

  6. Well done. It comes back to knowing your customer intimately and building the brand experience around what matters most to the target market. I never fuss about no food on the bus or train, unless I happen to be on the Orient Express! Great service, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And, if stripped down, no frills, only the basics for a low price rings the chime of the customer, give them what they value. I like companies that let me waive the right of returning a product for a refund if that waiver lowers the price a few percentage points. I never take them up on it, but I enjoy knowing I could if I chose to. Ryan and Spirit may be the subject of “delight your customer” jokes but their bottomline likely makes their stakeholders laugh all the way to the bank.

  7. If the Ryanair experience is so great, why was it voted the worst airline for the sixth year running?
    https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/ryanair-worst-airline-best-which-survey-2019-airlines-aurigny-jet2-a8712021.html

    Not all budget airlines had such low ratings:
    “Not all budget airlines were named and shamed – Jet2 scored highly, coming in third place for short-haul operators, with a customer rating of 75 per cent. EasyJet was in the middle of the pack with 63 per cent.”

  8. Bob, I’d ask whether these respondents were really in Ryan Air’s target demographic. Twenty years ago, I’m sure lots of people would have rated B Dalton as a great experience, but that didn’t keep them from going bankrupt. I’m more concerned with what Ryan Air’s customers think than a general popularity survey.

  9. Makes you wonder who voted. There are lots of passengers who hate Southwest Airlines since there are no assigned seats, limited snacks, and some passengers don’t like getting herded onto the flight. But it seems like Southwest gets good marks by some passengers. Again, we are dealing with the eye of the beholder. And, the Ryanair fine print reads:

    “A Ryanair spokeswoman told PA the research did not take into account the cost of fares, “the single most important factor for UK consumers”. She described the survey findings as “totally unrepresentative” compared to the airline’s 141 million annual passengers, and said that Ryanair’s fares are “a fraction of the high fares charged by Which?’s ‘recommended’ airlines”.”

    Maybe there is a bit of truth in her rebuttal.

  10. Ryanair clearly wants to deliver a “no-frills” service. And I think it’s a fair point that most brands could learn something from Ryanair by *not* trying to be all things to all people.

    Still, Ryanair is not the only budget airline in Europe. Easyjet and J2 are also clear in their no-frills “promise” and somehow get higher ratings in airline passenger surveys. In the US, Southwest get the highest customer sat scores in the industry despite some limitations like no seat assignments.

    Interestingly, Ryanair didn’t get good scores on *value for money* in a recent survey https://www.express.co.uk/travel/articles/1124895/flights-ryanair-easyjet-worst-low-cost-airlines-cheap-holidays-2019

    Possible reasons: surprise fees and discovering that flying to “Paris” on Ryanair really means landing in a secondary airport 53 miles to the north.

    I’ve researched Ryanair over the years and find it a very interesting case. Here’s a post from 2012:
    http://customerthink.com/if_the_customer_experience_is_so_important_how_do_you_explain_the_success_of_ryanair/

    My conclusion: if you offer a really great price, you can get repeat customers even if they dislike the rest of the experience.

    Last year we had a spirited discussion and no one was willing to say Ryanair was a “CX success story”.
    http://customerthink.com/ryanair-can-low-prices-plus-unhappy-customers-equal-cx-success-story/

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