As hard as it is to believe, following our visit to Ryanair Special Assistance HQ in Dublin we may be facing a major breakthrough in the Michael O’Leary saga.
Michael O’Leary has built a solid reputation on controversy. He is the poster child of corner cutting. Just like most of us, O’Leary dislikes queuing in traffic. Unlike all of us, he went as far as getting a taxi license so he can skip queues by legally making use of preferential lanes in and around Dublin.
Listening to the man is like listening to Scrooge gone bad. You want to go to the loo? I will charge you for that. Why do we need a captain and a first officer to fly a jetliner when only one man can do it? The man is a living volcano, erupting one provocation after the other.
But is this his true nature, or is it a perfectly masterminded marketing game, a chess play aimed at keeping the brand in the spotlight, pushing customer expectation so low any normal experience becomes a heavenly one, and defusing negative fallout when something goes wrong?
Wednesday 10 July we travelled to Dublin to visit Ryanair Special Assistance headquarters. Caroline Green is at the helm of this division of the ultra-low cost Iris carrier. Caroline has been working in aviation for the past 22 years, of which nearly 17 with Ryanair.
Caroline Green is a strong, determined professional who knows what it takes to make customers with special needs happy, and works relentlessly to ensure this is the case for Ryanair’s customers who need assistance when traveling by air. We spent three hours together reviewing the airline’s recent changes in policy for carriage of passengers with special needs. “We need to do it right for them,” she said countless times.
Few weeks ago Ryanair introduced major changes, like waiving the maximum number of passengers with reduced mobility allowed on board, previously set at four per flight, and reserving all seats in row 26 and 27 of the 32 rows on-board Ryanair aircraft for passengers with reduced mobility to prevent any confusion when, for weight and balance reasons, some seat rows cannot be used.
Reserved seating for passengers requiring special assistance is a very welcome change, given that boarding can be messy business on Ryanair, since the airline does not have a policy of allocated seating (yet).
Availability of isle chairs, commonly known as on board wheelchair, on all aircraft and details of required assistance printed on the boarding pass are other signature features Ryanair offers to passengers who require special assistance.
At this point of the visit our vision blurs, our imagination picturing a bifacial Michael O’Leary; Lucifer O’Leary spewing controversy left and right, while the Angel Michael works hard to deliver seamless journeys to passengers with special needs.
We are still rubbing our eyes as Caroline Green delivers the Mother of all Uppercuts. Actually, she has her team deliver it.
Amy, who is manning the online chat, explains the features of the recently introduced online tool that helps passengers get the information they cannot find on their own. The chat facility appears after 15 seconds on the special assistance page during reservation opening hours, subject to agent availability.
However, the major change Amy shows us on the Ryanair website is the addition of a special assistance dropdown menu to the online booking process.
On 11 April the airline introduced a drop down menu on the special assistance page so that customers can tell the airline the exact type of assistance they will need without having to call. However, those traveling with personal electric wheelchairs will have to call Ryanair to communicate dimensions and weight of their mobility device. Personal electric wheelchairs and scooters up to 200 Kilograms are accepted for transport free of charge.
Most full service airlines’ websites have passengers tic a generic request for assistance box on the booking page, prompting the passenger to call the airline premium number to discuss his or hers assistance requirements.
During the final part of our visit we shadow Sonia while she assists passengers with special needs over the phone. She is courteous, efficient, professional, and fast. We follow five calls, each one dealt professionally and to the passenger’s satisfaction.
During one call we witness what no one would ever expect from Ryanair. The passenger with special needs isstill explaining having booked and paid for reserved seats while the agent is already refunding the charges to the credit card of the customer.
More changes are scheduled for the last quarter, the most important of which is a major overhaul of the Ryanair website, in dire need of an infusion of consumer friendliness and a look and feel more appealing to the eye.
There is no exact science in air travel processes and procedures for passengers with special needs. It is a constant “work in progress” where procedures continue to change as the needs of passengers evolve. We leave Ryanair Special Assistance centre with the knowledge that the airline is embracing inclusion, and is working to ensure the needs of passengers requiring assistance are met in the appropriate manner.
Caroline Green struggles to hide her curiosity as we smile looking out of the windshield. Undeniably, today’s major breakthrough was uncovering the very well hidden kinder side of Michael O’Leary.
About the author
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Reduced Mobility Rights, Roberto Castiglioni is an expert of airport accessibility, management and support procedures of passengers with special needs and air travel related regulations. He has been a frequent flyer for the past three decades and has several years of experience as travelling partner of a passenger who requires assistance.
Roberto provides accessibility and access consulting services to airports and airlines. He is a member of the UK Civil Aviation Authority Access To Air Travel Working Group. He is also a member of the Easyjet Special Assistance Advisory Group. Esaag provides Easyjet with strategic guidance and practical advice on the evolving needs of passengers requiring special assistance.