It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. At least for two of Europe’s largest low-cost carriers, who are now looking to refresh the low-cost model as competition for the customer is set to intensify.
The rise of the low-cost carrier made millions of people into frequent flyers and shook up the airline market with powerful price-led offers and a no-frills approach to service.
In the drive to cut ticket prices, these innovative carriers basically invented the unbundled model, where everything beyond the point-to-point fare – from onboard meals to hold baggage and allocated seating – came as an optional extra: otherwise known as an ancillary.
The low fares enabled by unbundled ticketing won over passengers, particularly in the leisure market. And it certainly made a big impact on aviation, to the extent that the global industry is formally embracing ancillaries via the New Distribution Capability (NDC) process being pushed by Iata.
But in the rush to reduce ticket prices, one low-cost carrier, Ryanair, showed signs of leaving the customer behind. Ryanair took its price-led offer seriously, even [apparently] floating the idea of all-standing flights or charging passengers to use onboard toilets. Anything to push down the price of a basic fare.
Customers were prepared to sacrifice a degree of comfort for cheap flights and Ryanair’s unrelenting focus on low fares had propelled it to the status of Europe’s largest airline.
But it seems customers would only put up with so much (and, increasingly, they could find great value fares and a good end-to-end experience on network carriers and innovative hybrid models like Lufthansa-Germanwings).
In a sign that customers were falling out of love with Ryanair’s very aggressive price-led model, the carrier announced its first profit warning in a decade in September, quickly followed by a second profit warning.
In contrast, Ryanair’s rival easyJet was announcing a 51% jump in pre-tax profits – and it all came down to the customer.
While Ryanair had clung to its price-led positioning, easyJet had taken a different direction, introducing a number of customer-friendly innovations. First came allocated seating on all flights, fast-track security for holders of flexi-fare tickets and an attractive inspiration-driven online shop (InspireMe).
Together, these technology-enabled improvements meant easyJet’s customers could tailor a better travel experience, and be satisfied they were still getting a budget price. This gave the easyJet brand a new appeal to older and more affluent leisure and business customers: a profitable segment who previously refused to even contemplate flying easyJet.
The easyJet story shows that the low-cost carriers are opening a new front in the battle for the customer, introducing more choice and a more customer-shaped experience. (And where easyJet led, Ryanair is now following and has announced a raft of measures to make life easier for customers.)
As we’ve argued here before, NDC will move the whole aviation industry towards greater flexibility. Airlines will gain the ability to package and fine tune the customer experience with more precision than ever before, and offer it across more channels.
The growth opportunity is clear – but, as the tale of easyJet and Ryanair shows, to realise the opportunity airlines will need to take advantage of technology tools to deliver choice, value and quality.
Today’s demanding customers want more than a great price – they also want a great experience.