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Originally published Friday, September 20, 2013 at 9:50 AM

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Ryanair admits it needs to behave better

Travelers love the European budget airline’s cheap fares, but hate its customer service and extra charges.

Associated Press

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DUBLIN — Ryanair may finally have gotten the message: Customers like the European airline’s cheap ticket prices and huge selection of destinations, but loathe how they’re treated from start to finish.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary told shareholders Friday his airline must improve how it treats passengers and handles complaints so that customers don’t feel pushed around by staff and unfairly imposed charges — and potentially take business to other airlines offering more than Ryanair’s budget model.

“We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off,” O’Leary told shareholders at their annual general meeting, during which Ryanair’s chief faced questions on why the airline seemingly went out of its way to be rude and dismissive of criticism. Ryanair did not permit TV cameras into the conference room.

O’Leary’s concession came one day after Britain’s premier consumer magazine, Which?, published a survey of more than 3,300 readers that placed Ryanair dead last among 100 top brands in quality of customer service.

Ryanair, typically, ridiculed the criticism in its official response Thursday, claiming to have surveyed 3 million customers and finding that only one had ever read Which? magazine.

But O’Leary sounded a more thoughtful note to investors and reporters as he fielded complaints that Ryanair under his leadership was tone-deaf to legitimate criticism. He arrived to headlines of how Ryanair this week had charged a Dublin doctor $255 to reschedule his flight to England — a change made because his wife and three children had just died in a house fire there.

“The staff were implementing our policy but you have to make exceptions in cases like that,” O’Leary said, noting that Ryanair had refunded “the money that we regret having taken from him in such tragic circumstances.”

Ryanair has grown from a single Ireland-England service in 1985 to the biggest short-haul airline in Europe today, carrying more than 80 million customers annually. It has performed better than any other airline through Europe’s long recession as customers seek the lowest possible prices despite Ryanair’s reputation for sharp practice.

But as other airlines adjust to compete on price, Ryanair’s weaknesses are standing out in some consumers’ minds.

O’Leary said Ryanair planned in the coming year to improve its website because it was harder to use than the site of easyJet, its biggest budget rival. He said Ryanair would create a communications unit that responds to customer complaints “hopefully quickly” using Twitter and telephone texts.

And he said Ryanair would review its inflexible enforcement of rules that, if violated, trigger punitive charges on customers. Moneymaking mistakes include not preprinting your own boarding card, arriving with a bag that exceeds Ryanair’s weight or size rules, or needing to reschedule a booking regardless of the reason.

“Some of our policies are implemented with a degree of robustness that isn’t warranted,” he told reporters. “Somebody who shows up with a bag 1 millimeter bigger than the (official) baggage size (limit) — as long as it fits in the baggage sizer, it goes on.”

“We do need to improve and to soften some of the harder edges in our service and in our image,” he said.

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