00:00 Saturday 15 November 2008  Written by Proinsias O'Mahony

No frills shouldnt mean no standards

Ryanair customers tend to divided into two groups. The first group froth at the mouth as they recount their abominable experiences at the hands of the supposedly low-cost airline. The second group are more smug and labour under the misapprehension that 'it'll never happen to me'.

Last May, I wrote a piece in this newspaper about how best to extract bargains from Ryanair. Back then, I was in the second group, one of the fortunate few who had managed to enjoy low fares whilst enduring little hassle. Yes, I was aware of the ridiculous baggage charges, the additional taxes, the credit card charges and a whole host of other surreptitious add-on charges that meant one's final bill would likely be unrecognisable compared to the advertised fare. Ultimately, however, I agreed with the internet commentator who compared the Ryanair experience to playing a game. "In order to play well, you need to know the rules," he said. "Most complaints about the airline come from people who don't know the rules."

I knew the rules so I wasn't anticipating any agonies as I set off to book a recent break. Alas, I finally got my comeuppance.

What went wrong? Multiple things. Ryanair's erratic website started misbehaving near the end of the booking process. After receiving three emails confirming that a single flight had been booked, I was worried that I had been charged for booking three flights. I decided to ring a Ryanair 'helpline', which subsequently requested that I ring a different premium rate number, one of those 1570 numbers typically associated with dodgy sex lines rather than customer service operations. As it happened, I had not been charged for multiple bookings. My 4-minute phone call, however, cost me over €10.

I was beginning to see that Ryanair had more in common with sex lines than their telephone numbers - both are in the business of screwing people.

After that matter had been resolved, we went about completing our holiday plans. The plan was to fly from Cork to London and from there to Granada. After doing a bit of travelling around Andalucia, we would fly home from Seville to London, catching a connecting flight on to Cork.

A few weeks after booking the flights, however, Ryanair emailed to say that there had been a change in flight times - the Seville-London flight would now be leaving approximately twelve hours later than planned, meaning that we would be too late for the London-Cork return flight. I cancelled the Seville flight. No other appropriate flight to Seville or anywhere nearby could be sourced so a change in travel plans was necessitated, with a new Easyjet flight from grotty Malaga to London being booked.

Soon afterwards, another email from Ryanair - another 12-hour flight time change, this time from London to Granada. The expletives were flying at this stage. Another frantic bout of web-searching ensued, the result being a new and more expensive Ryanair flight from Seville to London. Merely recounting these details leaves me dazed and confused so don't get hung up on the precise dates and locations - suffice to say, Ryanair were mucking up our holiday plans big time. The easiest thing to do, of course, would have been to cancel all flights after the initial time change - however, Ryanair's terms and conditions make clear that it is "strictly a 'point-to-point' airline" and we would not be entitled to a refund of the Cork-London journeys.

As for the refunds - the first one took a few weeks to make it into my bank account, the second one almost six weeks, despite website assurances that refunds should be processed in a matter of days.

As I waited for the refund to arrive, I decided to investigate the matter and complain. Thing is, how? No email address on the website was to be found. I got googling and came across a useful website called Ryanaircampaign.org, which details the pitfalls of dealing with the airline and the near impossibility of contacting them. A list of private Ryanair emails are provided and I emailed the airline's head of customer service.

A second (angrier) email was sent, promising a journalistic "butchering of Ryanair's non-existent customer service operation unless this matter is resolved pronto".

I found another phone number to ring. Not being a premium rate number, I was expecting to be punished by being kept on hold for quite some time. I was - a twenty minute wait ensued.

The girl on the switchboard admitted that she was the only operator at work. My refund, I heard, was still being processed - so many people had been forced to change their travel plans, there was a huge backlog. I then outlined my frustrations, namely two flights having their times changed by 12 hours, phone calls that cost a bundle, phone calls that aren't answered, emails that aren't answered, no email address being given on the website. "Any chance of an apology for this BS?", I rhetorically asked, to be greeted by the mantra-like refrain, "You'll have to put any complaint in writing".

You see, Ryanair doesn't respond to emails. To complain, you've got to fax or write a letter. The whole process is designed to be as inconvenient as possible so that customers just don't bother chasing up such matters.

Anyway, the refund eventually came but I still lost out. Ryanair refunded the initial sterling payment (£75.28). Converted into euro, this amounted to €92.32. I'd paid €99.43 initially. The victim of exchange rate movements? No - I checked out the exchange rates on the days in question and realised that I should have profited.

BIZARRE

Another flight, which amounted to £111.68, should have equated to a euro payment of approximately €141 - however, €149.95 was deducted from my account. Whatever bizarre method of currency conversion Ryanair are using bears no resemblance to reality. I'd advise any readers who have booked flights from non-euro destinations to check out what Ryanair have charged them. Google 'historical exchange rates' and a plethora of currency sites will do the math for you.

I've written to complain about the discrepancies and hope to eventually report on Ryanair's response - that will likely be in 2010.

Ryanair's business practices are uniquely unethical. Earlier this year, it rescheduled flight times to Bristol on the day of the Heineken Cup final. Munster fans who had hoped to travel the 70km to Cardiff's Millenium Stadium were offered a refund of their fares, which were initially as low as €49. The airline subsequently reinstated the morning service but fares had now jumped to over €450.

People have also had trouble using Ryanair travel vouchers, with the National Consumer Agency investigating allegations that its vouchers are almost impossible to redeem. Vouchers can only be redeemed by ringing a reservation line rather than via the internet. In August, RTÉ's Liveline heard from callers who detailed their stories. One pensioner related how she had been trying to make reservations for the past six months, being continually put on hold for interminable lengths of time. She protested that she had rung every Ryanair number listed and had even spent money registering a letter to the company, only to hear nothing back. Her €300 voucher was due to expire as Ryanair policy dictated that they be used within six months of purchase. Another pensioner related how he ended up paying €49.30 in phone call charges to use a €50 gift voucher.

taleS OF WOE

A quick internet search reveals similar tales of woe. "Ryanair cancels both flights and will issue an 'automatic refund'," one customer writes. "Numerous calls, 7 faxes, 5 letters later and still no refund 3 months later. Low cost and no thrills is fine. But deliberately holding on to customer's money is unacceptable."

Another relates how "I have been trying to fax them for the last two days on both numbers - 5 times on one day, 8 times today on both numbers. Up to now, the fax does not go through, but comes back with a 'no answer'."

One would hope that the bad publicity would elicit a change in Ryanair's two-fingered approach to customer relations. No such luck. Conor Pope has been publicising Ryanair dealings in his Pricewatch column in The Irish Times for some time now. Last August, he noted that Ryanair "promises to respond to letters within seven days, a commitment which will surprise some readers who have tried and failed to make contact through these two channels despite, on occasion, sending letters via registered post. We e-mailed the company's PR people last week to find out more about its customer service policies, but received no response."

I could go on. I could go on about the ever-escalating baggage charges. I ended up paying over €50 for bringing one bag on a return flight - with airport authorities not allowing people to carry more than one small bag of liquids (toothpaste, sprays, creams, etc), it's difficult not to check in luggage. I could go on about the other innumerable charges (there's even an infant charge - mothers have to cough up €20 to allow their baby to sit on their lap). I could go on about airports that are located miles outside central locations. I could go on

Will I ever fly Ryanair again? Probably, although I'll be a lot warier next time. Would I recommend the airline above Easyjet or another budget operator? Not a chance. No frills shouldn't mean no standards.

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