Ryanair and easyJet cemented opposing strategies towards the trade this week. Ian Taylor and Lee Hayhurst report
When the no-frills carriers took off in the mid-1990s they made a virtue of selling direct. No one could suggest it hindered their growth.
Ryanair’s annual passenger numbers doubled between 1995 and 1998, doubled again by 2001 and more by 2003, hitting close to 80 million last year. EasyJet grew similarly fast, doubling in size between 2000-02, and again by 2004 and 2009, and carrying 58 million passengers last year.
Michael O’Leary’s hostility towards agents is hardly news. The Ryanair boss has repeatedly launched legal action against agencies the carrier accuses of screen-scraping its site. Last year O’Leary described agents as “a bunch of scam artists”, promising: “We’ll continue until we bury the bastards. We’ll nail them to every stake . . . They flip prices up 10%-15%.”
EasyJet has been less critical but did not work with the trade until signing limited deals for GDS distribution in late 2007 – and then only with corporate agents and for a fee.
The carrier’s relations with travel management companies were initially fraught enough for many corporate agents to boycott the GDS fares.
Times have changed. On Monday, easyJet and Amadeus unveiled a new ‘light ticketing’ agreement that will place easyJet alongside full-service carriers on GDS screens.
This will give access to the latest easyJet fares and ancillary offers and allow agents – leisure and corporate – to amend bookings, including passenger name records.
The deal marks a new stage in the diverging trajectories of the budget giants, with easyJet increasingly targeting high-margin corporate traffic under chief executive Carolyn McCall, who joined in 2010, while Ryanair sticks with its ‘no carrier is cheaper’ marketing.
EasyJet introduced ‘flexible’ fares via GDSs in 2010 and set up a corporate sales team the following year, with McCall declaring: “We need to offer more access by standard distribution channels.”
Fares became available to leisure agents in January 2012 when then easyJet UK director Paul Simmons announced: “Our objective is to remove the barriers for leisure agents.”
This month, easyJet introduced an inclusive fare, available only through GDSs and booking systems connected to the carrier, combining flight, bag and seat selection at a single price.
The contrast with Ryanair could barely be sharper, although agents continue to sell Ryanair flights. The Irish carrier dismissed agents as “dead wood” and “the costliest parasites” when easyJet announced its first GDS deal in 2007. But as an agent told Travel Weekly at the time: “Ryanair thinks it can do without us, [but] it’s getting a lot more from us than it realises.”
Indeed, it has been suggested Ryanair flights form part of more than half the holidays sold by some UK online agents.
O’Leary accused more than 300 agencies of screen-scraping in 2008 and complained to the European Commission, then ramped up the pressure by insisting it would cancel bookings made through third-party sites.
Since then, Ryanair has repeatedly tightened its booking verification processes to close off agent bookings. On Monday, O’Leary promised: “We’ll be announcing [fresh] developments on that front as early as Friday.”
Yet at the same time O’Leary conceded: “We work with travel agents at the moment – 12%-15% of sales are made by agents. We’re not actively working against them. We’ve licensed a number of price-comparison sites who make it easier for agents.”
O’Leary acknowledged: “We have a number of travel agents putting together low-cost shoulder-season and weekend-break packages using our low prices.”
But don’t expect O’Leary to go down the easyJet route. O’Leary responded to the need to issue a rare profit warning earlier this month by promising a price war – a pledge that provoked a fall in airline share prices across Europe.
“There is a difference in culture,” he said this week.
“EasyJet has expressed a desire to be a British Midland for the new century, serving major airports and being 25% cheaper than the flag-carriers. We want to be the low-cost airline.”
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