Why Spirit Airlines’ and Ryan Air’s Customer Experience is Better than Yours

I’m partway through a European holiday with my wife, celebrating 25 years of marriage. Okay, actually 26, but that’s a different story.

When a friend heard we were flying Ryan Air, she told me, “Uh oh. Pay attention to the experience you receive.” Interested, I did pay attention. And I realized that Ryan Air probably has one of the better CX programs out there.

Before you get ready with that hate email, first let me explain!

What are They Doing Right?

We all love to hate Ryan Air and their U.S. equivalent Spirit, low-cost airlines that go all out to remove any frills. Frequent travelers, such as myself, have a reason to hate them. We’re used to our luxuries, and since we’re often not paying for the tickets ourselves, we want to fly with an airline that includes those benefits we’re used to, such as upgrades to nicer seats and occasional free glasses of beer or wine. Contrast that to these airlines, who will charge you for everything from carry-on luggage to hot coffee (at least on Ryan Air), and don’t even offer wi-fi at any fee.

So, why do I compliment their CX department?

Let me be clear that it’s not because we recommend that our clients remove any services without being explicitly paid for it! It’s not the specific model I endorse – it’s the single-minded focus on delivering an experience target to their specific customers’ needs.

I’m not their target customer. While Spirit will certainly serve Joe Business Traveler, they’re focused on Jane Family Traveler. (Note: I have not spoken with anybody from Spirit or Ryan Air while writing this, so am making some assumptions.) They’ll provide service for Joe, of course; but their primary customer Jane isn’t focused on the upgrade and a free beer. She’s more interested in finding an affordable way to take her family on vacation. She sees the flight as a method of transportation – nothing else. Jane probably isn’t deciding between Spirit and United – her alternative is more likely to be driving to vacation, or skipping it altogether.

This likely led the company to question all the assumptions inherent to air travel. It’s easy to complain about how Spirit charges for carry-on baggage, but those bags add to loading times, which limits how quickly they can turn around flights, which limits how many flights they can do a day with their equipment. In order to provide what their customers most want (inexpensive flights with a minimum of convenience), they’ll reward those who can skip the carry-on. They’ll even give a bit of a discount to those who will check their bags, since this will speed loading.

Do you need wi-fi? Jane probably doesn’t, and adding wi-fi to the flight increases the complexity, which means higher cost. Joe needs it, but Jane’s satisfied without it, so these airlines don’t invest in that capability. The experience is stripped down, not because of a poor customer experience program, but because it’s ruthlessly focused on giving their target customers what they want.

It reminds me of an interview I heard with a CX leader at Southwest Airlines. Their focus on low cost means that they can’t offer assigned seats or food on their flights. What are the top requests in surveys?

Assigned seats and food! But their tight focus on customer needs keeps them focused on this, as opposed to customers’ wants. Their focus has led to some non-negotiables in their experience.

These non-negotiables don’t come from thin air, but instead from a solid understanding of their target customers’ true needs. Adding food or assigned seats will cause delays in loading passengers, which will add costs. So they don’t do it.

We all love to hate on Spirit Airlines and all of their fees, but their entire experience is designed from the ground up on clear insights into their customers.

Can you say the same about your customer experience?

12 replies
  1. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    Love this, Jim. Experience must match target customer and company strategy. Only thing I would suggest is I think the budget airlines are especially good for solo travelers who do not have a lot of luggage and who don’t need to be seated near anyone in particular. Imagine a person in their early 20s visiting a friend or significant other out of state. They capture the value of this option more than a family because they will not rack up the extra fees.

  2. Niki F
    Niki F says:

    Fair enough. I am not Spirit’s target customer, so their CX seems awful to me. But, now I understand- that’s because I am Joe. I need Wifi, reclining seats, pre-check and boarding. So spirit airlines just isn’t for me.

  3. Richard Mayne
    Richard Mayne says:

    For short haul flights, I am happy flying budget. Airasia has been very effective in this region at emulating what Ryan Air did in Europe and Sprint in the US.

    Expectations are clearly managed, unlike Singapore Airlines where you expect a high degree of service, with Air Asia you expect cheap tickets, seamless checkin and reliability without the bells and whistles

    Great perspective Jim

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