Ryanair Wants To Be Your Friend. Will You Believe It?

Ryanair holds an infamous spot in airline industry lore. It’s seen, rightly or wrongly, as the Irish airline that “unbundled” everything in a plane ticket, making passengers pay for the things that used to be included.

Dozens of global airlines followed suit, resulting in a $27 billion fee bonanza for the carriers last year. But the fee-charging spree has taken a toll on Ryanair’s image and outlook, and now, the budget carrier is trying to get back on European passengers’ good side.

Starting in February, every seat on a Ryanair plane will be assigned, instead of the free for all of having passengers line up at the gate, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph. Until now, Ryanair had charged 10 pounds ($15.95) to select a seat in advance. It still will charge for pre-selecting seats, but the price will be cut by 50 percent.

“This return to allocated seating is Ryanair’s response to the enormous demand from our customers in recent weeks” via a customer feedback initiative,” it said in a statement.

“Ryanair’s decision to launch fully allocated seating is also part of the airline’s commitment to listen to its customers.”

The seat program is not all the airline is going to do. In the past few weeks, Ryanair has said it will

Allow a 24-hour grace period to fix minor errors on tickets, such as misspellings. This comes after Ryanair’s bombastic CEO, Michael O’Leary, branded some passengers as “stupid” for failing to read the airline’s fine print.
Cut the charge for checking luggage at the airport from 60 pounds to 30 pounds ($47.86).
Let passengers bring a second small carry on item, such as a women’s purse or an airport shopping bag, free of charge.

None of this is happening in a vacuum. One of Ryanair’s main competitors, EasyJet , introduced a free seating program last year. Like many American carriers, EasyJet charges for the most desirable seats, but it also is charging less than Ryanair for passengers who want to preselect their seats.

It has been a tough atmosphere for Ryanair, which on Monday issued its second profit warning this fall. The carrier now expects to earn about $688 million for 2013, versus its revised forecast of $769 million. It is expecting its first drop in profits since 2009. Ryanair shares took a beating, dropping $6.82 on NASDAQ to $43.52 in early afternoon trading.

It’s far too soon to say if any American airlines will follow Ryanair’s lead on being more customer friendly. And, Ryanair still charges fees for things that are included in a U.S. passenger’s ticket. But given how they’ve copied some of its fee innovations, it’s fair to say the competition is watching.