The five-minute CIO: John Hurley, Ryanair

20 May 2016

Masterminding digital disruption: Ryanair's CTO John Hurley

“When I say competition, the competition is Google and Amazon, not Aer Lingus or EasyJet; our competition is digital,” says Ryanair CTO John Hurley.

Ryanair CTO John Hurley has masterminded the digital transformation of Ryanair from being a low-fares airline to potentially being the Amazon of air travel.

Hurley recently unveiled the airline’s new MyRyanair platform, which the company intends to use to disrupt air travel by employing customer-focused technology and cutting-edge user experience (UX) design.

The MyRyanair platform is the next step in the digital disruption within Ryanair itself, which began with the hiring of 200 tech workers two years ago and continued with the issuing of iPads to 3,500 pilots.

The platform, built in collaboration with software engineering firm Comtrade, took 36,000 developer hours to build and speeds up the booking process by more than 20pc.


Dejan Ćušić, Solutions and Services Business Director, Ireland and UK, Comtrade; and John Hurley, CTO, Ryanair

It is geared to use data cleverly and provide Ryanair’s 106m annual passengers with digitally disruptive services, such as the ability to link with other passengers to share taxis or receive restaurant tips.

The new platform, which can help fill four Boeing 737s every minute at peak boarding times, is the lynchpin of Ryanair’s strategy to grow its passenger numbers to 180m a year by 2024.

Hurley will be speaking at the upcoming FutureScope event at the Convention Centre in Dublin on 31 May.

Is Ryanair positioning itself to be the Amazon of air travel?

Obviously, as CTO, I believe very strongly that we are now a platform with an airline attached. Fundamentally, flights are a commodity, they bring you from A to B. We have a phenomenal brand, we are brilliant at price, we are very efficient, we won’t lose your bags, so where else can we add to to improve the customer’s experience?

As far as I am concerned, that’s all through technology. Make it easy, give people simple choices where you are almost reading their minds and offer them things they want at the right time, at the right price and in the right place. That is all down to data.

We believe strongly that the travel experience of the future is all about taking the pain away. For example, on the day you are travelling and there are queues at the airport, can you get fast-tracked to avoid all of that? I am carrying a second bag I want to make sure gets onto the aeroplane. I’ve purchased Priority Boarding, I have a third bag I want to check in. It is about removing all of the pain and all the hassle.

With the old Ryanair, you arrived at the airport and if you didn’t have a boarding pass you got charged for a new one. That is gone and it is now on your mobile app that is on the smartphone in your hand.

It’s all under the “Always Getting Better” umbrella. We are now into year three, it’s all about being nice to the customer and technology is a huge part of that.

Year one was fixing things people didn’t like. That was easy.

Year two was about enhancing the experience and catching up with the competition.

Year three is all about technology. That’s where the company has gone, that’s where the competition has gone. When I say competition, the competition is Google, it is Amazon, it is not Aer Lingus or EasyJet. Our competition is digital, when people first think about travel, most people look up flights first.

In the past, Ryanair did a great job helping you book a flight and then it was good luck and goodbye.

So, it’s breaking that gap and giving a better service.

Social cues and sharing of data seem to be a core aspect of the new platform, such as passengers sharing information on restaurants or sharing taxis into the city. How does Ryanair aim to fuel this?

The whole social aspect is all about building trust. The way Airbnb do it, the way Uber do it. It’s about being transparent, no tricks. People trust it more, they embrace it more and everybody benefits. It’s about the information we provide about destinations. Families should be warned beforehand if a destination is more suitable for stag and hen parties and suggest they perhaps go somewhere else more suitable. Even providing data about the airport you are going to, whether you are better off getting a taxi or if the bus service is great. This should all be transparent. It’s not just Ryanair saying it, but general punters who have experiences, good and bad.

The key part is that it is about getting better. It is about listening to the feedback and reacting to it.

One thing that Ryanair has demonstrated in the last number of years is that it is not afraid of change. It embraces it.

It’s interesting that you mention Airbnb and Uber. These apps are transforming industries and empowering people. Do you want to see Ryanair enter the same lexicon?

Yes. If you have used a booking engine to book a hotel or airline you are getting spammed regularly, requests over hotels that you’ll never go back to again. It’s frustrating, annoying and people disengage.

What does Ryanair have in comparison? We know where you are travelling to, when you are travelling. If you are going to Spain with your wife and kids we can offer information like child-friendly hotels; that’s what people want. They don’t want to be getting spammed about hotels for the next five years if they went there once. They want context.

We know who you are travelling with, the time you are arriving and possible destinations. That is information that we have and information we are obliged to protect.

Managing data is vital to your reputation and brand. But using that information in a smart way that enhances the travel experience for the individual customer is what commerce of the future will be all about.

Even something simple like how you are getting to a destination like a hotel; do you want us to book a taxi or reserve a bus ticket? Things you mightn’t always worry about a month before you travel but on the day you travel; your whole experience changes throughout. The weather at your destination matters more on the day of travel. It’s about tying the right data together at the right time in a thoughtful way that pleases people.

A simple example: if we know there are six people on the booking, we shouldn’t offer you a Nissan Micra, it should be a family-type car for hire.

It’s about being smart and getting feedback; if the train service is second to none and will bring you to the city centre in a heartbeat then that should be the first bit of information we should be providing when you travel somewhere.

And that’s what the platform is about, it is about getting more personalised. That requires you to log in, engage, interact. If a person doesn’t have a driver’s licence, we won’t advertise car hire to them. If we understand the data better then we can stop annoying people.

It’s about getting rid of all the pain, the annoyance and random spaghetti fire and spray marketing from other companies. We are ignoring all of that and getting the balance right and getting the trust right. Customers are engaging and they are reaping the rewards.

Some 36,000 developer hours – the equivalent of 18 business years – were invested into the project. That’s a big change from 2000 when two students built Ryanair’s first website?

You have to give Ryanair credit for that. It was before my time, but that was the first e-commerce website in Ireland and it definitely brought e-commerce into the country.

They wiped out the brokers, the middlemen and, to be fair to them, it was a great achievement.

We now have 250 people working on technology and the web and mobile. We are not at a first-mover advantage, we are actually at a third-mover advantage. We’ve really seen the mistakes others have made and we have a huge advantage coming in with the proper framework and brand new technology.

Comtrade has been an excellent partner and worked closely with us. We rebuilt the website from the ground up. We replaced every line of code, nothing got reused.

What we had was a booking website. What we have now is a platform offering customers a better travel experience.

Two years ago, you embarked on a major recruitment drive for technologists, bringing Ryanair into competition for tech workers against start-ups, as well as giants like Google and Facebook, in a tough climate for tech workers. How is tech recruitment going for you?

That’s the one advantage we have. PR and headlines and people being aware of what we are doing come easy for Ryanair, while most other companies struggle with that. What we find very beneficial is that word of mouth is great.

Because we are using the latest technology, that attracts developers. People want to work with new technology because the speed and rate of change excites them.

I actually do fear the day we start to slow down. People start getting bored, but the roadmap we have here, the ambition, the focus, it is just incredible. It’s addictive. Michael O’Leary is personally involved in the roadmap.

We have a steady stream of people applying because we have the right buzz.

Google aren’t developing platforms in Dublin and neither are Facebook. We are.

We are actually doing it in-house.

We have had no problem filling roles. There is a natural curiosity about Ryanair, the pace of change and the chance to disrupt something as important as travel.

You also recently equipped 3,500 pilots with iPads. How is the digital disruption taking place internally within Ryanair?

The pilots used to carry briefcases and they had to access a body of knowledge that contained 30,000 pages of information, as well as weather charts, details of the runway markers in airports and more.

If you are flying an aeroplane, you need to have a map of every airport in Europe, just in case. Safety is second to none, that’s the bar we work from.

Some pilots were updating once a month, some daily. From a logistics perspective, imagine having to get all that paper throughout the network of 80 odd bases and 3,500 pilots? It was a huge challenge for us and, as that grew, it became more of a challenge.

Whereas today, they all have iPads. They arrive in the morning, they get updated over Wi-Fi, they get weather data and site safety reports. Everything is digitised, everything is correct, everyone is up to date. We are not worrying anymore if printers are working. It transforms things. Our efficiency is immense because it is the right information at the right time to the pilots.

The cabin crew are now working with Android devices in their hands as point-of-sale devices, and we have mobilised 7,500 cabin crew members with these mini computers. Phase 1 of that records that you bought a coffee and allows you to redeem a receipt digitally through the internet.

The next level will involve learning quickly about people’s eating habits, and that will help us stock planes better. Rather than being generic across the network, with this information in our big data warehouse, it will revolutionise the offerings we have.

That’s the power of technology and that’s what we are getting into. We discovered that this technology empowers people.

Suddenly, the cabin crew can make decisions because they have information in their hands, they can make reports. Now they can go to the next level up.

It’s all about the data, sharing the right information, mining it, protecting it. It is also being mindful of people’s preferences and anticipating them. That’s the new Ryanair. Using our platform to perform better for our customers.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years