Flying in the face of Irish indifference

27 Feb 2003

How quickly we forget and take things for granted. Three years ago Ireland’s largest airline was taking its first tentative steps in offering direct booking on the internet.

In fact, regular flyers may be surprised when reminded that was launched just in 2000.

Today the airline is one of the largest e-commerce enterprises in Europe. In fact, the pace of its web traffic growth is even faster than its overall business growth in recent years. With passenger traffic up 46pc in the last quarter of 2002, Ryanair is now forecasting an annual passenger level of 24 million by this time next year, including the contribution from its recent acquisition of Buzz. Ryanair’s website coped with over eight million unique visitors (and an astonishing 567 million total hits) in January alone. The web now accounts for 94pc of all Ryanair travel bookings.

What is also perhaps less recognised in Ireland than it should be – very likely because its Dublin traffic has been effectively static since 1997 – is that Ryanair is now a truly pan-European business. It currently operates at 71 airports in 13 countries, a total that is set to increase with the integration of Buzz in April, and it is no secret that Ryanair management regards the German and Scandinavian markets as wide open for its low fares, no frills approach. With the addition of administrative offices and call centres, Ryanair’s 1,800 staff members are based at 80 locations connected by a wide area network (WAN). The Buzz acquisition will increase the staff body considerably and is expected to add about another 10 locations.

As head of IT in Ryanair, Brona Kernan has been in charge of building and developing the company’s essential computing and communications infrastructure for the past nine years. “The original strategy document was prepared in 1995, aiming to automate and link the ‘islands of information’ that had grown in different locations and functions. We were using three different databases, for example,” she explains.

Concentrating on the core systems and the main lines of business, by 1998 the flight operations, engineering, finance and sales systems were consolidated and highly integrated. “We opted for best-of-breed solutions in each case, exploited our key client status with suppliers and ensured that structured support was built into our contracts up front and tied into the overall deal – no cost surprises required after the event,” she adds.

In fact, Kernan says, championing the strategic move to direct sales via the web was “the first time the IT department stuck its neck out.” It was a major decision considering that, for example, 60pc of Ryanair’s ticket sales were still done through travel agents at that stage.

Ryanair has found first class business partners for its operations but they are mostly in the UK or continental Europe despite the management headquarters in Dublin and the Irish status of the company. “That is largely because we have been a pan-European operation in fact and ambition for some years, so we needed scale and people who had done various things before. We also needed – every time – the ability to implement projects speedily because we were growing at 20pc and 30pc a year all the while. So we went with BT, for example, and are now dealing with Deutsche Telekom in middle Europe,” she adds.

One poor experience with an Irish-based systems firm at an early stage did not help, she acknowledges, but the choices of larger, UK-based partners were each made looking at the broad picture. She is, however, scathing about the Irish banking system: “We were in discussion for a full year about having web payments processed here but just gave up. We could not believe the negativity – especially given the sums of money and huge potential profits involved.”

Ryanair went to Barclays and has nothing but praise for an excellent service. “Three years later we still cannot take Laser payments from Irish customers, while we can take UK Switch debit cards and everything else and will shortly be taking German payments through the ELV payment system – by far the most widespread plastic in that market,” Kernan continues.

Our supposed government commitment to IT also draws Kernan’s ire, not least because she regularly sees the advances being made in other countries’ administrations. “There’s a lot of talk and little commitment. Quite apart from broadband and all that, anyone who knows anything about IT can see hundreds of examples of places here where technology could bring efficiencies and lower costs. I visited the Coombe Women’s Hospital recently – same old paper files being fetched and carried for each patient. Objectively, it’s just ludicrous. If there was a will there’s just so much low hanging fruit in State institutions that could yield instant cost savings – and better service – for very modest investment,” she concludes.

Career path

Brona Kernan is one of the few female past pupils of Crescent College, Limerick. A graduate of UCD, a degree in economics and statistics took her on a five-year consulting career with Andersen Consulting in Ireland and further afield to California and Prague. She worked in airline leasing in Shannon before being hired in 1994 to head up the fledgling IT function in Ryanair.

By Leslie Faughnan