There is a curious anticipation about meeting the heir to Michael O'Leary as the public face of Ryanair: like watching the Incredible Hulk in reverse, all raging monster before a glimpse of mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner.
But the appointment of Kenny Jacobs as chief marketing officer was enshrined as part of the Ryanair revolution when O'Leary, the chief executive, decided he himself was getting in the way of efforts to convince the public that the Irish airline's customer service had changed.
O'Leary, who had only ever referred to social media with contempt, was suddenly on Twitter, enthusing about web engagement and customer relations management. Ryanair would be signing up customers and "CRM-ing the hell out of them," he promised.
Step forward digital evangelist Jacobs, 40, to present a smoother version of the Irish charm – even if he's reluctant to be designated the new face of the low-fare airline.
"He said that, I didn't say that … I was hired to be the person for customers at Ryanair. But I'll be talking for Ryanair quite a bit, because the big things I'm accountable for – the brand, customers, the websites – will be what we need to talk about."
Jacobs, a native of Cork, hired from Moneysupermarket and formerly at Tesco, is suitably deferential to the boss. "He gets great headlines, long may that continue. But we've got a broader mix, we're starting mainstream advertising, and using our own media – like airports, aircraft and websites – to do a lot more communication."
The airline's customer service rebirth, announced as a decision to "stop unnecessarily pissing people off" last July, has included ditching a website that deterred casual visitors in favour of an all-embracing online strategy. Jacobs plans to forge a reviewing community and speaks the digital lingo: "The most interesting thing is Ryanair facilitating user-to-user content – this is Kenny from Manchester who's gone on a golf tour in Poland with three mates, why here and not Spain, how was it? It's much more powerful than brand-created content – it lends authority, it's Ryanair for the people, by the people."
The O'Leary of 2012 – dismissing the thousands of people on Facebook who supported a passenger complaining about being charged £236 to print four boarding passes – might have raised a disbelieving eyebrow, but Jacobs insists: "It'll be you and me putting stuff on Google+, Facebook, Instagram. Content meets social meets mobile, that trinity is what it's going to be about."
The relaunch hasn't been without hiccups – a botched revamp saw the website disappear from many Google flight searches – but Jacobs is confident the blip will not affect them, with the power of the Ryanair brand meaning only a fraction of potential passengers arrive online via generic searches. A website that works fully on mobile devices, along with a new app and electronic boarding passes, will arrive in late June. He is also excited about a new farefinder feature: "I want to fly from Stansted this weekend, spend £100 max on the flight, where can I go to? It's like flight roulette."
Starting to register its massive customer base – 81 million passengers last year – will be "the fulcrum on which the whole platform will turn. Tell us where you go, what do you like to do. It's what other businesses do, so it's not a Eureka moment."
So why did it take Ryanair so long? "There was a bit of 'if it isn't broke don't fix it'. But the competition changed and the customer changed. It's down to digital: there's full transparency of information, everyone's going mobile, and customers want you to make it easier for them. There was a big need to respond."
His arrival has seen the airline's first TV advertising campaign in decades, three 20-second clips backed by an old Marvellettes track, which Jacobs claims to have had heard described with the unlikely Ryanair accolade "classy". Ryanair will significantly increase marketing spending, but the ads do not signal a wholesale loosening of the famously tight purse strings. "There is relentless focus on low cost. We used our own staff in the ads, we shot them in Stansted and we did it in one day."
Anyway, he insists: "I'm a bigger believer in making the product itself better. That's more important than just doing ad campaigns saying we've fixed everything, please forgive us."
A section of the flying public may still feel Ryanair has much to be forgiven for, but Jacobs says: "The Ryanair's-not-nice story is one that's principally UK and Ireland – but the brand is perceived in different ways across the 30 European markets. Some of the national flag carriers are incredibly inefficient and unreliable, and consumers in those markets love Ryanair."
Whether other Europeans like it or not, more changes will come, he says: interiors, inflight entertainment, food, the business product. The future of the infamous Ryanair landing bugle is in the balance. Further ahead, transatlantic flights – when the right planes are available – will demand new levels of service. The silver lining of insane London house prices could be a low-fares transatlantic service from Stansted, he says: "As the centre of London becomes impossible to buy, more and more people get pushed out into the catchment of Stansted. It's going to grow significantly."
Pay-to-pee plans, in this new world, are definitely out. Jacobs says, though: "I might do something interesting in the loos. It's an interesting space … you could make them a brand experience."
Hours after we meet, a new Ryanair headline appears: Crew "encouraged passengers to play rowdy toilet roll throwing game to win free booze" on a flight to Tenerife. Not, perhaps, the brand experience Jacobs had in mind; but while he cracks on with the digital makeover, he can rest assured the headlines can take care of themselves.
Michael O'Leary in his own words
On rivals "Attacking BA is like kicking a dead sheep - there is not much point any more. We need to have someone to attack. It is always helpful to have an enemy out there." April 2003
On himself "I'm probably an obnoxious little bollocks. Who cares? The purpose is not to be loved. The purpose is to have the passengers on board." June 2006
On Ryanair's green credentials "We can put more passengers in our planes, we have a fleet of new aircraft that are more fuel-efficient, we take less weight. Entire Brazilian rainforests of waste come off BA's aircraft with all that extra packaging, the ancient planes, the waste of space in business class." June 2008
On "pay-per-pee" "If someone wanted to pay £5 to go to the toilet I'd carry them myself. I'd wipe their bums for a fiver." June 2009
On "pay-per-pee" (again) "I still want to do that, but it rests on a misperception to suggest we'd make money from charging for using toilets. We'd give that money to an incontinence charity." November 2011
On the brand "It keeps being peddled [that] Ryanair's the most hated brand. What the hell are you surveying? 99% of people don't think what's my favourite brand, they look for the cheapest fares." November 2013
On cabin crew stripping for the Ryanair calendar "We get slagged off for the calendar even though we raise €100,000 for charity every year. A bunch of academics at Trinity did one this year, getting naked behind violins and books and things, and it was all: 'Ah, isn't that nice?' But when Ryanair does it, they're exploiting their cabin crew, sexualising them." March 2014
To MPs and the taoiseach at a British-Irish Assembly in Dublin "Addressing such an august body reminds me much of making love to the Queen of England – you know it is a great honour, you're just not sure how much pleasure it is going to be." March 2014
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