In 2003, a group of Ryanair staff dressed in combat fatigues approached Luton Airport, accompanied by a Second World War-era tank. They were there to conduct a mock military attack on a low-cost rival. It was a publicity stunt dreamed up by the airline’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, 56, who has charmlessly called some of his own workers “lazy bastards” and passengers “idiots” who can “fuck off”.
Luton Airport did not see the funny side. It was only two years after the 9/11 attacks. The Ryanair pranksters were banished to a nearby Holiday Inn, where, according to the Guardian, they remained “standing around dressed in combat gear, singing songs about easyJet”.
That was one of the few occasions when the rules defeated O’Leary. But now it is happening again. After mistakes in scheduling pilots’ holiday allowances, which left the airline short-staffed, Ryanair, Europe’s biggest airline, wrote to 315,000 passengers in September to inform them that their flights over the next six weeks had been cancelled. The affected passengers were told that there would be no reimbursement of expenses, such as hotel costs. Soon after this, even more flights were cancelled, affecting a further 400,000 customers.
O’Leary was forced to apologise for “a mess of our own making”, and eventually said passengers’ costs would be reimbursed. Could the man whose “flights are fuelled by leprechaun wee” finally be making a crash landing?
Ryanair is named after Tony Ryan, who founded it in Ireland in 1985. But the airline’s fortunes only began to soar after Ryan hired O’Leary. Born into a wealthy Irish farming family, he attended Clongowes Wood, “Ireland’s Eton”, and studied at Trinity College Dublin before working briefly as a tax accountant.
At Ryanair, O’Leary spotted an opportunity that others had missed. In the US, Southwest Airlines had turned an expensive form of travel into low-cost transport for the masses. With Europe’s air travel market liberalising, O’Leary realised that he could do something similar. At first, he concentrated on reducing costs. By using cheap, relatively empty airports, he crammed in more flights. By stripping down service, crew numbers could be reduced. By ditching the “hub and spoke” model, in which airlines stayed moored to one main airport, he could expand all over Europe.
In the late 1990s, Ryanair was flying five million passengers a year. The company had floated on the stock market and O’Leary’s reputation was growing. So was his notoriety. In 1998, Irish Ryanair baggage handlers decided to test the company’s “no union” policy by going on strike. O’Leary responded by loading bags into planes himself. When the then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, tried to intervene, O’Leary dodged his calls; Ahern later called him a “tooth-and-claw” capitalist. An admirer of Margaret Thatcher who has referred to himself as a “jumped-up Paddy”, O’Leary probably took it as a compliment.
Passengers, it seemed, were prepared to ignore O’Leary’s foul tongue, because the airline’s punctuality record and prices were good. After all, by 2003, you could fly from London Stansted to Pisa, Italy, for £8.99. That year, O’Leary married Anita Farrell, a banker, and joked that she would be late for the wedding because “she’s flying Aer Lingus”. Countries competed to attract O’Leary’s airline, in the knowledge that “the Ryanair effect” could transform the fortunes of cities by opening them up to tourism. In 2009, O’Leary floated plans to charge passengers to use the lavatory. That year, 59 million people flew Ryanair.
In 2012, O’Leary called passengers fined for forgetting to print off their boarding passes “idiots”, and 76 million people flew Ryanair. At the time, he told the Mirror that he had gone into business to make money, but after the first £100m, “It’s Play-Doh.”
The following year, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary airing the concerns of a Ryanair pilot, John Goss, about safety. A survey of a thousand Ryanair pilots found that 89 per cent felt suppressed when they tried to raise concerns. O’Leary fired Goss and is suing him for defamation, along with the broadcaster. Yet passenger numbers continued to rise. In 2016, Ryanair’s profits after tax rose 43 per cent, to €1.2bn. O’Leary spent less time making headlines and more with his four young children, after his wife asked him to take his holidays.
The controversy over the cancelled flights now threatens this relentless growth. O’Leary has denied that Ryanair pilots are deserting the airline – there is a shortage of airline pilots in the world. But Norwegian Air, which is Europe’s third-largest low-cost operator and is increasing its long-haul destinations, said 140 pilots had joined it from Ryanair in 2017 so far. O’Leary did not help matters by declaring in September that pilots do not have “a difficult job”.
Yet he remains defiant. Last month, he predicted that angry customers would be drawn back by Ryanair’s low prices. “Our booking engine is full of passengers who have sworn they will never fly with us again,” he said.
This article was updated on 5 October 2017 to clarify that Ryanair not only threatened, but is in the process of suing Goss for defamation.
This article appears in the 04 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer