Michael O'Leary is the figure that many in the travel industry – and plenty of passengers – love to hate.
Yet the outspoken Ryanair boss is extraordinarily successful. He joined a failing Irish airline in 1988, quickly rose to become chief executive, and turned Ryanair into the world’s leading airline in terms of international passenger carryings.
How has he done it? Partly by borrowing ideas from other airlines, in particular easyJet. But mainly by going against conventional wisdom.
In the aftermath of September 11 2001, when no one else was ordering aircraft, O’Leary played off Airbus against Boeing and ended up ordering more than 100 737s at around half the list price.
This shrewd purchase has underpinned the airline’s claim to have the lowest cost-base in Europe, with fares to match. Yet while other carriers have loyalty programmes, Ryanair’s hard-line policies have provoked a kind of disloyalty scheme.
Here’s what I mean: I fly on Ryanair more frequently than on any other airline, around 20 times a year. Yet I will do everything that I can to dodge the extra costs that so quickly mount for anything but the most basic commodity of a seat from A to B.
I procured a Visa Electron card to avoid the £9.50 surcharge per round-trip for paying with a debit card. I always check in online (saving another £9.50) and never check in luggage (the same saving again).
I carry an empty water bottle through security so I can fill up at the water fountain rather than paying £3 for a small bottle on board.
And, if and when the £1 charge for using the toilet comes in, I shall carry out careful bladder management.
By proposing that the traveller should pay a pound to spend a penny, some say O’Leary has ‘done a Ratner’. Former jewellery mogul Gerald Ratner managed to destroy his business during the last recession by saying his earrings were cheaper than a Marks and Spencer prawn sandwich, but would not last so long, and describing the sherry decanters he sold as “crap”.
But while Ratner disparaged his products, and by extension his customers, Michael O’Leary spends his time praising his company, and slagging off rival airlines.
Sure, plenty of us have said “I’ll never fly Ryanair again” after a bad experience, but with a cheap, safe and on-time product, O’Leary knows we’ll be back, grumbling all the way to the departure gate.
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