The airline’s CEO talks about piloting his no-frills airline through the pandemic, his reputation and what he thinks of the Government
Michael O’Leary is delayed. In fact, the Ryanair boss is so busy at a transport summit in a central London hotel that it’s unclear if he’ll have time for a proper interview. “Don’t worry, you won’t need long with him,” says a grinning business associate. “He’s on bullish form.” The conference room doors swing open.
O’Leary stands in his trademark jeans and open-necked shirt surrounded by a small coterie of potential investors. Using an imaginative range of expletives, he’s regaling them about how he “scalped” Boeing over a consignment of new aircraft during Covid by forcing them to lower their prices, before fining them hundreds of millions of dollars for late delivery. “The amazing thing is,” he says, working up to his punchline like a seasoned stand-up comedian, “they paid! I couldn’t believe it.” The investors are loving it, hanging off his every word.
The Irishman might justifiably have a spring in his step. Just four years ago his future at the airline was in doubt, amid bickering over his contract and souring labour relations. But under his leadership, Ryanair has successfully negotiated the pandemic and is now sitting pretty as one of the more reliable carriers in Europe. All while its competitors, the likes of easyJet and Wizz Air flounder, are cancelling hundreds of flights, their staffing rosters seemingly blindsided by the resurgence in demand for foreign holidays.
So, what did the ultimate “no-frills” airline get right so that they have been largely unaffected? “Completely unaffected,” O’Leary corrects. “Some of the other airlines – and it’s a judgment call – didn’t see the recovery coming as early as we did,” he explains.
“We started recruiting and training new pilots and cabin crew last November, so we began earlier than any other airline. The other thing we did very sensibly during Covid is that we didn’t fire thousands of cabin crew or pilots or engineers.”
The key was to get staff and aeroplanes into the sky well ahead of the expected recovery, the 61-year-old says, even if there weren’t any passengers. “If a pilot doesn’t fly once a month, they lose their licence. You then have to put a pilot back into a simulator for three months to get his licence back.” Meanwhile cabin crew whose hours lapse need an eight-week training course, and aircraft a larger maintenance inspection.
“We made sure, even if we had flights with no passengers, we sent up pilots and cabin crew. We sent everybody flying at least once a month. We didn’t dump them all at home and say, ‘We’ll call you in 18 months when this is all over.’ ”
Although more than happy to discuss Ryanair’s successful strategy, O’Leary – quite out of character – seems reluctant to properly twist the knife into his rivals. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t believe the airlines should be first in line to be blamed for the current misery of delays and cancellations at Britain’s airports.
An acute post-Covid shortage of airport staff, particularly in baggage handling and security, mean that even when there is a properly crewed aircraft, passengers often can’t get through to it on time. This, O’Leary says, is a symptom of Britain’s “hugely inflexible” labour market. And, whoosh, like a Ryanair 737 taking off for Ibiza, we’re on to Brexit. A couple of dozen profanities later, he’s calmed down a bit.
“I’m not re-campaigning on Brexit, but the UK is going to have to find a way to open up the Labour market between the UK and Europe, to get people in here to do the jobs which frankly British people don’t want to do. They don’t want to pick fruit, they don’t want to do agricultural labour, they don’t want to do hospitality or security or baggage handling at airports.”
O’Leary then turns his guns on the Government, whom he recently demanded send in the Army to airports. “The cabinet has less f------ brainpower than your average plant. The Prime Minister is entirely untrustworthy – not just anything he says, but certainly on economic issues.” Has he met Boris Johnson? “No, and I’ve no desire to meet him. He’s an idiot of the highest f------ order.”
O’Leary isn’t particularly interested in the rail strikes (a car will shortly take him to Stansted, so he’s not affected) save to say that Britain faces “a very difficult summer”, when coupled with rampant inflation. But what about Ryanair’s own problems? Some of its cabin crew in continental Europe went on strike, with a possible further five days planned. They are demanding better pay, with flight attendants reportedly unable to pay their rent.
O’Leary is unimpressed. “The vast majority of our people are delighted to be in jobs and also back working post-Covid,” he says, stating that cabin crew earn between £24,000 and £45,000. “Everyone can afford to pay their rent. This idea that people are on minimum wage or they don’t get paid when they don’t fly – it’s complete rubbish. He dismisses the potential disruption as affecting “less than one per cent” of the company’s operations across Europe.
If industrial action doesn’t unnerve him, how about a possible recession? “We’ve never been recession-proof but generally what happens in recessions is people trade down to the lowest-cost provider,” he says. “If you look at the companies that do better in a recession, it is the Lidls, Aldis, Ikeas, and we are the Lidl, Aldi, Ikea of the air travel industry. We have lower cost and lower fares than any other airline, and we will do spectacularly well in a recession.”
O’Leary is paid to say this, of course (there’s the share price to think of). And he says it very well. But hasn’t a once-in-a-century pandemic and the resulting lockdowns fundamentally changed the public’s appetite for travel? What about the longer-term future? “I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies when nobody could afford to fly. The vast majority of people went to the UK on boats, so it was all ferry and trains through Holyhead.
“There’s a generation of Europeans and British people under the age of 40 who don’t know what high-fare [travel] was. They’ve never grown up in an era where they had high air fares or restricted practices or legacy flag carrier airlines. They expect to be able to fly around Europe for £40 or £50 a ticket.
“You’re never going to put that genie back in the bottle. So I think there is a strong and vibrant future for low-cost air travel, around – in a non-political sense – Europe.” As for long-haul flying, O’Leary is less certain, citing the greater role of regulation and “political interference”, but he still thinks it will grow. And he doesn’t see the new Zoom-enabled culture of working from home as a threat. “People have been locked up for two years, they’ve been saving money for two years, they’re desperate to go on holiday,” he says. “People also want to be doing sales and visiting customers. It can’t be done on Zoom calls.”
O’Leary has previously been scathing about working from home, but it appears his attitude is softening when it comes to his own firm. Ryanair is now allowing some of its office staff to work remotely one or two days a week, a change the boss describes as “inevitable”. But with a big caveat. “All we’ve said is that as long as the two days a week are not Mondays and Fridays. We’re not having people doing long weekends.”
Candour, often shocking, is as integral to O’Leary’s personal brand as cheap fares are to Ryanair’s. But he can also be thoughtful and is proud of his part in having made flying more democratic. “We inherited the airline industry from transatlantic liners. I mean, that’s why pilots wear f------ brass buttons and epaulettes, because the only people who could afford to fly in the inter-war years were the Carnegies and the Mellons and all the rest of it, getting off something like the Titanic and getting on Pan Am clipper class. So we inherited all this bull----. You don’t see train drivers getting off in peak caps and braided jackets.”
It is this upper class legacy, O’Leary believes, which explains why when we get to an airport we illogically assume that someone else should handle our luggage. But we happily lug our own suitcases onto a train, so why not a plane? “We’ve transformed it from being a very expensive, luxury experience – which on short-haul flights it shouldn’t be – and we’ve made it a very functional commodity. So we’ve commodified air travel in the same way as Henry Ford commodified car travel.”
“You look at when Russia invaded Ukraine – millions of people flooded out of Ukraine into Poland, into Romania and into Slovakia. We carried them, largely, across Europe in an emergency situation. I am very proud of that.”
So engaging is O’Leary that it’s easy to slip into the solipsism that Ryanair alone is responsible for the change. After all, a lot of those refugees flew easyJet and a host of other carriers, as we all do. However, it is probably fair to say that, with its single-minded approach to cutting costs, no other company has had a greater impact.
The cheapest airline in Europe is now also the biggest, carrying 97.1 million passengers in 2022. In that sense, the comparison with Henry Ford is valid. But while the US motor magnate was a genuinely unpleasant individual, as a raving anti-Semite, among other things, O’Leary is at worst a cartoon bogeyman.
In person he is great company: courteous, entertaining, and, despite his profound attachment to swearing, clearly intelligent. And yet his public image has at times been that of a man who almost hates his customers, who’d cross the road for a fight. His press cuttings are more or less an inventory of aggression.
He has told customers demanding a refund to “f--- off … we don’t want to hear your sob stories; he has described regulators as “overcharging rapists” and competitors as “arseholes”. He once labelled travel agents as “f-----s” who deserved to be “taken out and shot”. He has advocated security profiling of Muslim men travelling alone, and only this month Ryanair was forced to drop a controversial Afrikaans quiz for South African passengers to prove they were who they claimed.
But he is probably best known for the open glee he appears to take in screwing every penny he can out of his passengers in the form of fines and extras – oversized hand luggage, lost boarding passes, you name it. Why? O’Leary smiles. “It’s a caricature,” he says. “By personality I’m reasonably quiet. I know it’s hard to believe.”
He once said that his approach had been to generate “lots of cheap, free publicity.” And he admits: “If you go back 10 years ago, I’d say ‘Ryanair are going to take all the seats out of the plane’, or ‘we’re charging for access to the f------ toilets’. But I am a lot less noisy in the UK and Ireland now. We try to be less controversial.”
That’s all well and good in theory. But then again, he has just likened the collective intelligence of the British Cabinet to a plant. He also caused outrage in Hungary this month when he branded a minister trying to impose a windfall tax on the airline as an “idiot”. I put it to him that he just can’t help himself, that the gorilla PR tactics that served Ryanair so well when it was an insurgent airline in the Nineties and Noughties are in his DNA.
“Frankly we’re so big in most parts that Ryanair doesn’t need to generate PR,” he responds. But does O’Leary, whose wealth is estimated to be more than one billion Euros, enjoy the publicity? “I’m not a celebrity. My family isn’t out there. Yes, I’ll go out and do and say lots of controversial things, but I’m not a celebrity.”
Whatever you think of his abrasive approach, in this day and age there is something refreshingly un-corporate about O’Leary. Would he advise young CEOs vying to create the next Ryanair to follow his example? He laughs – and evades the question by focusing on the sartorial. “I’m now 61. I was at the cutting edge of being un-corporate because I was the one who started in this industry when everyone wore suits and ties and now everybody wears jeans and shirts and nobody wears suits and ties. But in actual fact, the dot com and IT sector people, now they all wear the Steve Jobs black T-shirts and talk s---- all day. If you want to be a real disruptor or innovator now, you’d show up wearing a suit and tie.”
It’s hard to imagine O’Leary as particularly woke. Are the culture wars causing Ryanair a headache? “We’re trying not to get involved in those things. We’ve made certain decisions. You know, the cabin crew want the right to wear trousers; fine, wear trousers. Nobody flies with us because we’re the corporate humanitarians of the year. I frankly don’t care about the woke f------ debates. If it helps us reduce our costs and get our plane out on time, we’ll sign up for it.”
Away from the travel industry, O’Leary is probably best known as a successful racehorse owner. With a string at times greater than 200 horses, the colours of his Gigginstown House Stud have been carried to victory in two Cheltenham Gold Cups, three Grand Nationals and countless other major jump races. But he insists that he never set out to dominate racing in the style of other Irish plutocrats such as JP McManus or John Magnier. He just got carried away. “I kind of got into it by accident, and then I overexpanded over a number of years.”
Now, with his children in their teens, he is scaling back, finding more fulfilment in driving them to golf or tennis or rugby on a weekend than strutting around the winners’ enclosure. They have never possessed a games console. “And nor will they ever, while I live and breathe.” But O’Leary’s passion that his children play lots of sport has, thanks to attending a British-style prep school, taken an unexpected turn: cricket.
It gets worse. To his “utter and undying shame”, his two eldest sons have become “huge supporters” of England. He puts his head in his hands. “But hey, if they want to support the English cricket team … well, there’s not much point supporting the Irish cricket team. I don’t care what sport it is as long as they’re into sport.”
The family divide their time between Dublin and Gigginstown House, a Georgian mansion in Co Westmeath, about an hour from the capital. Along with his wife Anita, a former banker, O’Leary is a regular church-goer and the couple have brought the children up as Catholics.
“I wouldn’t die in a ditch over it and I’m not going to proselytise or force anybody else.” But he adds: “I’ve been so lucky in my life that I’d better f------ thank someone for it. It didn’t all come from innate genius on my part.”
Today, O’Leary is travelling with his daughter to join the rest of the family at their house in the Algarve. He will, of course, be flying Ryanair. “Dublin to Faro,” he says, standing up, looking at his watch. “On time, usually. But full flights.”
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