"The many faces of a maverick"


Oct 29, 2003
This appeared in todays Globe and Mail. Selected excerps below:

After more than a decade of calling European transportation officials "wankers," journalists "mutton heads," environmentalists "half-witted loons," and slagging competitors as "bastards," Ryanair chief executive officer Michael O'Leary decided he was bored. ... ... ... Then came the credit crunch and the recession. Guess what? Mr. O'Leary, 47, claims to be positively energized by the whole mess and has put off his retirement by several years.

Airlines are falling out of the sky like Sopwith Camels in First World War dogfights, handing Ryanair the biggest potential growth opportunity ever. ... ... ... As routes are dropped, Ryanair leaps in. Its expansion has been especially quick in Italy, Spain, Germany and Eastern Europe. "If you have a huge price advantage, you can grow quickly and screw everyone else," he said.

Exploiting weakness among his competitors will allow Ryanair to double the size of its fleet, its passenger numbers and profits by 2012, he said. He is so confident about sustained double-digit growth that Ryanair is considering an order for 200 to 300 new aircraft

Under Mr. O'Leary, the cheapie formula was brutally refined. To save money on aircraft purchase and maintenance costs, the seats on the Ryanair Boeings do not recline. Nor are there magazine pouches, which speeds up cleaning and saves weight. It never uses fuel surcharges and often relies on ultracheap, even free, tickets to trigger booking frenzies. In the newest promotion, a million seats are going at €10 ($15.89) apiece.

The kicker is the charges. While Ryanair has by far the cheapest average ticket price in Europe - €44, or about 50 per cent less than easyJet, its main discount airline rival - it makes passengers pay for every little service, from checking a single bag to getting a cup of water. "We can't charge for a pee because Boeing hasn't made a toilet door to take coins," Mr. O'Leary said.


Ryanair did more than push the Southwest formula to the extreme. It relied on Mr. O'Leary's extreme Type-A personality, and sarcastic, profane remarks, to badger the competition and European transportation bureaucrats and to promote the airline. In a company statement last week that combined the announcement of new Gatwick routes with a defence of the 2009 "Girls of Ryanair" calendar, Mr. O'Leary said: "Loony groups like the various Institutes for Ugly Women are simply jealous of our good-looking girls."

Rude ads are designed to generate buzz, even outrage, in Mr. O'Leary's belief that there is no such thing as bad publicity, unless it concerns safety.

I took Ryanair because I wanted to save some money. The ticket, including tax, came to €243.68, about half the price of any other airline on the three-hour Rome-Dublin route. I wondered how Ryanair could keep flying at those prices. Within seconds of boarding, I found out. Ryanair charges for every little thing and employs its planes as airborne malls.

The fee for a single checked bag (return) is €20. The second bag costs €40. There's also a €10 airport check-in fee. Once in the air, you don't get so much as a cup of water free. The prices are extortionate. A half-litre bottle of water costs €3. Ditto the "gourmet" coffee. The "hot breakfast bap," which looked like disfigured Egg McMuffin, was €5.

The sales pitches never end. The plane's loudspeakers blared ads for Ryanair offers such as Christmas gift vouchers. The overhead storage bins were covered in Ryanair ads. Flight attendants cruised the aisle flogging scratch cards (first prize was a new Fiat 500), airport bus tickets and other fare such as perfume.