Brash Ryanair leaves rivals in its slipstream

Airline has weathered the Covid storm, coming out better placed than many of its challengers

Ryanair is predicting that air fares are set to increase over the next five years. Reuters
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There was silence, followed by embarrassed, muted laughter and much shaking of heads. Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, was addressing a lunchtime gathering of the great and good of London commerce at a charity fund-raiser.

There they were, raised, nay immersed, in wokery and do-goodery and textbook management jargon. And there was O’Leary.

He wanted to tell them why Ryanair was different, so he told a tale about how he was at the airline’s customer call centre. Someone rang up to say they wanted their money back. O’Leary listened, then said: “Which part of ‘No Refunds’ do you not understand?”

Cue the awkward gasps. There were smiles, too. Listening and watching, I got the feeling that many of those in the room, would love to behave the same — but their internal company ‘thought police’ would prevent them from doing so.

Not long after that event, I was in a queue to board a flight to Italy at London’s Stansted airport. Ryanair would do me a deal: £10 to go to the front of the line. I would still have the same seat — it wasn’t first come, first served. And the aircraft would take off at the scheduled time, but at least I would be sitting down, not standing and waiting. Talk about money for old rope. A tenner!

Also, due respect. This is a business that knows how to make money, that treats air travel with a brutal efficiency.

Ryanair is comfy in its own skin, without airs and graces. It supplies a basic service, but it works. Not for nothing is it Europe’s biggest airline.

Spend time with O’Leary and he will run through everything that is wrong with the aviation industry — how it mimics the old ships criss-crossing the globe, hence the use of titles such as ‘captain’ and uniforms with peaked caps and braid, plenty of braid.

His is a shuttle. You get on, you sit, you get off. Simple. Of course, the other, more luxurious offerings have their place, particularly on long-haul.

But Ryanair does not pretend to be something it isn’t — unlike easyJet, say, which tries to present itself as a budget airline with comfort attached. So, you might expect a carrier that operates on such a tight squeeze to head the cancellations league table. Think about it, though. O’Leary drives his company; their focus is on delivering what they say on the ticket. That’s it, nothing more, nothing less.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary makes a point at a press conference in Brussels. AFP

So, rather than be the worst, Ryanair is the best, with the fewest scrapped flights and consequently angry customers. In May, according to industry statistics, Ryanair scheduled 13,100 flights from the UK — and cancelled only three. That’s a UK sector-beating rate of 0.02 per cent. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic were almost 50 times more likely to cancel than Ryanair. WizzAir and Lufthansa were about 100 times. With KLM, 220 times. As for easyJet, it cancelled more flights than all the other airlines put together.

It's now easyJet, according to the reports, that is ground down by demands for compensation, from steaming, frequently stranded passengers. O’Leary’s lot will pay up promptly if they think the complaint is justified.

It does not alter the fact that Ryanair is the ‘bad boy’ of airlines, the self-styled rebel, the Nick Kyrgios of operators. As with Kyrgios, they are not to everyone’s taste, and O’Leary makes no bones about that.

Enough travellers, however, are fully prepared to put with the foibles (they once tried to charge passengers for using the on-board toilet but even Ryanair had to back down on that one), including using Stansted, London’s third airport, as opposed to Heathrow.

It is now reportedly easyJet that is fielding a raft of demands for compensation, from irate passengers who found themselves stranded by flight cancellations. EPA

All this does is bring into sharp relief the conditions at Heathrow, supposedly the national transport jewel. They’re regularly described as chaotic, as airlines continue to cut back and staff shortages bite. With the peak holiday season looming, they look set to worsen rather than improve.

When Covid struck, most airlines moved to make their employees redundant. The result has been that they’ve struggled to rehire sufficient staff to cope with the surge in demand once the pandemic eased. Some of those re-employed are being paid less as the companies struggle to recover losses incurred in the outbreak. Those staff are threatening strike action.

Meanwhile, a lack of baggage handlers is leading to mountains of luggage piling up. On it goes, a seemingly never-ending saga of misery. Here again, Ryanair has emerged in relatively fine shape. It’s still exposed to problems with ground staff at Stansted — an issue exacerbated by Brexit, which has driven way EU workers.

Unlike the rest, Ryanair did not lay off pilots and crews but kept them flying so they could retain their licences. Their pay was cut, but Ryanair ensured they were, as O’Leary puts it, “ready to rock and roll” once passengers returned.

Piles of passenger luggage lie outside Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport in London. Reuters

Ryanair, too, is not so exposed to spikes in the price of oil, caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It had hedged most of its fuel needs for the rest of this year at $65 a barrel, before Russia’s attack.

O’Leary is no saint — his abrasiveness and harshness can grate — but there’s no denying he is shrewd. Which is why his warning that fares must rise should be taken seriously. The pioneer of low-cost travel in Europe is predicting prices will climb over the next five years.

They’ve become “too cheap”, he says. The irony in that statement is that they’re so low precisely because Ryanair is so successful. As evidence, for example, O’Leary cites the cost of the train from central London to Stansted as being more expensive than the air fare.

He expects the average Ryanair price to go up from €40 ($40.7) to between €50 to €60. That’s due to a combination of higher oil prices and increased staff costs, air traffic control fees and emission payments. Already, they are increasing — prices to popular destinations in Spain, Portugal and Greece are up this summer — but even then, they are far short of where they were 10 years ago.

They may laugh, but O’Leary is the one smiling now.

Published: July 08, 2022, 6:00 AM
OPINION