With typical ebullience, chief executive Michael O’Leary breezed into a central London hotel last month to unveil Ryanair’s summer 2018 schedule.
There were 170 routes in all, including destinations such as Oradea in Romania, Pardubice in the Czech Republic and Bydgoszcz in Poland.
‘We are running out of exclusive, sexy destinations so we are now going to destinations even I can’t pronounce,’ joked O’Leary, who also boasted that in July Ryanair had become the first European airline to carry more than 12million customers in a single month.
In July, Michael O’Leary joked his airline was now forced to fly to destination he could not pronounce in order to continue its record-breaking growth with 170 routes
The airline has cancelled thousands of flights across Europe into early next year
Yet today Europe’s most successful airline is in the grip of the worst crisis in its 33-year history, with calls for O’Leary to quit. The official reason for Ryanair’s cancellation of some 20,000 flights this autumn and winter is a blunder over holiday rosters triggered by a change to Irish labour laws. Yet the roster issue had long been known about – as was the fact that Ryanair in the past year lost 700 pilots (out of a total of 4,100) who’ve quit for better-paid airlines .
How could O’Leary, who runs the company like an absolute monarch, have been so ill-prepared for an upheaval fast developing into a public relations disaster comparable to the Ratners fiasco? That occurred in 1991, when the high street jeweller was ruined after its chief executive Gerald Ratner described one of his products as ‘total crap’.
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‘O’Leary has out-Ratnered Ratner and done a ‘‘Ryanair’’,’ was a common theme on social media yesterday.
With his back to the wall, 56-year-old O’Leary, in his trademark open-necked shirt and jeans, has continued to play the showman, grabbing microphones at press conferences, gurning, barking at reporters, and answering questions with the speed of a Kalashnikov.
He’s under immense pressure and there are aviation industry sceptics who simply don’t accept such a canny businessman would have messed up so badly.
They are asking if O’Leary has taken on too much with Ryanair’s proposed takeover of bankrupt airline Alitalia.
Others wonder if one of Ireland’s richest men, with a personal fortune of £708million, has simply lost his Midas touch.
For a man who likes to portray himself as a ‘jumped-up Paddy’ who took on the airline establishment, Michael O’Leary enjoyed a privileged upbringing. The second of six children, he grew up on a farm in County Cork, attended Clongowes Wood College – ‘the Eton of Ireland’ – then graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in business studies and joined an accountancy firm.
In 1987 Tony Ryan, the founder of Ryanair, hired 26-year-old O’Leary as his personal finance and tax adviser. Within seven years, he was chief executive. Working up to 18 hours a day, O’Leary was the architect of Ryanair’s astonishing success, luring passengers with rock-bottom fares, while charging them for everything, from checking in their luggage to in-flight food and drink. He exploited the cheap landing fees charged by smaller and little-used airports on the outskirts of major destinations and is credited with opening up Eastern Europe to tourists, as well as making it affordable for Britain’s chattering classes to snap up second homes all over Europe. An impatient man, he famously paid £4,000 for a taxi licence, equipped his Mercedes with a meter and uses it to travel in the bus lanes in Dublin to avoid congestion.
When challenged on the abuse of this licensing loophole, he replied: ‘Last time I checked this was a democratic republic. As long as I pay my taxes I’m free to do with my money what I like.’
And he does. He and his wife, Anita Farrell, a Dublin banker, whom he married in a society wedding in 2003, live quietly with their four young children in a mansion on a 1,000-acre estate, with cattle and a stud, at Gigginstown, 40 miles west of Dublin.
His greatest passion is racing and in 2006 one of his horses, War of Attrition, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Last year, he earned almost £3million but says that ‘company bosses are remarkably badly paid’.
‘If you can have [footballer] Wayne Rooney getting £300,000 a week I’m seriously underpaid. I don’t score as many goals but I employ a lot more people and make a much bigger contribution to the UK economy.’
He relentlessly courts publicity, good or bad. In 2003 he caused outrage when he charged a man with cerebral palsy £18 for wheelchair transport to the plane.
He later introduced a 35p wheelchair levy. ‘If you don’t like the wheelchair charge, don’t fly with us,’ he said.
However, with the growing success of easyJet and other budget airlines, Ryanair faced a quarterly loss at the end of 2013. O’Leary promptly introduced a radical new corporate philosophy – being nice. New features including allocated seating and child-friendly policies. It worked and the company now has a fleet of 400 planes and was on target to carry 130 million passengers this year. But the problems are now piling up.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, pictured, is under fire for his handling of the pilot crisis
Will O’Leary weather the storm? Lord Glendonbrook, formerly Michael Bishop, the founder of British Midland airline says there is no one in the industry as ‘driven and determined or as continuously successful as Michael O’Leary. He needs to get this over and done with by Christmas and then the damage will be containable.’
So far, there is not even a hint that O’Leary is contemplating his future. Siobhan Creaton, author of a history of Ryanair, says O’Leary’s hectoring style is rooted in his upbringing. ‘At heart, I suppose he’s a farmer,’ she says.
‘He behaves, in some ways, like a farmer does when he’s going to a market to sell his cattle.’
There are many Ryanair customers who today feel that they are being treated worse than cattle.