There can’t be many airlines that cause as much publicity as Ryanair. It’s probably true to say that they have few fans, but a lot of passengers.

Ryanair Holdings plc, is Europe’s largest airline group, they fly to over 200 destinations in 40 countries on a fleet of over 470 aircraft. They claim to have another 210 aircraft on order from Boeing.

I don’t think I have ever heard someone actually choosing to fly Ryanair, but they seem to have the right flights at the right time and the right price. They also have an enviable safety record as well as their ability to keep to tightly to time, even if their landings are accompanied by pre recorded trumpet fanfares and the statement that yet another flight has arrived on time, or even early.

Michael O'Leary didn’t start Ryanair

The ‘colourful’ Michael O'Leary didn’t start Ryanair, he joined them in later life. Ryanair was founded back in 1985. In fact he had no background in the airline industry, he was an accountant. He had also set up profitable newsagents in the Terenure and Walkinstown areas of Dublin. He didn’t have any background in PR, but certainly knows how to use the media to his advantage.

The airline took its name from the family that founded it, the Ryan family. With a 15 seater propeller aircraft they operated a daily flights from Waterford, a city that today has a population of just 53,500, to London Gatwick. At the time, British Airways and Aer Lingus were charging a minimum of £209. Meanwhile, Ryanair's launch fair was £99.

Arrogant and prone to making comments which he later contradicts

Michael O'Leary joined Ryanair in 1988 as deputy-CEO and was appointed CEO in 1994. There is an interesting observation of O'Leary in Wikipedia. “Many press articles have described O'Leary as arrogant and prone to making comments which he later contradicts. He has been extravagantly outspoken in his public statements, sometimes resorting to personal attacks and foul language. His abrasive management style, ruthless pursuit of cost-cutting and his explicitly hostile attitude towards corporate competitors, airport authorities, governments, unions and customers has become a hallmark”. I believe most of us will recognise that description.

O'Leary’s cost cutting and revenue earning claims, such as paying to use the toilets, semi standing seats to get in more passengers etc. have caused more ammunition for comedians than almost any other airline leader. He is a one-man publicity machine, rarely favourable, but he keeps bringing in the passengers.

Open skies changed the game

It’s probably fair to say that Ryanair revolutionised the European airline industry. The EU promoted ‘open skies’ policy gave airline operators new and potentially profitable opportunities. The ‘open skies’ policy began in the early nineties, with the U.S. signing a series of agreements with other governments setting rules for air travel between them. In 1997 it opened up the European market to full competition. Open skies agreements were meant to address protectionism in the airline industry. Many governments owned their major airlines outright, or designed laws to protect them from competition and subsidize their operations.

Many longer term English residents will remember that if you wanted to fly to the UK, you could only fly TAP or BA. There were so called ‘charter flights’ (inclusive tour) but you couldn’t fly with them but there was a flourishing trade in unused tickets usually in the original passenger’s name. It was frequently stopped at check in, the market was highly controlled. These were the days when TAP and BA made great profits, they could charge whatever the market could accept. Charter flights operated as part of a holiday, flying when the tour operator wanted them. Remember Dan Air, Britannia, Caledonian, First Choice Airways, Monarch, Thomas Cook Airlines, Airtours, none survived the new freedoms of the air.

Charter goes scheduled

What the market wanted was scheduled flights at reasonable prices. British Airways launched ‘Go Fly’, (which they subsequently sold to easyJet) TAP launched a low cost operator and there were many other small operators who tried to get into this new market. easyJet was the operator that got off to a ‘flying start’, but Ryanair were also chasing the same market, and became the brand leader very quickly.

How did Ryanair do it?

Michael O'Leary had a vision, and he wasn’t hampered by good taste, good staff relations or unions. He would, and still does, attack publicly anyone who stands in his way. Currently that’s TAP in Lisbon as he wants more slots. It will soon be somebody else. Ryanair pilots grounded nearly 400 flights in 2018 and was alleged to be unlawfully trying to deter workers from striking. Cabin staff in Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain walked out for 48 hours in 2018. O’Leary’s eventually allowed unions, but then ignored them. His relationship with his passengers wasn’t a lot better, endless arguments about fare refunds, cancelled flights etc.

O’Leary’s response is always the same, you wanted cheap flights, and that’s what I give you. The fact is that he is right. Fly out of high season and you will probably get a ticket for less than the train fare from Stanstead to London. You will get a modern safe plane and in all probability on time. The crew will do their best to sell you scratch cards, overpriced sandwiches etc. Don’t worry, Ryanair still doesn’t charge to use the toilet, but that might change. Air travel was never so cheap. I sincerely believe and hope you will never see a CEO of an international company like Michael O'Leary again. You can’t fault his vision, but the way he achieves is not a great example of leadership in business.

Passengers wanted cheap and reliable flights, that’s what Ryanair offers. Cheap and full service don’t go together, you get what you pay for.