The uncrowned king of economy-class travel

David McCarthy reviews Ryanair: how a small Irish airline conquered Europe by Siobhán Creaton, Aurum £9.99 pbk

I admit it. I’ve always had a sneaking regard for Michael O’Leary, colourful chief executive of no–frills airline, Ryanair. That’s the same O’Leary the would–be union buster. O’Leary who instructed staff to tell unhappy customers looking for refunds where to get off. O’Leary who charged a paralysed man £18 for his wheelchair to be taken on board one of his flights.

This is also the same O’Leary, profiled in Siobhán Creaton’s entertaining book, who revolutionised air–travel and ended years of rip–off prices from Ireland’s national carrier, Aer Lingus.

Creaton, a financial correspondent for the Irish Times, explores the origins of the Ryanair story but it is the social impact that Ryanair has had, on Ireland and Europe, and Michael O’Leary’s warlike approach to competition that warrants the most attention.

Founded by ex–Aer Lingus manager, Tony Ryan, the airline was born in 1985, during some of the worst unemployment and emigration seen in modern Ireland. It’s ethos of no–frills, low–cost immediately put it into a price war with Aer Lingus, a war which raged on and off for the rest of Ryanair’s operation. When Ryanair launched, around 800,000 passsengers flew between London and Dublin annually with an average Aer Lingus ticket costing £200 return.

As Creaton notes in her book, in 2003 Aer Lingus’chief executive confessed that the national airline had been “ripping off” it’s customers for years. That changed in May of 1986 when the first Ryanair flight between Dublin and London took off — with passengers being charged an astonishing £99, half the price of an Aer Lingus fare.

The eventual establishment of low–cost air travel changed Irish society. Instead of the Irish in Britain visiting family once or less a year, regular travel become possible. More negative aspects of Ryanair’s (and O’Leary’s) gung–ho attitude can be seen in the bitter strike at Dublin Airport in where O’Leary himself abused striking employees.

Creaton devotes an entire chapter to the devastating 1998 battle the airline had with SIPTU (one of Ireland’s largest general unions). Ryanair baggage–handlers at Dublin airport, envious of the better pay and conditions enjoyed by Aer Lingus’ unionised workforce, made approaches to SIPTU. After flat refusals from Ryanair to recognise the union or negotiate a series of one–day stoppages occurred — leading to the amusing sight of O’Leary himself and other Ryanair top brass loading bags onto planes personally.

After thirteen weeks of cat and mouse, total bedlam broke out when protesting SIPTU members were joined on strike action by airport police, taxi–drivers, Aer Lingus staff and, most worryingly, emergency fire crew. Flights were cancelled, baggage piled up all over the terminal and the police were called to provide impromptu security.

O’Leary was abusive and prone to outbursts when dealing with truculent staff. Things did not always go his way however. During his war with the baggage handlers, O’Leary rounded on one of the union members and demanded to know why he should be talking to “some scumbag like you from Ballymun [a tough north Dublin estate].” The reply was one of the few times O’Leary was outdone. “I may not have gone to any posh school like you but if I did I wouldn’t let anybody call me Ducksie (O’Leary’s nickname at Clongowes Wood.)”

After the intervention of the Irish government (including a nose–to–nose shouting match between O’Leary and taoiseach Bertie Ahern) a compromise was cobbled together but O’Leary’s antipathy towards trade unionism remains undiminished.

In anyone else, most of this would provoke outrage but O’Leary’s gung–ho attitude and psychotic rivalry to competitors provoke a slight admiration for someone so single–minded. A mixed character, but you have to admire any man who has shown such undeniable chutzpah.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-08-03 12:05:44.
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