According to Richard Branson, the secret to running a successful airline is to keep the staff happy. They will, in turn, be nice to the passengers, who will themselves be happy and flock to fly. A charming if naive theory. Virgin Atlantic, run on this principle, has teetered on the edge of insolvency for years.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary, on the other hand, doesn’t seem especially obsessed with the morale of either his cabin crews or his passengers. He cares about watching the pennies and making sure his planes run on time. He is a brutal negotiator. When Willie Mullins, who trained his 60 racehorses, tried to increase his fees, O’Leary withdrew every single horse from his yard. When Boeing demanded he pay more for new jets, O’Leary called them ‘delusional’.
The consequence of his approach has been a revolutionary democratisation of air travel. He has built a fabulously profitable business now with more than 400 aircraft, soon to be 500. Ryanair carried 14 million passengers in April and has never had a serious accident. Before Covid, it was making a billion pounds profit a year.
Snobs might say they’d rather crash at Heathrow than land at Ryanair’s base at Stansted. Fair enough – but count me out. It is the airline in Europe least likely to cancel your flight. In May, the month of airline madness, Ryanair scheduled 13,100 flights from the UK – and cancelled just three. That’s a cancellation rate of 0.02 per cent, unmatched by any other airline. BA and Virgin Atlantic, so-called full-service airlines with fares to match, were almost 50 times more likely to cancel your flight than Ryanair. WizzAir and Lufthansa were about 100 times as likely. With KLM, 220 times. As for easyJet, it cancelled more flights than all other airlines put together. Ryanair is horrible – but without a shadow of doubt it is the best airline in Europe.
Yes, Ryanair. The airline that once threatened to charge passengers to use the toilet. Run by a billionaire troll who suggested he doesn’t need co-pilots because in a crunch, his planes could be landed by flight attendants. That’s the same O’Leary who has called the Advertising Standards Authority ‘idiots’. Who has compared state-owned competitors to crack addicts for the way they seek state subsidies. Who described climate change as ‘complete and utter rubbish’ and obese passengers as ‘monsters’. Who proposed that airport security checks should focus on single Muslim men, suggested removing seats and forcing passengers to hang from straps, and demonstrated his contempt for propriety by registering his Mercedes as a taxi, so he could use the bus and taxi lanes in Dublin.
I won’t deny that Virgin Upper Class to New York is more comfortable than row 18 on a Ryanair flight from Carcassonne to Cork. Or that the Virgin lounge at Heathrow is cosier than the hell of Stansted. But I’ve been on eight Ryanair flights in the past three weeks, and they have all taken off. Are these flights pleasant? Not exactly. Are they invariably on time? No, but pretty close. Are the seats comfortable? Hardly. Is the food good? I can’t imagine ever eating any of it. Is Ryanair cheap? It costs far more to take a cab to Béziers, my local airport, 30 minutes away, than to fly to London. I’ve occasionally flown from Béziers to London for €9.
My days of frequent long-haul flights are mostly over. My love of British Airways terminated when they demanded an additional fee so that I could choose a seat next to my wife, on a flight in club class for which I recall paying around £6,000. They have stopped claiming to be the world’s favourite airline because obviously they are not.
For European trips, I initially transferred my allegiance to easyJet. But it was neither punctual nor cheap. It now seems to be collapsing. Passengers are abandoned, flights cancelled, requests for refunds ignored. Ryanair, meanwhile, manages to process refunds and compensation for delays in a matter of minutes. Their Slovenian flight crews might be incomprehensible but I’ve heard the emergency procedure thousands of times. Just take your own sandwiches and pretend to be asleep when they start selling the scratchcards.
I had some questions for Ryanair and thought it might be amusing to talk to O’Leary. I emailed their press office and, unsurprisingly, have been completely ignored. Ryanair must certainly have the worst public relations department in the aviation industry, if they have one at all. Their insouciance is so blatant that it must be cultivated. They simply don’t care what journalists write about them.
They do, however, know what their passengers want. Slipping the surly bonds of earth is no longer much of a pleasure, whoever you fly with. Ryanair may not be the ne plus ultra in style but it gets me where I’m going for a fraction of the price charged by competitors. Until I can afford my own jet, that’s good enough for me.