The parable of Ryanair

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SOMETHING HAS changed since your columnist first met Michael O’Leary, boss of Ryanair, over a no-frills sandwich lunch almost two decades ago. He still talks blarney at supersonic speed. He still rails against an unholy trinity of flag-carriers, governments and regulators. But his tone is different: less cursing (only three “fucks” in an hour) and even a moment of half-joking humility (“I would like to think I have emerged like Scrooge on Christmas morning realising the error of my ways”). Most notably, his views have mellowed about three constituencies which for decades he would reliably berate, if chiefly for publicity purposes: customers (“usually wrong”), unions (“busted flushes”) and environmentalists (“shoot them”).

The reason for this newfound magnanimity, as he explains it, is Ryanair’s size. Bad-mouthing everyone was fine when he led a scrappy upstart fighting flag-carriers lavished with state aid. But now Ryanair is Europe’s biggest airline, worth almost as much as the owners of British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France and EasyJet combined. In 2019 it carried 152m people, comfortably ahead of Southwest Airlines, the American low-cost carrier on which it is modelled. “We have to be more sensible,” Mr O’Leary says.

“Sensible” is a broad term. Ryanair has just put in a huge order for Boeing’s 737 MAX jets, which are only beginning to come back into service after being grounded in the wake of two tragic crashes in 2018 and 2019. It may be one of the rashest moves of Mr O’Leary’s career. Or it could signal that, like any insurgent-turned-incumbent, Ryanair now has a huge stake in maintaining the system it helped create. In effect, by increasing its MAX order from 135 to 210 (admittedly at a hefty discount from Boeing), the airline is betting that within a few years aviation will return to just the way it was before the covid-19 pandemic bludgeoned travel. It is a wager on the preservation of the status quo.

It is not the first time Mr O’Leary has thrown the dice at a time of historic convulsion. The sandwich lunch in 2002 followed Ryanair’s order of 100 Boeing 737-800 jets just four months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America. It was a lifeline for Boeing—and made Mr O’Leary a hero in Seattle, the aeroplane-maker’s hometown. It was a roaring success for Ryanair, thrusting it into the big leagues in Europe. In two ways, he is hoping history will repeat itself.

The first is that, if you offer people low-enough fares, not even safety concerns will keep them from travelling. The threat of terrorism did not put off passengers for long. Mr O’Leary is sure the same will happen again following the recertification of the 737 MAX by America’s Federal Aviation Administration in November, and draft approval by European regulators the same month. Ryanair calls the MAX “the most audited, most regulated [aircraft] in history”. Its more numerous seats and lower fuel costs allow Ryanair to make tickets ultra-cheap. Anyone who does not want to board it will be put on a later flight on another aircraft, Mr O’Leary promises. But, he says, “€9.99 [$12] fares will cure an awful lot of customer apprehension.”

Mr O’Leary’s second assumption is that the need to restore Europe’s battered tourism industry, combined with pent-up demand for travel, will mean fewer curbs on airlines, as they did after 9/11. This Christmas and new year Ryanair plans to bombard Europeans with adverts enticing them to fly abroad next summer, capitalising on hopes for the covid-19 vaccine. It assumes that other large carriers, such as British Airways and Lufthansa, will continue to suffer from subdued long-haul and business-class travel, a big source of revenue, reducing their ability to subsidise cheaper flights within Europe for a few years. With hotels, bars and beaches empty, Mr O’Leary thinks that European regulators will be reluctant to push more “anti-aircraft” environmental taxes. As Ryanair takes delivery of more 737 MAXes, by the summer of 2026 it expects to have almost 150 more aircraft flying than it did in 2019. In the meantime, its boss predicts, some European carriers will go bust or be acquired, further consolidating the industry—with Ryanair at the front of the pack.

Not everything will be the same as before. Mr O’Leary admits he was “much too cavalier” in his treatment of customers. These days he is more respectful. He is proud of deals he has struck with pilot and cabin-crew unions, with which he once picked fights. In the pandemic they have mostly taken pay cuts in exchange for keeping their jobs. And he notes that the MAX emits less carbon and less noise than its forerunners, which he hopes will ease concerns among green-minded passengers and people living near runways.

Be leery

The danger for Ryanair is that a supreme leader who thinks he has seen it all before fails to see that some things may have fundamentally changed—especially on climate change. Asked about the move by Airbus, Boeing’s European arch-rival, to develop zero-carbon hydrogen planes by 2035, Mr O’Leary is unimpressed. He loses interest over such engineering matters, he admits. He adds that Europe does not have the luxury of constraining air travel anyway; its lack of industrial competitiveness means services, especially tourism, are more important than ever and need low-cost flights.

He may be right. In the battle between Europe’s “flight-shaming” ecowarriors and those wanting cheap holidays abroad, the second lot may prevail. Over the next decade or so Europe’s priority may be to curb car emissions more than those from aviation. But Mr O’Leary may also be complacent. He risks locking Ryanair into a dirty technology—and a partnership with Boeing—that may be out of step with the times. He may underestimate the EU’s desire to crack down on carbon. And he may overlook the greener alternatives that could support tourism in Europe: trains, buses and increasingly electrified cars. Once Ryanair was a David, wielding its slingshot with deadly accuracy against industry Goliaths. The danger is that it may now be the one with the blind spot.

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “The parable of Ryanair”

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