Published in January 2016 issue

The mastermind behind Europe’s biggest airline, low-cost carrier Ryanair, talks about his selfdescribed role of company clown and on how he looks back upon his many PR stunts.

Michael O’Leary, an Irish farmer’s son and an accountant by profession, started to work for loss-making local airline Ryanair (FR) in 1989, turning it into one of the most profitable airlines on earth as the original European low-cost carrier (LCC). According to Irish press reports, he is worth about €755 million (US$845 million), including the shares he owns in the airline, worth about €485 million alone.

By Andreas Spaeth

What would have become of Ryanair without the silly and ridiculous element?

The silly and ridiculous was a very important part of promoting Ryanair when we were smaller. We didn’t have lots of money for expensive advertising, so, in some cases, particularly in the age of internet and social media, the silly and ridiculous works much better for rapid promotion and building awareness. But you still have to deliver beyond that—very low fares, very reliable and safe flights. I think that that combination, with a little bit of the silly and ridiculous, particularly in a company in which the average age is only 26, is important. We have a different approach from that of many other, older airlines, but that doesn’t take away the fact that we run a very professional, safe and punctual airline.

You are a 50-something now, how were you able to adapt your silly and ridiculous ways over the years?

It helps if you are up for anything, and I’m generally up for anything. But it’s also because we continuously are recruiting young people into our marketing and communications teams. We recently launched a new partnership with a car-hiring partner, so we asked, “What’s the idea for a photo shoot?” We could have used noddy [silly] cars, we could have had cars and airplanes, but then somebody said: “Why don’t we do Batman? You could hire the Batmobile and dress up as Batman and Robin.” It was a good idea. It is a bit wacky, it works very well in the social media age, in which everybody wants to see pictures. And, if you are the chief executive of a big company and you are dressed in something silly and look a bit stupid, the papers are far more likely to run the picture than if you are standing there in your suit and tie, looking very corporate and serious.

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Apparently, you were always able to adapt this method, even as Ryanair became Europe’s biggest airline.

It works better now. When you are well known, kind of rich or somewhat famous, then people don’t expect you to do stupid things. So, the more stupid you can be when you are well known, the better. After doing these Batman and Robin shots, I got more comments about my fat belly, which is good. Because if I was young and muscled and had a sixpack stomach, nobody would pay any attention. But if you a look a bit fat, a bit old and gray-haired, people will pay more attention if you look more stupid.

Would you be bored without this side of your job?

Honestly, no. I don’t spend a lot of time doing it, but, when we decide, as a company, to do it, we do it well. The car-hire partner is delighted with all the publicity they are getting. They were very nervous to have their chief executive dressing up as Batman—for them it’s a very new concept, they don’t want to look silly. And I kept explaining to them: “You have to look silly, that’s what actually gets your picture in the paper.”

So you think that Ryanair wouldn’t be what and where it is today without you pulling through all these stunts?

That’s not fair. Ryanair would still be where it is today, because it is a very good company and delivers a very good product, it has a very good management team. You could have all the silliest stunts in the world, but if the planes didn’t leave on time, if they were not safe, not clean, not young, and the fares weren’t low, nobody would fly with you. We have the luxury of running a very professional, successful, and safe airline. The ability to add silly stunts on top just helps. It also means that we spend far less money on advertising; it is another way of lowering our advertising costs, so we can pass on those lower costs to our customers as lower fares. For this care-hire partnership launch campaign, we could have spent one or two million euros. We spent, I think, about £200 instead, hiring a Batmobile in London and two costumes, and we’ve generated probably a couple of million pounds in free publicity for the partnership, that’s what works.

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What were your own favorite PR stunts over time, looking back?

Hiring a World War II tank in 2003 was probably one of the best ones; we drove into Luton airport, the home of easyJet, one of our high-fare competitors. And one of the other ones that worked remarkably well was when we launched a route from Dublin to Rome; I went up and dressed up as the Pope in the white regalia and all the rest of it. That was one for which I got a lot of criticism in Ireland and Italy, for teasing or sending up the Pope, but, again, it just generated lots of free publicity. Suddenly, everyone knew that Ryanair was flying on this route and the bookings shot up to the roof.

Are there any PR stunts that went awry, that you regret having done?

I’m sure there are, but I’m not sure I remember them. No matter what we do, we are always likely to offend somebody. We set out to try to amuse and entertain and, sometimes, we end up causing offense. When we do, I apologize. What we try to be, though, is humorous and interesting and somewhat entertaining. If we can entertain 80% of the people, while not causing offense to the other 20%, then we generally succeeded.

Would you admit here and now that this idea of toilet fees on board was a PR stunt right from the beginning?

Yeah, it always was. Standing seats in the cabin the same thing. But it still comes back to me every five or 10 weeks: “What about charging for toilets?” It wasn’t even one of our ideas, it was the BBC; during an interview, they asked what next, if that would be toilet charges. And I said: “Yeah, actually we have a high level working group working on that project as we speak.” And then, zoom, it went around the world, it’s incredible.

You’ve been talking about stepping down for the last 10 years, but I reckon you are enjoying it too much and will never step down, right?

As I said 10 years ago, I have to believe that I will step down in the next two or three years. It kind of challenges me all the time; we must do something new, something different, something interesting. If you say to me, “Stay here and do the same again for the next 10 or 15 years, and the same again and again,” it wouldn’t be interesting. And there will come a time when we’ve ordered all the aircraft, flown to all the airports, done all the websites, there isn’t something interesting to do, and then I think that will be the right time for me to hand over to somebody else. We have to put in some professional managers then, Ryanair will be the biggest airline in the world at that stage, and it may need a different kind of approach from mine.

You have proven the [Virgin Group founder Sir Richard] Branson formula wrong, that one has to start as a billionaire to become a millionaire in aviation. Did you have a unique chance in history?

We got very fortunate with Ryanair, very fortunate with the timing of European airline deregulation, we were very fortunate that the Ryan family didn’t take my advice to shut the business down. There was some luck involved along the journey. But it’s also the result of some very professional people who work together as the Ryanair team. I can set out to make a billion euros or 500 million or whatever it is, but, at the time I joined, we just had to make Ryanair survive, it was losing so much money. But it shows that, over a period of time, particularly in a small economy like Ireland, if you keep working at it, you can succeed.

Q: You are now celebrating 30 years of Ryanair, 1985 to 2015. Isn’t that just another PR stunt, as the lowcost carrier was only launched, by yourself, in 1989?

Yes, we will probably do another celebration, then again… Indeed, after I came back from seeing Southwest Airlines-founder Herb Kelleher in the States, I said, this is the way forward, and we launched our low-cost operation in 1989. But this 30th anniversary of Ryanair now is a very important date.In some new markets we serve, people ask: “Is it safe?” It gives people a very important message when we say: “Not only is it safe, but we have been doing this for 30 years. We have the biggest fleet of aircraft in Europe. We carry more passengers than any other airline in Europe and do 2,000 flights each day.” It gives them comfort that we are not some newly set-up airline. It is very important in this business that you do have this longevity, this record that shows how safe you can be.

EasyJet rightly celebrated its 20th birthday at the end of 2015. What is your birthday message to them?

EasyJet has done a terrific job, particularly in recent years. I would have been very critical of easyJet five or six years ago, with them being a high-fare airline. One of their challenges is that they are not a particularly low-fare or low-cost airline, but they have shown that, by improving the customer experience and by moving into a lot of primary airports in recent years, they can make a quite successful business. Not as cheap as Ryanair, but offering a real alternative to some of the flag carrier airlines in London- Gatwick or Paris-CDG. We’ve learned from them, from some of the things they’ve done. The real challenge for easyJet, over the next 10 years, is how they can compete with Ryanair, as Ryanair moves in on top of their airports.

What would you like to hear when Ryanair, as a low-cost carrier, turns 30 years old in earnest, in 2019?

I would hope that we will then carry 130 million passengers a year. I would hope that people will say, “Yes, they are always getting a better product, low fares but a really good customer service as well.” And I would like them to say very kind things about me when I’ve retired—which, in three years’ time, I hope I will have.