Michael O'Leary: Ireland's oligarch flying by the seat of his pants at Ryanair

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The Independent Online

It is the morning after the profit warning the day before and yet Michael O'Leary is his usual ebullient, irrepressible self. The Ryanair boss ought to be feeling hung over having just seen £60m wiped off the value of his personal shareholding in the Irish no-frills carrier. But not a bit of it. "I love this. It is much more fun when the world is falling apart than when it is going boringly well," he chirps.

Mr O'Leary is on his way to New York and Boston for a roadshow of institutional investors, except that he is running 24 hours late. His Virgin Atlantic flight the previous day was snowed in leaving him stranded at Heathrow. "I am happy to confirm that the high-cost airlines don't look after you," he declares. "I got feckin' dumped at Heathrow by Virgin and there were no buses or hotels. So much for the claim we care for you when the low-cost carriers don't."

Ah, Mr O'Leary. He with the gift of the gab, motor mouth, the king of the expletive deletive, the man who dreams of making Ryanair the biggest airline in Europe and sports an ego to match.

He gets around Dublin in his own licensed taxi, which he bought so that he could slip into bus lanes to beat the city's notorious traffic jams. Not quite in the league of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch who, until he fell out with the Kremlin, had a blue flashing light fitted on top of his Zil. "I did consider trying to buy one as well but they told me it would be illegal," quips Mr O'Leary

Ireland's very own oligarch might still be laughing but the City is not. Ryanair's share price is 25 per cent off and the airline is staring at its first fall in profits in 15 years. It has paid a terrible price for flooding the market with cheap seats and then discovering that it can't even give them away for free.

But is Mr O'Leary daunted? Hardly. He is still plugging away with the message that Ryanair is Number One, rattling off an impressive stream of statistics to prove how the competition, be it British Airways or easyJet, is being left behind in its slipstream. "My job is to market the airline and keep the costs down," he says. "I don't go in for self-promotion or any of that Question Time, Boss Swap or Back to the Floor shite. I do Back to the Floor every week in Ryanair so I don't need some feckin' TV programme to remind me what it's like."

For the next few days, it will be not so much back to the floor as back to basics for Mr O'Leary as he seeks to explain to a sceptical investment audience how he got it so badly wrong. For the current quarter, fares are forecast to be 25-30 per cent down on a year ago. Instead of a 10 per cent increase in profits for the year, Ryanair expects to report a 10 per cent decline. As he himself admits: "We had been saying fares and margins would fall. What we didn't foresee was that they would come down this bloody quickly."

Investors, he says, will just have to get used to it. "Yes, there is going to be a blip in profits this year, but, hey, live with it. Remember, Tesco had a drop in profits four years ago and nobody said its business model was bust. Our profits have fallen for the right reason - not because we have a cost problem but because fares have gone through the floor. We expected that to happen but we did not expect it to happen in the space of one quarter."

He has a point. Even with the dramatic decline in fares, Ryanair's profit margin this year will still be north of 20 per cent. BA may have overtaken Ryanair again in terms of stock market value (a situation which will be rapidly reversed, promises Mr O'Leary) but with margins of only 5 per cent, it would die to have the problems Ryanair has.

Nevertheless, Mr O'Leary knows that Ryanair is, for once, in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons and that he has to defy the old City saw that profit warnings come in threes. "It is our job to show that this is a bump in the road and not some hole we have fallen into. Every quarter's figures are important but the next two will be especially so."

As if the profits downturn was not bad enough there is another mantrap waiting around the corner for Ryanair - next week's European Union ruling outlawing the subsidies the airline gets to fly to Charleroi. If the tactics of the big flag-carrying airlines drive him to distraction, then the Brussels bureaucrats send Mr O'Leary crazy.

"It's a complete fuck-up which is going to overturn 20 years of competition in air travel," he rages.

"But it wouldn't be the first time the EU has made a balls of an investigation. They are trying to come up with some communist rules, which means that everyone pays the same high costs and charges the same high fares. This is an attack not just on Ryanair but on the entire low-fares sector."

So is he going to call a ceasefire in his relentless war of words with easyJet and forge a united front? Not likely. "There will be no truce with anybody. EasyJet is not the brightest sandwich in the picnic basket at the best of times but it can look after itself."

And Mr O'Leary can look after himself too. Beneath the earthy language and trademark jeans and rugby shirt lies a smooth operator. He comes from wealthy farming stock and was educated at the Jesuit boarding school of Clongowes, the Eton of Ireland. He went on to become a tax consultant to, among others, Ryanair's founder Tony Ryan, which is how he came to land the chief executive's job in 1993.

For all the fame and fortune, he knows that one day he could, Icarus-like, come falling out of the sky. "Any chief executive who doesn't have a sense of their own mortality is heading for disaster. They read articles describing themselves as visionaries and geniuses. They shouldn't believe it any more than when the press are calling them gobshites and wankers."

Since last September, when he gave up being Ireland's most eligible batchelor and married Anita Farrell, a Dublin banker, there has been an extra dimension to his life. He would like to have children but would prefer they did not end up in the airline business. "I would like them to play centre forward for Manchester City so they could realise my unfulfilled dreams."

So has marriage slowed him down at all? "I don't think so. The only thing which is slowing me down at the moment is the lack of de-icing equipment at Heathrow."

And with that he sweeps off through security to board his Virgin flight. He may be the king of no-frills but today he is flying Upper Class. Well, it has been a tough week.