Michael O'Leary: Cheap & cheerful

He might not be politically correct, but Ryanair's multimillionaire chief executive has an answer for almost everything, from global warming to money-grabbing rivals – and he's certain he can do a better job than the big boys and the 'noddies' in the Home Office. Dominic Lawson meets... Michael O'Leary
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The Independent Online

There are many words to describe Michael O'Leary, but chic would not be one of them. The 46-year-old chief executive of Ryanair emerges at speed into Gatwick's arrivals hall off one of his airline's flights from Dublin wearing some very ordinary jeans, equally cheap-looking black loafer shoes – and what looks suspiciously like a shell-suit top. On the other hand, even if he has made a fortune measured in the hundreds of millions of pounds, O'Leary is also the boss of a company that is based entirely on the power of the word "cheap" – so he looks the part.

We head off to the Gatwick Express – no chauffeur-driven limo for the prince of low-cost travel – where he asks the ticket collector if he can have a frequent-traveller discount. "Which airline?" asks the Gatwick Express man. O'Leary flashes his Ryanair ID. "Sorry. We don't do that one." I fancy I hear O'Leary muttering something profane about BAA under his breath.

Perhaps O'Leary will have the last laugh, however. This week the Competition Commission is expected to rule that BAA's monopoly of airport terminals in the south-east of England is against the public interest: O'Leary tells me that he would be "very interested" in being part of a consortium to take over some of BAA's assets, in particular Stansted, where Ryanair is far and away the biggest carrier. So how would he improve things?

"It would be very hard not to improve any of the London airports. We'd staff security queues properly, and passport controls – which are a joke at the moment. We have people being delayed one or two hours just to get back into their own country.

"We could build a second terminal at Stansted for about £400m-£500m. BAA, of course, propose to spend £4bn building exactly the same facilities. Why? Because they are a regulated monopoly and are allowed to charge the airlines 6 to 8 per cent of their capital spend. Being the clever people they are, they have to spend £4bn instead of £400m and then get 10 times the income. So they build all sorts of marble palaces. BAA would have you believe that people want to spend half their holiday at their wonderful airport buildings, spending money at their wonderful duty-frees. Do you realise that people actually want to spend 20 minutes at an airport? Park. Go through. Get on the plane and get the hell out of the place."

I point out that one reason why travellers are now spending so much time (and money) at British airports is that we are told to arrive hours early, because of "security" checks. That sets O'Leary off on another riff in his rapid-fire strong Irish accent.

"Security is not the main problem. What other form of transport does someone stand there and take your bag off you on departure and hand it back to you on arrival? You don't do it on trains. You don't do it on buses. Checking is the most useless activity known to man. You queue up to hand in your bag and to collect it afterwards – if BA hasn't lost your bag, which, 50 per cent of the time, they probably have."

But there's still the long wait for security checks, even if you don't put any luggage in the aircraft hold, isn't there?

"Yes, but that is not the airports' fault. That's the noddies in the Home Office because they decided they'd got some incredible intelligence that lipstick was the new weapon of mass destruction: that Osama bin Laden had spent years in a cave in Pakistan developing a range of lipsticks unknown to Estée Lauder or anyone else, which were clearly the new weapons of mass destruction. It's insane."

If O'Leary was in charge of an airport such as Stansted, would he change all that?

"We are already trying to get them to change it. We are the only airline that came out, even a year ago, and said that these security provisions are absurd. It makes no difference to a terrorist whether you can bring your liquid explosive in one 200ml bottle or in two 100ml bottles. The secureaucrats have determined that you're all somewhat safer because you can bring two 100ml bottles. None of the ridiculous procedures they apply to airport security apply in the Underground. What was the last thing to be bombed by terrorists? The Underground – where they still let you take as many bags on board as you want.

"When I say this, I'm told we don't care about airport security. We do care, which is why we should call these secureaucrats idiots when they come up with these idiotic regulations such as lipstick is a weapon of mass destruction. It's been a weapon of man's destruction for a couple of centuries, but that's another matter."

O'Leary, as you might have gathered, has little interest in courting respectable opinion. This is most evident in his tirades against those issuing dire warnings about his industry's effect on the environment, notably through carbon emissions. One of his colleagues suggested last year that public concerns about this would begin to affect demand for air travel, but O'Leary sees no reason why they should.

"Most people when they are asked the question, 'Do you want a better environment?', say yes. But will you stop buying kiwi fruit in Sainsbury's because they've been flown half-way round the world? No. Talk is cheap – free, in fact. And it makes people feel better. But the reality is ... look out of the window of this carriage, Dominic, what do you see?" Rain, I say.

"Exactly. This is the middle of August. The skies are grey and the forecast is continued rain. OK, your two political leaders, Brown and Cameron, are pandering to the chattering classes, so one of them is taking a holiday on a wet beach in Suffolk and the other is down in Cornwall. They should be flying off for two weeks in the sun like the rest of the population does."

But does O'Leary, in the phrase of the moment, "dispute the science of climate change"?

"Don't call it climate change, because climate has and always will change. If it's global warming you're talking about, the jury's out. Global temperatures decreased from 1945 to 1975. They rose between 1975 and 1998, and from 1998 to 2008 they have been absolutely flat. Does that mean there is no global warming? I genuinely don't know.

"But what we do know is that man-made CO2 emissions account for less than 10 per cent of total CO2 emissions; and air travel accounts for just 2 per cent of that 10 per cent, which is 0.2 per cent. So get on with it. Go fly and enjoy your holiday. Marine transport accounts for twice the emissions of the airline industry and nobody is saying 'tax the ferries'."

But the airline industry's emissions are growing much more quickly, aren't they?

"Yes, but Ryanair's CO2 emissions have reduced 50 per cent per passenger over the past five years."

I point out that this is not the same as he claimed last year: that the fast-growing Ryanair had reduced its total carbon emissions by 50 per cent, a statement the company later had to retract.

"We issued a press release with a typo which excluded the fact that this was per passenger, rather than for the airline as a whole."

For the only time in the interview, O'Leary looks almost sheepish: "OK, so it was rather a big typo."

As things have turned out, the very rapid increase in oil prices over the past year has had the same effect on the affordability of air travel that would have been brought about by a "climate levy". So is this the death-knell for cheap air travel, and especially a business such as Ryanair?

"It's the best thing that's ever happened to an airline like Ryanair because you have airlines such as BA not just increasing their fares but scamming up the fuel surcharges. The gap between BA with their fuel surcharges and Ryanair with low fares plus a guarantee of no fuel surcharges is getting wider – which is why BA's short-haul traffic is falling by 3 per cent and ours is growing by 19 per cent. Now, with oil coming back from $140 a barrel to $110, there has been no sign of BA reducing its surcharges. Not a hint. They won't give it back because they are just a bunch of dishonest rapists."

I ask O'Leary if he would like to reconsider that remark, for the record. He puts on a mock English accent: "We respect our competitors, we value their judgement." But then he goes back into his normal Irish brogue: "Sorry, no: they're just a bunch of high-fared, dishonest rapists."

Apart from his competitors, the British Home Office and environmentalists the world over, Ryanair has also managed to offend the disability movement: stories of how the airline has refused to provide the elderly or the infirm with wheelchairs have mounted up over the years. Does Ryanair hate the handicapped?

"We don't. We carry more than two million of them every year. There's a lie being perpetrated here all the time. We happily get wheelchairs on the aircraft, always have, always will. But we don't believe that the airline should be paying to get wheelchair users through buildings that we don't own. Now we ask every passenger who flies with us to pay 50 pence or so to defray the cost to us of paying someone to come out with the wheelchair and put them on board the aircraft. If you don't like the wheelchair charge, don't fly with us. But you can't expect all these services to be provided for nothing. We're not some bloody government institution. We're supposed to be making a profit."

Ryanair's habit of whacking on extra charges is probably the biggest source of complaints against it. Indeed, I tell O'Leary that when I used his airline for a trip to Klagenfurt last year, I was irritated by the extra charges for checking in, and the penalties above that.

"Don't complain about checked-in bags. You're the one who checked them in. Pay it. If you don't want to pay check-in, use web check-in. If you don't want to pay the baggage charges, travel with hand luggage: we allow you 10kg. I can live happily for three weeks and change my clothes every day with 10kg of luggage. It just needs educating passengers away from this notion that you're going to Klagenfurt for a week and you have to take five bloody suitcases."

I should add that O'Leary was grinning as he gave me this telling-off. He rather enjoys the image of an irascible Irishman. Is he really like the character he plays in public or is there a sensitive soul underneath?

"Privately and personally, I don't think I'm quite as obnoxious as I come across. But it gets great publicity – the more controversial you are, the more publicity you generate for Ryanair."

The question remains: how long can O'Leary keep up this amazing act? He's made his vast fortune, when is he going to retire and spend more time with his racehorses?

"Probably never, is the answer. I was very hungry through my twenties to make a lot of money. But it's a very unsatisfying experience, because once you've made a lot of money you couldn't care less about the money any more. What are you going to do with it? I don't go to work five and six days a week because I want more money, I do it because I enjoy it. I go to work for fun."

After an hour in Michael O'Leary's company, I can vouch for that.

Biography

1961: Born on 20 March, outside of Mullingar, Co Westmeath, the second eldest of six children. Attends Clongowes Wood College, the Eton of Ireland.

1983: Graduates from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in business studies. Joins big accountancy firm but leaves to start newsagent's business.

1987: Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair, hires O'Leary as his personal finance and tax adviser at just 26.

1990: Ryanair is relaunched as Europe's first low-fares airline after O'Leary decides to copy the business model of Texas-based Southwest Airlines.

1994: Becomes CEO of Ryanair and makes it Europe's most profitable airline.

2003: Marries Anita Farrell, a Dublin banker. They have two sons, born in 2005 and 2007.

2004: Buys taxi plates for car to make use of Dublin's bus lanes.

2006: His horse War of Attrition wins the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

2007: Claims that Ryanair has cut CO2 emissions by half. Is later forced to retract after a 'Newsnight' investigation.

2008: Ryanair announces the prospect of a loss, due to rising fuel prices. O'Leary's personal fortune estimated at £325m.

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