EU referendum: Ryanair boss calls for Britain to say 'Yes' to Europe

Michael O'Leary, the Irish airline's chief executive, wants Ryanair passengers 'to help deliver a resounding Yes vote'

Ryanair is no stranger to controversial advertising. But on Thursday the Irish airline will launch perhaps its most contentious campaign yet: telling the British electorate how to vote in June’s EU referendum. 

Press advertisements, using a stylised Union flag curiously in the shape of mainland France, show a Ryanair plane flying over the Houses of Parliament, with the slogan “Vote Yes”.

The airline’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, said: “UK voters should vote ‘Yes’ to Europe and ‘Yes’ to the reformed Europe that David Cameron has delivered.” He called on his staff and “the vast majority” of Ryanair passengers “to help deliver a resounding ‘Yes’ vote on 23 June.”

Mr O'Leary told The Independent: “If you keep Britain at the heart of Europe we are more likely to see more effective reform and we won’t be left to the mercies of the French and the Germans who will make a mess of it.” He dismissed campaigners for a UK exit as "career politicians," saying "They don’t employ people, they don’t create jobs."

In the past two weeks, British travel bosses have joined other industry leaders in supporting a “remain” vote. Dame Carolyn McCall, chief executive of easyJet, warned that leaving the EU could return Britain to the 1990s, with passengers flying on “government-owned airlines between state-controlled airports.”

The UK began promoting the concept of “open skies” long before the rest of Europe. Agreements signed in the 1980s with Ireland and Holland were the first steps along the road to full, free access for European airlines to fly anywhere within the EU. That legislation, which took effect in 1994, enabled Ryanair to expand rapidly away from its home turf, starting with a route between Prestwick and Stansted - quickly followed by the launch of easyJet between Glasgow and Luton.

Ryanair backs staying in EU

Ryanair and easyJet are now the biggest budget European airlines. They extend way beyond their home countries of Ireland and the UK, with busy domestic operations in France, Germany, Italy and Poland.

Yet Michael O’Leary rejected Dame Carolyn’s prediction that airlines would face more restrictions. He told The Independent that the status quo on aviation would probably prevail: “It won’t change as long as the UK signs up for the ‘open skies agreement,’ which is the contradiction at the heart of the ‘Leave’ campaign. They want to leave Europe but they want to sign up for all the European treaties. Like Norway, if you want to sign up for the European treaties, you have to obey the rules, and you have to pay.”

Few large companies get involved in the domestic political disputes of other countries, but Ryanair has some previous experience. It recently launched an online petition seeking to remove the right to strike from Europe’s air-traffic control (ATC) unions, saying: “Since 2009, French ATC have staged 40 days of strikes.”

Not all budget airline staff will support their bosses. Andy Jones, a Bristol-based pilot for easyJet, told the leave.EU group that competition from abroad was adversely affecting UK flight crew. Speaking in a personal capacity, he said: “Over the last decade, like many British pilots, I have worked in Britain for a British company but have frequently found the young co-pilot accompanying me in the flight deck has been Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian, Belgian or Danish.

“Newly qualified pilots of jet airliners in the UK are frequently on zero-hour contracts and largely laid off during the winter months. Wages have shrunk dramatically.”

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