Passengers on Ryanair could one day fly for free if revenues from onboard gambling and other services end the need for it to charge fares, the chief executive of the airline has predicted.
Michael O'Leary said Ryanair, the second biggest international carrier in the world, gave away about a quarter of its seats last year and that figure could rise to 50 or even 100 per cent depending on how successful in-flight gaming proved.
The Dublin-based airline hopes to launch a gambling service in the next 12 to 18 months, provided it can devise a payment system that allows it to debit a passenger's credit card before the plane lands.
Passengers will be able to gamble using either their mobile phones or Blackberries supplied by Ryanair. All the calls would be routed through an onboard mobile "sub-station" enabling Ryanair to get a cut of the call charge as well as a percentage of the takings.
Mr O'Leary said Ryanair expected to pick one of the growing band of online gaming operators to partner it in the next two to three months and begin trialling the system next summer. He predicted that if 25 to 30 per cent of passengers chose to enjoy a mid-flight flutter then it could easily add £50m to Ryanair's bottom line but the amount of profit made could be double or treble that.
Ryanair also plans to introduce onboard computer games that children can play from their seats for a small charge. The airline experimented last year with hand-held personal videos showing Hollywood blockbusters and children's cartoons but abandoned them because too few passengers were prepared to pay for the service.
Currently, services such as car hire, hotels, travel insurance and in-flight sales account for about 20 per cent of Ryanair's £950m turnover and 16 per cent of its £200m in annual profits. And Mr O'Leary predicted that non-ticket revenues would rise dramatically as it introduced more in-flight entertainment.
He denied that Ryanair would taint the image of flying by turning aircraft into gambling dens which would be unsuitable for families with young children.
"The flag carriers have been ripping us all off for the last 40 years," Mr O'Leary said. "The image of airlines today is high-cost, rip-off, poor food. I don't see how onboard gambling could make that worse."
Mr O'Leary said his message to any passenger unhappy about flying for free thanks to gambling revenues was simple: "If you don't want to do it, don't worry, someone else will take your seat."
Ryanair launched its latest free ticket offer yesterday, giving away two million seats over the next three months to passengers who book before next Friday. The airline expects the offer to help lift passenger numbers this year to 35 million. On past experience, however, only half the free seats are likely to be taken up.
Mr O'Leary lashed out at those who criticised Ryanair's flight give-aways for fuelling the rise in aircraft carbon emissions.
He said: "We want to annoy the f****** whenever we can. The best thing we can do with environmentalists is shoot them. These headbangers want to make air travel the preserve of the rich. They are Luddites marching us back to the 18th century."
Mr O'Leary also ruled out any change in Ryanair's policy towards disabled passengers in the wake of the furore caused by the removal of nine blind and partially sighted passengers from a Ryanair flight to Italy last month.
He said the limit would remain four disabled passengers per flight because that was how many cabin crew there were on board. Adding more staff would increase costs and ticket prices, he said.
"The limit is not discriminatory. It is there for safety reasons. This group of nine didn't notify us they were blind. I would take them off tomorrow."
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies