A brief history of Ryanair

Love it or loathe it, the low-cost airline has changed how we fly.

by Mark Tungate
Last Updated: 07 Nov 2017

Booking a low-cost flight is beginning to feel a lot like gambling, with the advantage that the amount you have to put up front is ridiculously small. Which is one reason why Ryanair will probably survive the latest blow to its reputation, along with its size and maturity.

Monarch was by no means young, of course – it launched in 1967 – but compared to Ryanair it was a minnow, struggling in an increasingly crowded market and serving a number of destinations that had lost their appeal due to terrorism and political unrest, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.

Monarch’s long history underlines the fact that, while budget airlines feel like a recent phenomenon, they’ve been around for years in some shape or form.

Iceland’s Loftleidir launched the first low-cost flight across the Atlantic, from New York to Luxembourg, in 1955. In the 1970s the charter airline Court Line dressed its cabin staff in Mary Quant but sold salads or sandwiches from coin-operated cubbyholes in the backs of its seats.

And of course there was Freddie Laker, the wily entrepreneur who launched the cut-price transatlantic service Skytrain in 1977. The big carriers slashed their own fares to put him out of business, but by the time of its demise in 1982, Skytrain had proved that most people gave not a jot for free meals, movies or extra legroom if they could fly for less. The runway was cleared for Ryanair.

Can’t buy a frill

The elements of the low-cost model are more or less visible to passengers. They include single-class service, the use of ‘secondary’ airports that charge lower landing fees (ah, the glamour of the Luton to Beauvais run!), deploying staff in multiple roles, non-reclining seats, and additional charges for checked bags, on-board snacks... just about everything, in fact.

Behind the scenes, low-cost airlines also hedge on fuel costs by buying in bulk while prices are low, and push for modifications in aircraft design that allow for more seats inside and reduced drag outside.

Ryanair was started in 1984 by a group of Irish businessmen, including Tony Ryan, founder of aircraft leasing company Guinness Peat Aviation. It began flying between Waterford and Gatwick Airport to compete with British Airways and Aer Lingus, adding the Dublin–Luton route in 1986.

The true mastermind of Ryanair’s pared-to-the-bone service was its CEO Michael O’Leary, who had been keeping an eye on US low-cost operators like Southwest. In 1990, Ryanair re-launched as ‘Europe’s first low fares airline’, according to the history section of its own website. Its innovations included ‘high frequency flights, moving to a single aircraft fleet type [and] scrapping free drinks and expensive meals on board’.

In 1992 the European Union deregulated the airline industry, allowing European carriers to greatly increase their scheduled services across the region – an opportunity Ryanair seized. Then came another game-changer: the internet.

From nasty to nice

Ryanair’s website came online in 2000. Nine years later, it was able to dispense with check-in desks: passengers now did everything online, apart from dropping off their bags. The entire process of filling a plane and getting it aloft had been streamlined. 

Ryanair’s ultra-low-cost model was occasionally criticised – but the airline itself was happy to make outrageous statements as a way of stirring publicity. O’Leary once mentioned in a BBC interview that he was thinking of charging passengers £1 to use the on-board toilets. He later admitted that the idea was unfeasible and went against EU regulations. (‘Spend a penny, pay a pound with Ryanair’, The Guardian, 27 February 2009.)

Ryanair took a similar no-frills approach to advertising, with internally produced black-and-white print campaigns that courted controversy: a 2012 example featuring lingerie-clad flight attendants under the line ‘Red hot fares & crew’ attracted the ire of the Advertising Standards Authority.

But the airline’s skeletal service also equated to a lousy customer experience – exacerbated by tetchy staff – and passengers began to drift away. Chastened, the airline launched a campaign of improvements, such as allocated seating, permitting a second carry-on bag and more flexibility on baggage size. Profits began to rise, although a drop in fuel costs also contributed. (‘Fewer rules, less hassle, more profit – how being nice paid off at Ryanair’, The Guardian, 30 May 2015.)

The low cost revolution

Which brings us to Ryanair’s latest patch of turbulence. Hard times may lie ahead: the airline has pulled out of its Alitalia bid and may yet face legal action from the Civil Aviation Authority.

O’Leary himself has spoken of the looming danger of more mass cancellations if a new agreement on European flights isn’t reached before the Brexit deadline in March 2019.

As for the damage to its image, passengers who no longer trust Ryanair have plenty of alternatives. While researching my book, I found that there were more than 30 budget airlines serving Europe alone.

Interestingly, though, almost every report on the Ryanair debacle insists that the long-term impact on the airline will be limited. It is big, busy and lean. Its brand positioning is simple: it offers cheap flights. Really, really cheap flights. And for those, customers will keep coming back.

It’s easy to moan about budget airlines – especially when your flight is cancelled – but they revolutionised travel. When I was growing up in the 1970s, my parents took us on holiday every year. To Bournemouth. When you had a normal job and two kids, ‘abroad’ was a luxury. If I wanted to know what Rome looked like, I had to watch Return of the Saint.

Ryanair and its rivals changed all that. Flying, while not always very comfortable, has definitely been democratised. We’re all part of the jet set now.

The Escape Industry: How Iconic and Innovative Brands Built the Travel Business by Mark Tungate, is published by Kogan Page, £19.99.

Image credit: Ryanair

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