I had made a, thankfully fleeting, appearance in the excellent BBC 2 documentary Inside the Low Cost Airlines which made a pretty good stab at explaining them as businesses. You can see it here on iPlayer and read the piece I wrote about the EasyJet boss Carolyn Call here.
The show was stolen, as usual, by Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary who reminded us again that for all the dressing up as the pope and Irish one-liners, he possesses a business mind that is quick as a trap, combined with a Leninist ruthlessness. EasyJet is doing well at the moment – the share price has more than doubled in the last year - but Ryanair wins the victor’s garlands. It’s now worth more than £67 billion and dwarfs both Easyjet and BA.
With a holiday place in Italy (book here to avoid disappointment...) I’ve been a Ryanair regular for more years than I care to think about. The relationship has been tempestuous like a grim co-dependent marriage. It was all fine when you could pick up flights for £3.99 but they are seriously expensive now.
A low point was sitting for 9 hours at Pescara airport after the 737 blew a tyre on landing. Not even the two young pilots sitting next to me on a wall outside the terminal appeared to know what the bejeesus was going on.
Ryanair is unique in being able to hand out abuse to its customers who still keep on coming back for a cruel whipping from the dominatrix Michael O’L. The airline is, as I’ve said before, the Millwall of the Skies ‘No-one likes us- we don’t care’.
Just booking its flights has become a murderous process, negotiating ones way through infuriating compulsory drop-downs peddling all manner of crap from insurance to mobile phones. This year’s stunt was to withdraw a return flight from Rome I’d booked back in January without even telling me and then presuming I’d be happy with one that left close to midnight. Try convincing the kids that’s a good idea.
And yet…two small anecdotes. A few years ago when Ryanair picked up one of the MT’s Most Admired awards, the one for marketing, O’Leary actually wrote to me personally to say thanks. No other CEO has ever done this. Secondly, one of my five year old’s friends’ mother died the year before last. The whole episode was, needless to say, beyond dreadful. The family had a number of flights with different airlines booked which had to be cancelled due to the loss of their mother. Ryanair was the only one to give them their money back free of quibbles.
In trying to hire a new au pair one is reminded in the starkest of terms how rough things are in Europe at the moment. We have had young women with up to two degrees from Athens to Madrid applying for a room in our house, as much food as they can eat, an Oyster card and a pretty modest sum of ‘pocket money’. In return they will look after our four- and five-year-old for three hours each day - a job that is among the toughest around, short of taking over from Stephen Hester at RBS.
It’s more than likely that when I go to pick up the successful candidate at Stansted she will come in, like millions of others in search of a job, on Ryanair flight with her hand baggage plus 10 kilos. And, in return, we’ll export hoards of weekending stag-do participants to Riga and Prague. You couldn’t have done that at the right price on Aeroflot in the old days. Price is all.