Over the years, Michael O’Leary has won a reputation for running a low-cost airline — Ryanair — which seems to delight in treating its passengers and staff as badly as possible.
Last year, for example, it cancelled more than 20,000 flights over a roster mix-up, ruining the holiday plans of hundreds of thousands of people.
Only when the Civil Aviation Authority stepped in did O’Leary, a billionaire, agree to compensate passengers forced to make alternative travel arrangements on more expensive airlines.
At the same time, Ryanair fought a battle with its underpaid cabin crew, many of whom have had to endure appalling terms and conditions, including being required to pay training fees of at least £2,000 and taking up to three months’ unpaid leave a year.
Over the years, Michael O’Leary has won a reputation for running a low-cost airline — Ryanair — which seems to delight in treating its passengers and staff as badly as possible
But O’Leary has now surpassed his company’s high-handed past behaviour with his latest threat. In Brussels on Tuesday, he pledged to ruin family holidays by grounding flights in an attempt to thwart Brexit.
O’Leary said: ‘It’s in our interests, not for a long period of time, that the aircraft are grounded...when you begin to realise that you’re no longer going to have cheap holidays in Portugal or Spain or Italy, you’ve got to drive to Scotland or get a ferry to Ireland as your only holiday options, maybe we’ll begin to rethink the whole Brexit debate.’
In other words, O’Leary is contemplating punishing passengers — who as usual he apparently holds in contempt — because a majority of voters had the temerity to back Brexit. Even worse, he envisages blackmailing them into changing their minds.
You’d think such a naked piece of intimidation would have been met with cries of ‘Shame!’ Apparently not.
Carsten Spohr, head of the German carrier Lufthansa, chipped in: ‘If we could use this industry to prove to the British how wrong the decision was, that might be a good thing.’
O’Leary is contemplating punishing passengers — who as usual he apparently holds in contempt — because a majority of voters had the temerity to back Brexit
Sinister, no? Long ago I vowed never again to put myself at the mercy of Ryanair after a disagreeable experience at its hands when I was 30 seconds late checking in.
Many of you will have your own horror stories about Ryanair. As a fairly frequent visitor to Venice, I would rather never set eyes again on that incomparably magnificent city than be forced to fly to it on O’Leary’s airline.
Now, following the bullying remarks of Carsten Spohr, I shall write another memo to myself. I am hereby extending my boycott to Lufthansa.
What is really cynical is that O’Leary and Spohr know they are issuing baseless threats, and I’ll wager a case of whiskey that no aircraft of either company will be grounded for a single second.
Nonetheless, the episode offers a fascinating insight into the mindset of those who wish to reverse Brexit.
O’Leary was, of course, a vocal Remainer before the referendum, and since the result has been merrily prophesying fire and brimstone. Last year he opined that ‘Brexit will be one of the great economic suicide notes in history’.
He also urged Ireland and the EU to make Brexit as difficult as possible for Britain in the hope that the country ‘pulls back’ and decides not to leave after all.
Such voluble contributions are particularly misplaced given his nationality. For the self-publicising (though obviously talented) O’Leary is a citizen of a foreign country — the Republic of Ireland — and the boss of a company registered there.
Imagine if a British-born chief executive had involved himself noisily in the internal affairs of Ireland before that country’s 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage. I think many Irish people would have been cheesed off by such interference, and rightly so.
O’Leary is entitled to hold strong views on Brexit, but as an Irish citizen it was presumptuous of him to play such a high-profile role in the referendum campaign.
O’Leary is entitled to hold strong views on Brexit, but as an Irish citizen it was presumptuous of him to play such a high-profile role in the referendum campaign
It is even more out of order for him to have complained so vociferously since the outcome of a democratic vote.
Then to threaten the citizens of a foreign country, and promise to punish them for exercising their sovereign right in a way that ran contrary to his wishes — well, that is utterly preposterous even by the standards of Michael O’Leary’s controversial career.
It’s true, of course, that Britain needs to come to an agreement with the EU so that, post-Brexit, UK and European airlines can continue to operate in one another’s countries.
Most observers think such a deal is highly likely because it is in the interests of all parties to make one.
After all, tens of millions of Britons go on holiday every year to Europe, bringing huge benefits to local economies. For example, 17.8 million people from this country visited Spain in 2016, and most of them travelled by air.
Tourism is extremely important to the Spanish economy — accounting for 10 or 11 per cent of gross domestic product — and Britons make up about a quarter of all the country’s tourists.
In a sane world, the Madrid government is going to move heaven and earth to keep the planes flying.
The same is true of France, Spain and Italy, which receive enormous numbers of British tourists every year, and make billions of euros out of them.
Equally, millions of Poles, Italians, French and other Europeans come to this country by air, either to work or to enjoy holidays here.
Unless the governments of their countries are bonkers, they are going to ensure their citizens can continue to fly to Britain without let or hindrance after Brexit.
The great majority of airlines assume an agreement will be made. But O’Leary continues to deliver apocalyptic warnings, and Ryanair alone intends to issue a ‘Brexit clause’ warning travellers their tickets won’t be valid if there is no new aviation agreement.
When Brexit has happened, the aircraft belonging to Ryanair will continue to criss-cross the skies above Britain and the EU, leaving this bumptious Irishman with a greater-than-usual amount of egg on his face
Instead of issuing implausible threats, why doesn’t O’Leary work like other airline chief executives towards making a sensible deal? And why produce the outrageous spectacle of grounding passengers in order to teach them a lesson?
As I say, the Armageddon he invokes won’t happen, and O’Leary is simply grandstanding. But let’s pretend for a moment that he went ahead, and grounded his planes in order to penalise his passengers.
The main victims would be the not-very-well-off people who voted for Brexit in such large numbers.
For almost no one flies Ryanair out of choice. They do so because, despite many disadvantages and some inconvenience, it is usually so cheap. That’s why the airline has been such a commercial success.
But hard-pressed Brexiteers obliged to fly Ryanair wouldn’t forgive O’Leary if he left his aircraft on the Tarmac, and rendered their tickets unusable. Many would defect to other airlines.
He would also lose a lot of money (he is the company’s third largest shareholder) in making such a futile gesture.
No, it is an idle threat from a garrulous man who once said he would rather cut off his own hands than recognise cabin-crew trade unions at Ryanair — and then proceeded last year to do exactly that.
It’s hard to believe that someone who believes in little other than making money can be acting out of principle.
Presumably he has persuaded himself — mistakenly, I would argue — that there is some financial advantage to him in having Brexit reversed.
It won’t be. When it has happened, the aircraft belonging to Ryanair will continue to criss-cross the skies above Britain and the EU, leaving this bumptious Irishman with a greater-than-usual amount of egg on his face.