Michael O'Leary: Stormont's great for talking about stimulating tourism but it could do more to support its airports
Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary tells John Mulgrew why the low-cost carrier is returning to Belfast International Airport and why he's firmly in the pro-Europe camp
Six years ago Ryanair’s outspoken and often controversial frontman Michael O’Leary suddenly announced the low-cost carrier was pulling out of Belfast City Airport. “We were sorry to leave,” the airline chief told the Belfast Telegraph.
But the 54-year-old businessman and his airline are now back at the competition, 30 miles away at Belfast International.
And he’s firmly in the pro-Europe camp, and says there is “no upside” to a Brexit.
The Ryanair chief executive has been in the job for more than 20 years, after taking the helm in 1994 following a three-year stint as deputy.
Now, the cheap and cheerful carrier will begin its low-cost routes back to Belfast later this year.
That includes regular daily flights to London Gatwick, alongside six city and sun routes, such as Malaga, Tenerife, Lanzarote and Berlin.
But the lively Mr O’Leary called on Stormont to do more to help airlines here.
“It’s great coming back up. Coming back to Aldergrove where we don’t have a runway restriction,” he said
Despite leaving Belfast City Airport in 2010 over delays to its runway extension, he said there’s no bad blood between the airline and the hub.
There’s also a distant possibility if the airport pushed ahead with its runway extension — something it has said it off the cards — Ryanair could return, and fly into both Belfast hubs.
“We have very good relations with Belfast City Airport. We worked very well with them for a two or three-year period.
“We were sorry to leave, but we had no choice when we were promised a runway extension within 12 months and three years after flying here we still hadn’t a runway extension.
“We couldn’t fly to Europe from Belfast City and therefore we couldn’t make it a sensible, profitable opportunity. We can from Aldergrove.
“Out of Aldergrove, there are no limitations on the runway.
“If Belfast City had a runway extension, we would look at it again.
“If it had a runway extension, we would look at maybe some flights to Belfast City as well as Belfast International.”
Of course, like IAG boss Willie Walsh and airports across Northern Ireland, Mr O’Leary wants to see an end to air passenger duty — a tax on most flights out of Northern Ireland.
He said tourism is being hit here, because of the duty burden.
“It’s the only way forward for the north. A million people a year are travelling from Northern Ireland to Dublin to get lower fares that have no travel tax,” he said.
“Now, you are going to have the same low Ryanair fares at Aldergrove, but £13 APD. We are offering launch fares of £19.99, and £13 of that goes straight to George Osborne.”
The lively Mr O’Leary, who played up to the cameras during his high-profile press event last week, also wants Stormont to do more in order to help create new routes and attract airlines.
“I think Stormont needs to mobilise — the Northern Ireland tourism industry suffers significantly because there is no travel tax in the Republic, and there is a very mobile, porous border.
“I think Stormont could do more to support its airports. Stormont is great for talking about stimulating tourism but when push comes to shove and the airports are looking for some support for new routes that aren’t serviced, Milan and Berlin, they got nothing from Stormont.”
Back in July last year, the Belfast Telegraph reported that Ryanair could be set for a grand return to the city, after bidding on sought-after slots freed up amid the Aer Lingus sell-off.
At the time, Ryanair’s chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs told the paper it was in “discussions with both airports with a view to operating flights to and from Belfast in the future”.
However, while fellow Irishman and British Airways boss Willie Walsh says he’d consider buying new CSeries jets from struggling plane maker Bombardier — which revealed last month it’s cutting 1,080 jobs in Northern Ireland — Mr O’Leary says the jets are too small for Ryanair. “The jets are too small. All of our aircraft are 189-seat 737-800s, and really our economics would not survive if we went down to a 120 or 130-seat aircraft.”
But despite his personal and business view that the UK should remain part of the EU, he says some of the “wilder claims on both sides are overdone”.
“But there is no doubt if the UK leaves the EU for that three or four-year period where they are negotiating to stay in the single market, there will be uncertainty.
“We as a big investor in the UK economy will invest less. Other big firms who want to invest in the EU will not invest in the UK, they will put those investments in the Republic or Germany.”
And he dismissed London Mayor Boris Johnson’s claims, made during a trip to Northern Ireland, that the region would not be hit harder than other areas as “rubbish”.
“Leaving will damage the UK economy and UK growth for a three to five-year period,” he said.
Speaking about the new routes Ryanair is adding to Belfast, Mr O’Leary said: “Ryanair routes will be a success because we are the only airline that can deliver £20 air fares, £25 air fares, £30 air fares, and deliver them all year round.
“Also, because we are so big in countries like Italy, we are the largest airline in Italy, we can bring hundreds of thousands of visitors in here to Belfast.
“I would expect us to be back up here, hopefully in a couple of months, announcing at least one more aircraft.”
And on the issue of adding a third runway at London’s Heathrow, or expanding Gatwick, he said “it’s the wrong debate”.
“We shouldn’t have a debate on whether to have a runway at Heathrow or Gatwick,” he said.
“The Government should get out of that decision-making process — they have no role in it.
“If the three London airports want to build a runway, let them at it. That’s what business does.”
Speaking about City of Derry airport, he said it remains “a difficult market for us”.
“We’ve tried a number of routes there, but it’s a real tough market there, the volumes aren’t just there.”
And he said there’s “no question” Belfast can exist with two fiercely competing airports.
This time it's personal
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. Don’t join the airline business, you’ll never make any money.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. See above.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. Leaving my job in accountancy.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Supporting poor football teams — Man City and Munster.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Rugby and Mullingar under-11s.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. Yes, all of them, badly.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. Skiing with family in Italy. Next one is the Algarve in the summer.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book
A. Yes. Anything by Bernard Cornwell.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. Poor, orphaned, tortured, misunderstood — but we were very happy.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. Yes. Paddy Power shares will surge during Cheltenham week.
Q. How would you assess your time with Ryanair?
A. Too long, very misunderstood and hopelessly underpaid!