Belfast Telegraph

The wingman: Ryanair boss on his journey to the top

In an exclusive interview, Michael O'Leary opens up on trying to buy Aer Lingus and ruling the sky

By Eoghan Corry

Michael O'Leary doesn't do interviews. He does performances. Like a great stage actor, he listens attentively to each question, waits for his cue and off he goes with Shakespearian aplomb, only with more swear words.

He has heard all the gripes before and has a mantra to reply to all of them. He interjects frequently that Ryanair have the cheapest fares and the best punctuality, in case he might drift off message.

The office in which the interview takes place makes its own statement. Unexpectedly, Ryanair lives in a square no-frills, three-storey building just south of the second terminal in Dublin where O'Leary is always complaining about the cost of the rent he pays to the Dublin Airport Authority

In the morning, the small front office is like a terminal in itself, with hundreds of cabin crew passing through.

A banner over the sales area reminds the team of the sales targets (during the interview O'Leary denies that there is any sales target on ancillary revenue, but then says he wants it to be 20% of overall revenue).

O'Leary comes down personally to greet his guests and walk them up the stairs, magnanimous and welcoming and courteous.

He has steered the airline to what it is today: the second largest airline in Europe by passenger numbers after the Lufthansa group, one-and-a-half times the combined size of BA and Iberia, seventh largest company in Ireland and 14th largest airline in the world.

He offers a coffee from a cardboard cup. Free coffee from Ryanair - it doesn't get better than this.

You can safely bet no other top-10 airline CEO sits in an office with a high visibility coat hanging on the hanger in the corner.

There is a stack of boxes on the floor (carpet in the corporate blue, walls pale yellow), three short shelves in the corner containing an out-of-date Atlas ("that's where we plan where we are flying next," he told me on a previous occasion).

He runs his expanding 80-million passenger empire from a plain black desk with a few scattered papers, a nine-inch screen and small keyboard discreetly away to his left and a jacket over the back of the chair. A TV sits on a wall mount to his right.

The banner over the desk states simply: "Ryanair, the low-cost airline." On his desk he keeps one of the loyalty cards from the 1980s, to remind him never to do that again.

There is an unpretentious second table surrounded by seven chairs for meetings. This is where the interview takes place.

He talks in that familiar, enthusiastic style, varying the pace of the conversation, stopping in mid flow to take supplementary questions without complaining.

He uses expletives, but with more care than in the past, employing them to emphasise a point, in that peculiarly Irish way. If there is a 'f**k' in mid-sentence, it is to indicate a particular annoyance or to generate humour.

O'Leary's conversation is a zig-zag flightpath of contradictions, as befits a man who treated the attempt to get his hands on Hangar 6 in Dublin Airport as if it was Napoleon's march on Moscow, and treated the game-changing bargain 100 Boeing 737-800s deal of 2002 like it was a junior camogie match in Mullingar.

But the impending bid to take over Aer Lingus is an expensive venture, eating up funds and management time - a contradiction for someone who preaches the mantra of staying focussed on cheap fares and on-time arrivals.

He doesn't want to bring Ryanair into major airports like Charles de Gaulle or Frankfurt-Main. Nor does he want to get his hands on cheap long-haul aircraft.

"We have no desire to take Aer Lingus and paint yellow harps on them. We need a two-airline brand strategy."

Instead, he will grow Aer Lingus from 10 million to 15 million passengers a year by taking Aer Lingus into new bases across Europe, working as Aer Lingus, not Ryanair. For example, we have a very large base in Charleroi in Brussels. At the moment Zaventem is wide open for a real aggressive competitor. You have only got SN Brussels which is badly run by Lufthansa.

"Aer Lingus could go into Zaventem, which has five or 10 aircraft, and become the main airline in Brussels."

That is the opposite of what he did with Buzz in 2004. Why should we believe him?

"Buzz was a flake. It was too small. It had 13% of the slots, God help us, at Stansted at the time. It had 12 aircraft.

"We bought Buzz, got rid of the fleet, took the pilots and some of the cabin crew, some of them still fly for Ryanair. On those routes which Buzz operated, we now have 24 aircraft."

What about his record of beating up competitors?

"The EU said that when easyJet came to Cork, Knock and Shannon, Ryanair cut all the fares, and when easyJet left, raised all their fares. Completely untrue. It is just that easyJet were never able to match our fares. Our fares since easyJet left are lower in Cork, Shannon and Knock."

The real insight is, as always, in that parting aside. "An airline is a high-volume, low-margin business," he says quietly, on the stairs, "that is what we do".

"We are not here for bean bags and pool tables. We have to work hard. It is the only way to get this thing done. That is how travel services work, bus companies, train services, airlines.

"As long as you give your customers a big price advantage, they will go with you."

And then he is gone, unloved and happy.