Ryanair’s O’Leary: Mad, bad or just a very clever boyo?

There are two, contrasting schools of opinion on the theory: ‘Any publicity is good publicity’. But as a gnarled, old newsman, who’s witnessed many self-destruct buttons pushed over the years, I cite Gerald Ratner as the example that disproves the rule.

The jewellery tycoon, you’ll remember, once boasted the bling he flogged in his shops was ‘crap’ and paid the ultimate price…near ruin, ignominy and remorse.

People get it into their heads we media types can make or break someone at will, but that’s over-simplistic and often tripe.

Publicity-addicts are well capable of shooting themselves anywhere in their anatomy, since they’ll do practically anything to grab attention (i.e. Nadine Dorries, the maverick Tory MP opting to go on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here displayed all the hallmarks of a calamity waiting to happen and, predictably it did).

Frankly, I’ve lost count of the number of calls I’ve fielded on national newspaper news desk from agents/PRs/mums & dads/siblings/friends of wannabe celebs begging me to send a photographer round to such-and-such a nightclub at 4 a.m. when their charge can be snapped, rat-legged and drugged up to the bulging bosom, staggering out.

‘Would you prefer her to have her knickers round he ankles?’ I remember one PR plaintively asking. ‘That’d really spice up the pic.’

Invariably, the request was filed in the appropriate receptacle under my desk, commonly known as the waste-paper bin.

FLYING HIGH: Ryan continues to pile up the profits, despite its boss’s controversial opinions

On the other hand, there’s always the exception that proves the rule and by far the best exponent of this is Michael O’Leary, boss of ‘no-frills’ airline Ryanair, who has deliberately turned it into the world’s most talked-about carrier.

O’Leary knows his controversial prognostications invariably lead to a blizzard of publicity – nearly always bad. Yet his company recently recorded a 10% rise in profits for the first half of the year to £477M atop the mountain of gains Ryanair has made since it first took off in 1984.

While others dub the Irishman mad, bad and dangerously to know – as Lady Caroline Lamb once described her lover, the poet Lord Byron – I say O’Leary is nothing if not a consummate showman, astute businessman and an archly-cunning media manipulator.

His speciality is floating outrageous ideas, the more shocking the better – like suggesting passengers pay a £ or €uro to spend a penny in mid-flight or even planes minus loos, since he can add extra banks of seats where the toilets are. Not long ago O’Leary even suggested his short-haul planes needed no co-pilots, since cabin crew were quite capable of handling a 737 if the captain suddenly snuffed it and, besides, many landings nowadays were automatically controlled.

He is also a dab hand, too, at inventing destinations that don’t exactly exist. Frankfurt-Hahn, for instance – which I’ve used occasionally to visit my son in Luxembourg – is actually over a two-hour drive to Germany’s commercial hub and there’s one designated as ‘Oslo’ that I understand is a four-hour bus ride from the Norwegian capital.

What I admire most is when O’Leary puts on his ‘public service’ hat, viz-a-viz Ryanair’s launch of a sting of routes to obscure, though bucolic destinations in France. As expected it turbo-charged the local tourist economy and sparked a property-buying spree by Brits, causing considerable glee among locals keen to offload any old pile of rubble to gullible rosbifs.

A few years on, when one local mayor wanted to raise landing fees and stop subsidising Ryanair crews’ overnight stays at local hostelries, O’Leary caused havoc – and set house values plunging – by threatening to pull out and go somewhere more accommodating.

And, until a recent EU directive instructed all airlines to be transparent over ‘hidden’ charges, passengers really didn’t have a clue about costs they were incurring when they logged online to book their flights (Ryanair weren’t the only culprit it should be said, because many competitors followed their lead).

But, rather like Marmite, Ryanair users either love it or hate it; in fact, there’s hardly a scintilla of middle-ground to shove a cigarette paper through the crack.

So, if you book early, Ryanair is a budget airline; contrarily, if you need to go somewhere in a hurry, they can be the Dick Turpin of the skies.

‘Stick to their rules and you can’t go wrong,’ a regular commuter advises. ‘Keep cabin baggage to a minimum and make sure you’ve printed off you online boarding pass, or they’ll charge you €60/£50 for one.’

Meanwhile, all the inevitable, ensuing negative publicity must make O’Leary guffaw all the way to the bank when the scornful headlines are heaped on him, because he deliberately courts such controversy and must have the hide of a rhino.

However, there was a real sting in his latest diatribe, launched the other day, excoriating the airline regulators as ‘plonkers’ for continuing to insist seatbelts were a requirement on all planes.

FLY BOY? Not Ryanair’s O’Leary, an arch media manipulator

In a proper paddy, the man who supports the shooting of all environmentalists, insists, ‘Seatbelts don’t matter.

‘You don’t need a seatbelt on the London Underground. You don’t need a seatbelt on trains, which are travelling at 120 mph and if they crash you’re dead. If there was ever a crash on an aircraft, God forbid, a seatbelt won’t save you.’

Perhaps he’s right, because the evidence actually supports O’Leary’s proposition.

However, what it doesn’t sustain is his latest flight of fantasy to allow punters to stand and strap-hang in the tail section of his planes for a cut-price fee, because he considers his aircraft to be ‘just b****y buses with wings’.

O’Leary is certainly right, though, when he adds, ‘Most people just want to get from A to B and don’t want to pay £500 for a flight. You want to spend that money on a nice hotel, apartment or restaurant – not p*ss it all away at the airport or on the airline.’

Personally, I admire the man’s outspokeness, not that I don’t get mildly irked at times by his incessant ravings. But at least they are original and, unlike most anonymous company CEOs, he puts his head above the parapet, knowing full well his extreme views are going to be machine-gunned to pieces by an ever-accommodating media.

So clearly O’Leary has proved any publicity is good publicity and it’s helped him build Ryanair into a hugely successful brand, even if it is the world’s most contentious airline and pioneer of a revolution that’s stripped the fun out of flying.

Meanwhile, I’m due to fly Ryanair to London shortly and only hope it arrives a tad late.

I don’t think I can stand a dah-dah-dah trumpet voluntary, bragging ‘Another Ryanair flight arrives early!’

But with my luck – and Michael O’Leary’s operational acumen – it probably will.

Memo to me: Must remember the earplugs.

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