Swears, savings and scratch cards: The good, bad and ugly of Ryanair

We recount some of the remarkable tales generated by Michael O’Leary’s high-flying baby

It hasn't been a great couple of weeks for Ryanair, has it? Just over 10 days ago the company started cancelling hundreds of flights, giving some passengers hours' notice. It axed more than 2,000 flights between now and the end of October, throwing the plans of more than 300,000 passengers into disarray.

People contacted us with stories of wedding parties ruined, family gatherings messed up and holidays curtailed.

As if that was not bad enough, the amateurish manner in which the airline and its PR team handled the release of information about the cancellation programme in the first 72 hours forced as many as 20 million customers – blameless people who had paid in good faith for tickets on flights scheduled to depart over the next six weeks – to become very unwilling participants in a game of Ryanair roulette.

None of those people knew what was happening or if their flights would take off. The way the story was allowed to unfold by Ryanair’s internal and external PR teams caused unnecessary panic among many passengers, a fact that was acknowledged by Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, when he eventually took control of the story days after it broke.


The cancellations came hot on the heels of a shift in Ryanair’s cabin baggage policies, which will, from the start of November, see the bags of many passengers end up in the hold when today they would make it into the cabin.

And then, of course, there was the seat allocation story that made its Irish debut on these pages before running and running for the whole summer.

But while Ryanair does many things to frustrate and anger many people – and no one can deny it is an airline people love to hate (while also flying with it) – it has also done many things right over the last quarter of a century. So we thought now might be a good time to look at some of the good, the bad and the ugly tales generated by Michael O’Leary’s still high-flying baby.

1 First, a history lesson. The airline was set up in 1985 by Tony Ryan. In the early days it ferried small numbers of passengers from Waterford to London Gatwick. A year later Ryan's airline started flying from Dublin to London. Its £99 (Irish pounds) return fare was less than half the lowest ticket price offered by British Airways or Aer Lingus, who had monopolised all routes into London.

2 Even though its ticket prices were attractive, the airline struggled, and within three years it had accumulated losses of £20 million. Then Michael O'Leary arrived on the scene. Inspired by a visit to Southwest Airlines, an American budget carrier, he changed the flying game – not just in Ireland but across Europe. For more than 20 years now, the airline has relentlessly driven down fares across Europe, with O'Leary at the helm all the while.

3 A family trip from Milan to Paris in 1992 cost 16 times more than it does today. Back then the minimum price for a ticket on that route was more than €400. It is about €25 now. The same story is replicated in airports across the EU.

4 Although Ryanair deserves credit for all the price wars it started, it was not acting alone. Were it not for the EU's deregulation of the aviation sector 25 years ago – a policy that became known as Open Skies – very little of what it has done would not have been possible. Prices have fallen all over Europe because national markets were opened to competition. That meant all airlines – even small players such as Ryanair – could suddenly fly to more destinations without having to get the seal of approval of individual states. Prior to Open Skies, that approval was rarely forthcoming because the legacy airlines had too many governments in their pockets. Today there are almost eight times as many routes across Europe as there were in 1992.

5 As it is in Europe, it is in Ireland. In 1992 only a handful of airlines took off from Dublin Airport each week. There were just 36 destinations within the EU serviced. Last year, 127 different routes formed part of the regular EU-bound flights leaving the airport.

6 By any measure Ryanair's numbers are remarkable. Its website tells us that this year it will carry about "131 million customers on more than 2,000 daily flights from 86 bases, connecting over 205 destinations in 33 countries on a fleet of 430 Boeing 737 aircraft, with a further 240 Boeing 737s on order". It employed 13,000 people, and this year became the first European airline to have carried more than a billion customers.

7 There is a – possibly apocryphal – story about O'Leary meeting an old Irish man in the airport. The man was flying to Birmingham and was incensed that he was being charged €20 to check his bag in. He approached O'Leary to give out. In response O'Leary asked him how long he had lived in the UK and was told 40 years or so. O'Leary then asked how often the man came home to Ireland and the response was three or four times a year. O'Leary then asked how many times he had come home in the 1970s and 1980s, and the man said: "Maybe once every two years or so" – to which O'Leary supposedly responded "Well f*** off so." We can't say if the incident ever happened but we can confirm that O'Leary loves a good swear.

8 O'Leary's wrath is a thing to behold. Over the years he has variously referred to governments as "numpties", airport authorities as "overcharging rapists" and other airlines as "expensive bastards". Air-traffic controllers are "poxy" and the European Commission as "morons". Brussels is "the evil empire", environmentalists are "lemmings" and travel agents are "f***ers". This newspaper has been called The Irish Pravda and even Pricewatch attracted his rage.

9 Last week Pricewatch asked O'Leary if the cancellations "mess" was the biggest cock-up of his time with Ryanair. Absolutely not, he said, adding that there had been a whole lot more cock-ups that were worse. Sadly he did not elaborate.

10 One such cock-up was, surely, the one caused by the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland seven years ago. The grounding of flights across Europe – and beyond – left passengers stranded. In stepped the EU to remind all airlines that, under EU regulation E261, they had an obligation to look after the stranded until they could be brought home. O'Leary was raging and he very publicly swore that he would never foot the restaurant and hotel bills for those cut off by the volcano.

“There’s no legislation that says any airline getting a fare of €30 should be reimbursing passengers many thousands,” he fumed. He was wrong. Under EU regulation 261, airlines must provide food and drinks and hotel accommodation, if appropriate, when passengers are stranded. Within 24 hours of O’Leary announcing that he would not pay, he was forced into an U-turn.

11 That probably informed O'Leary, and at his press conference last Monday he made it very clear that on this occasion the airline would be honouring all its EU 261 commitments without quibble.

12 Earlier this summer Pricewatch documented the experiences of Ryanair passengers who found they were allocated free seats far apart from travelling companions, contrary to their previous experiences with the airline when, they said, they would routinely have been seated side by side. Ryanair denied that anything had changed but a handful of such stories turned into a flood as thousands of people made contact to say they too had been separated from their travelling companions irrespective of when they checked in and how many adjacent seats were available on the aircraft. The airline insisted that the company had not changed its policy, much to the disbelief of affected passengers. Eventually O'Leary went on radio and said that if passengers were not willing to pay for their seat they should "stop complaining and whingeing".

He rejected allegations that the algorithm that decides where passengers were seated had changed to disperse travelling companions around the plane unless they paid. "Has the algorithm changed? No it hasn't," he said. "It changes automatically on an hourly ... it changes due to demand and because the number of reserved seats has changed. Are you likely to be split up if you select a random seat? Yes you are likely to be split up because that's what random means. If you want to sit specifically in a seat, then you select a reserved seat for just €2. Less than the cost of the RTÉ licence fee."

13 Ryanair loves a flier. Earlier this year O'Leary made headlines when he suggested a day might come that would see "all the air fares on Ryanair being free". He explained that ancillary revenues already made up 30 per cent of its revenues. "We might never get there, but at least it's the objective," he said. He has also made headlines in the past when he said his airline was considering charging people to use onboard toilets and to roll out vertical seats on his aircraft. They'd be a bit like bar stools with seat belts, he explained. It never happened. He has also suggested overweight passengers should be hit with a "fat tax" and questioned the requirement for copilots, who, he suggested, were there only to "make sure the first fella doesn't fall asleep and knock over one of the computer controls".

14 The Always Getting Better programme the company rolled out three years ago took several knocks this summer. But the programme was still a good thing, not least because it led to the silencing of the on-time jingle is and a relaxation of its bag policies. The website is also easier to use, too.

15 The Always Getting Better thing is not always and for ever however. Earlier this month Ryanair passengers were told they would have to pay €5, or £5, for priority boarding if they want to bring a wheelie bag into the cabin from November 1st. The airline is ditching its policy of allowing its customers to bring two bags aboard without charge on the basis that too many customers are taking up the two-bag offer so there is not enough overhead-locker space for the volume of carry-on luggage. On the flip side it has reduced its checked-bag fees and increasing the weight allowance of cases that passengers can book into the hold "to encourage more customers to check in bags and reduce the number of customers with two bags at the boarding gates". If you do not pay for priority boarding you will be restricted to bringing one smaller bag – maximum size 35cm by 20cm by 20cm – aboard. The normal cabin bag will be taken at the boarding gate and put in the hold free of charge.

16 While on a PR level the airline has not had the best of summers, on a passenger level things seem fine and dandy. Traffic at Ryanair for August climbed 10 per cent to 12.7 million passengers. About 1.2 million additional customers used the airline in August 2017 compared with the same period in 2016 and the company's load factor increased 1 per cent to 97 per cent. By the end of August the airline had carried 126.2 million customers this year, an increase of 13 per cent on last year.

17 Next time you are on a Ryanair flight, spare a thought for the cabin crew, who must sell eight scratch cards each per day or face action, according to an internal staff memo seen by The Irish Times and highlighted in recent weeks. The memo, from a supervisor to staff at one of the airline's European bases, states: "If the same crew members' names appear to not be reaching their daily targets, [they] will be met with by their supervisor and further action taken." Other daily targets include the sale of one bottle of perfume a day, one meal deal and one item of fresh food. "Sales will be monitored closely and any crew member not reaching their target daily will need to explain why".

18 While Pricewatch has great sympathy for any employee of any company who is expected to flog scratch cards, that sympathy would not lead us to buy such a thing. The Ryanair scratch cards give buyers a chance to enter an annual draw with a jackpot of €1 million. But even the annual winner is not guaranteed the million. The luckiest lottery ticket winner each year gets to pick one envelope out of 125 and just one of the 125 has a €1 million prize. The 2016 scratch card draw winner was from the United Kingdom, and won €50,000. The €1 million jackpot has never been won. A portion of the money made on the tickets does go to charity. A spokesman told Irish Times reporter Jack Power that over the last five years the company has donated €2 million to charity from the scratch card sales.

19 Unions are not welcome in Ryanair and while the airline cannot stop people from joining unions, it can chose not to negotiate with them. In the past, unions have described Ryanair as "extremely hostile to the workforce" and said it is "a very, very oppressive regime".

20 Unions will have their own axes to grind but, a few years ago, Pricewatch spent a day in its old headquarters in Dublin Airport and found a place where staff were not allowed go online onsite or even to charge their mobiles on the premises. New recruits also have to pay for their uniforms.