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Sunday 10 August 2008

Stop nagging O'Leary about cups of tea 

The maverick airline boss describes himself as obnoxious, but Ruth Dudley Edwards thinks he's a national treasure

READING last week the complaints from Padraig O Ceidigh, of Aer Arann, about Michael O'Leary, I though it was time I revealed myself as an out-and-proud O'Leary fan. In polite circles, it takes some courage to defend him from the tut-tutters who consider him a foul-mouthed, ruthless practitioner of -- in the description of the financially fastidious Bertie Ahern -- "tooth-and-claw capitalism". What the devil do you expect Celtic Tiger capitalists to wield in the jungle, Bertie? Dentures and bitten nails?

I don't just admire O'Leary for taking on the complacent rip-off airline industry and winning, and for criticising forthrightly what needs to be criticised. I rejoice in him because he makes me laugh, and a businessman who can do that before breakfast on Morning Ireland is to be cherished. I have replayed a few times in sheer delight his performances of July 10 and 11.

The first day, he accused Pat Ryan, of the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), whose crashed computers had led to delays for tens of thousands of passengers at Dublin Airport, of producing nothing but "PR bullshit". He asked rhetorically, what do you expect from a semi-state body that regulates itself? In response to O'Leary's demand to know the IAA's Plan B, the hapless Ryan said something like "we implement a contingency procedure that requires us to handle the levels we can safely handle in a degraded mode" and was accused of living in "ivory air traffic control towers".

I checked the IAA website to see if O'Leary was exaggerating and read: the IAA "has developed a structured business management system using the E.N. ISO 9001:2000 Model." Clearly, if anything, O'Leary was being kind.

The following day, with planes stacking up again and the IAA explaining that Dublin air traffic controllers were unable to take manual control, since it was only at Shannon that the relevant facilities existed, O'Leary rightly advised, "send the buggers to Shannon". But the real joy came when the interviewer became dewy-eyed about poor, delayed passengers to whom Ryanair wouldn't even give a cup of tea. "A cup of tea? A cup of tea? What's all this about a cup of tea. If they want a cup of tea they can buy their own cup of tea." If passengers pay next to nothing for their tickets, why the hell should they expect Michael O'Leary to be going around with cups of tea?

I can see no problems with that logic. I never understood the lunatic judgement that a passenger who had paid £10 for his Ryanair ticket was entitled to the free use of a wheelchair that the airline had to pay the airport £18 for. I don't like flying Ryanair, but I don't whinge about surly service or the absence of free cups of tea when I do. It's cheap. "What part of No Refund do you not understand?" he reasonably asks customers who hope for special treatment. When he says "you are not getting a refund, so f**k off", he's delivering an honest rebuke to stupidity. After all, he happily describes himself as "an obnoxious little bollocks".

I first fell for O'Leary after 9/11, when airlines wrung their hands about the death of air travel and Ryanair ran ads giving away tickets, featuring Winston Churchill and calling for the Blitz spirit to defeat terrorism. Then there were his spirited assaults on idiotic security arrangements that involve seizing grannies' moisturiser and searching children rather than concentrating on dodgy-looking 22-year-olds. And his attacks on the Government, and Bertie Ahern in particular, for evading difficult decisions and caving into unions, were launched with wit and passion.

In the end, he's been a great benefactor of the ordinary man and woman. "For years, flying has been the preserve of rich f**kers," he said. "Now everyone can afford to fly."

And they can, and they do, and O'Leary laughs at the middle-class environmentalists who are "half-witted loons who can't add two and two", and haven't grasped that Ryanair's modern, efficient planes use much less fuel per person per mile than a one-person car does.

But then I suspect that, like me, he doubts if climate change is man-made.

O'Leary had intended quitting Ryanair last year because he was getting bored, "but now everyone says we're in the sh*t so I'm definitely staying". He said last week that he expected the Competition Commission to recommend breaking up the (useless) British Airports Authority and announced that Ryanair would 'be in like a bandit' after Stansted.

Mind you, he changed his mind the day afterwards and now claims not to be serious: Aer Lingus is still top of his shopping list.

I think he's just placating nervous managers and shareholders.

In any event, this entertaining gadfly will stay in the news irritating the pompous. The man's a national treasure: stop nagging him about free tea.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards