Tuesday 25 October 2016

Don't worry, Michael, her majesty will forgive you

Shane Ross

Published 06/04/2014 | 02:30

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: suitably contrite, Michael O’Leary, seated on right, listens patiently to Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking at the opening of Ryanair’s new corporate headquarters in Swords, Co Dublin. Photo: Damian Eagers
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: suitably contrite, Michael O’Leary, seated on right, listens patiently to Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking at the opening of Ryanair’s new corporate headquarters in Swords, Co Dublin. Photo: Damian Eagers

HAS Michael O'Leary gone native? He was certainly out of tune with the native mood last week.

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Natives of Ireland were utterly dismayed at his tasteless joke about sex and the Queen on Monday. His crude gag, aimed at ingratiating himself with an expectant audience at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly "went down like a lead balloon", according to chairman, Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh.

Although Joe hails from the strongly nationalist Donegal, he insists that O'Leary's clanger totally misread the state of "UK-Irish relations since the Queen's visit".

Independent Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath, from staunchly republican stock, agrees. Mattie, no stranger to irreverent outbursts himself, was gobsmacked by O'Leary's gaffe. Not a big fan of the Queen, McGrath was visibly relieved when the Ryanair chief apologised at the end of his speech.

All the UK lords and ladies present at the British-Irish bash were reported to have been apoplectic – as only lords and ladies can be – at the specially invited guest's unprovoked assault on their monarch.

O'Leary is believed to have been stunned by the reaction. He is accustomed to adoring audiences worshipping at the Ryanair shrine. His direct approach may have gone down well with his free-market devotees in the past, but is hardly the stuff of harmony between two historical enemies.

O'Leary's bad joke was a lapse. It was totally out of character with the new conformist image that his handlers are nurturing. He had momentarily escaped from the self-inflicted verbal imprisonment of recent months. All in the cause of higher ticket sales.

Ryanair has a marketing problem. The airline's image is totally synonymous with O'Leary's personality. Its image is his image. Different market forces are suddenly demanding that the image of the airline changes without changing the pilot. A difficult trick, particularly when the whole branding of Ryanair has centred around O'Leary's portrayal of himself. Suddenly the carefully marketed character of O'Leary needs to be metamorphosed.

Apparently O'Leary needed to "go native" in a business sense. His attendance at the Assembly was real progress. In the old days O'Leary would not have been seen dead at a stuffy British-Irish Parliamentary conference, let alone at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. He would not have crossed the road to meet their lordships. It was a victory for the Assembly to land O'Leary – box office by any standards – for such a humdrum affair. The maestro's acceptance of the gig surprised but delighted his hosts, until he bolted from his newly conventional, well- behaved personality.

He did nothing for Anglo-Irish relations that day, but her Majesty will forgive him. But after the faux pas his marketing team knew that they must tighten his straitjacket.

They did. By Thursday morning he was back in his box. Contrition was the order of the day. Consequently that morning's big Ryanair event was enough to make hardened free-marketeers weep.

Ryanair was announcing the creation of 200 jobs at the opening of its Swords offices in North Dublin. And to do the honours it secured no less a double act than the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance.

In a former life Michael made a career out of showing contempt for politicians; he would have escorted the duo off the premises on sight. One would have been bad enough, but two would have produced an attack of verbal diarrhoea to make TD Peter Mathews blush. Instead, on Thursday, he quietly welcomed Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan to his new home.

The speeches at the opening were a love-in. Enda praised Ryanair to the rafters. The airline's chairman David Bonderman responded in kind. Ryanair released cosy photographs of Enda delivering his eulogy, with four sparkling aircraft in the background.

The message was crystal clear: O'Leary has decided to play ball with the establishment. He no longer wants to frighten the horses. Enda and official Ireland are part of that plan. A potentially lethal thorn in the Government's side has been removed. The photographs of Enda and Michael Noonan chumming up with the airline chiefs were comical. The most revealing pic was the platform party. On one side of the podium sat Enda with the non-executive directors of Ryanair. On the other was Michael O'Leary. And who sat beside him?

The spectacle was awesome. Beside Michael sat a man with a chain around his neck: a public servant, a minor dignitary, Kieran Dennison, the FG councillor for Mulhuddart. Worse still , on his left sat the boss of Ireland's biggest quango Kevin Toland of the DAA. O'Leary has said harsh words about politicians, but he has rightly reserved his most stinging attacks for the DAA, blaming it for his decision to locate so many Ryanair operations outside Ireland. He has accused the airport authority of every sort of business sin known to State monopolies. On the same row, in places of honour beside Michael and his deputy Howard Millar, sat the chairman and chief executive of the Irish Aviation Authority another of his unloved State agencies.

According to Ryanair's press release, other invitees included chief executive of Tourism Ireland Niall Gibbons, Shaun Quinn of Bord Failte, Vincent Harrison (the managing director of Dublin Airport, which Michael dubbed as "third world"!), the bosses of both Knock and Shannon Airports, and the county manager of Fingal.

A few months ago Michael would have launched a broadside at such a crowd of public service chancers, asking if politicians, county managers and quango kings had nothing better to do than attend the opening of a mickey-mouse headquarters in a backyard in North Dublin.

Ryanair has begun to climb a mountain. It has just launched a fresh, user-friendly website. It is beginning to unravel its penal charges on baggage weight. It is introducing a new mobile app in June. It has nearly 90 million passengers a year, an unrivalled database, enabling it to tailor its email marketing campaign to individuals' tastes. It is seducing the more comfort-seeking customer base of the economically fragile, main flag carriers.

Is it working? The stock market seems to like its new direction. Shares in Ryanair lagged their competitors for many months but have recently closed the discount on its peers. On Friday morning they stood close to their high at €7.70. Last month the company had bought back €484m of its shares, increasing the earnings for longer-term investors.

Bulls of the shares are hopeful that a fall in the oil price is imminent. They insist that if oil – the highest cost for a low-cost airline – drops, it will benefit Ryanair disproportionately.

But the real test for Ryanair is whether the personality of the man who epitomises the airline's culture will soften enough to convince the doubters to travel on his aeroplanes.

All Ireland should wish O'Leary well. He has done Ireland proud. His gaffe on the Queen apart, he has successfully embarked on a radical change of direction for the airline. It must kill him to sup with the quango queens and kings, to pay lip service to politicians and to button his lip. That is the price he has opted to pay for renewed commercial success.

Good luck.

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