Saturday 25 May 2019

Michael O'Leary: Turbulent Times for the Man Who Made Ryanair: An entertaining biography of Ryanair messer-in-chief

Biography: Michael O'Leary: Turbulent Times for the Man Who Made Ryanair, Matt Cooper, Penguin, paperback, 368 pages, €14.99

Come fly with him: Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary
Come fly with him: Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary

It says a lot about our often contradictory Irish nature that perhaps the most successful, and certainly most influential, businessman in the history of this State is also one of the most controversial and divisive. You could throw a rock on O'Connell Street at rush hour and there's a good chance you'd hit someone who has their own private horror story about flying with Michael O'Leary's infamous yet massively popular airline.

As chief executive of Ryanair for the last 25 years, O'Leary has arguably done more to enhance the freedom of movement within Europe than anything else, other, perhaps, than the actual fall of the Iron Curtain.

That success hasn't come easy, and along the way the increasingly brash and brazen O'Leary seemed to take immense delight in enraging sniffy commentators and other airline establishment figures who had traditionally viewed the low-frills operation with a disdain that bordered on contempt.

In Michael O'Leary: Turbulent Times for the Man Who Made Ryanair, broadcaster and journalist Matt Cooper has written a frequently enlightening unauthorised biography, and it should come as little surprise that O'Leary has greeted the release with something approaching fury.

Central to O'Leary's displeasure is Cooper's claim that the Ryanair chief met Willie Walsh to discuss the possibility of Walsh, currently chief of International Airlines Group and former boss of British Airways and Aer Lingus, replacing him when he eventually steps down.

It's a bold but hardly unreasonable claim to make and despite the fact that the book is, as you would expect, scrupulously sourced, the airline boss was quick to release a statement condemning and refuting the claim.

Of course, it's always difficult to determine what goes on behind the scenes of any large corporation, but O'Leary has insisted that he only met Walsh "to advance the Airlines for Europe agenda. I have long been an admirer of Willie Walsh, but have frequently explained that when I eventually step down from Ryanair, I expect the board will make a decision on my replacement."

Cooper, in his own reply, has stressed that "the book is an unauthorised biography and is neither a PR job for Ryanair, nor is it hostile to Ryanair or Michael O'Leary".

He's certainly accurate in his assertion that the book is not a PR job but the average reader will raise an eyebrow at his claim it's not hostile.

The shine on Ryanair's halo of punctuality and ruthless efficiency took a dent in September last year, when 700,000 bookings across Europe were cancelled, and while they continue to increase passenger numbers year on year, it feels like there is a growing sense of unrest amongst both the pilots and cabin crew, and even the customers.

As you would expect from someone who cut his teeth in the often impenetrable world of business journalism, Cooper is comfortable with share prices and high finance, and his apparent insight into boardroom-level decisions is something that obviously irks O'Leary, who went on the attack this week, accusing Cooper of, rather inevitably, "fake news".

That he should use such a Trump-esque phrase will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the man's wildly controversial career - which, let's be honest, is most Irish people.

But while the intrigue over who will replace him, and when they will do it, is undeniably interesting, this book is actually much more entertaining when read as a charge sheet of O'Leary's crimes against standard behaviour.

While Cooper opts for a disapproving tone throughout, interspersed with grudging but genuine admiration for his achievements, the often overlooked fact is that O'Leary's undeniably bold strategy of treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen is frequently extremely funny - assuming you're not the customer on the receiving end of his withering disdain, that is.

Few bosses in this current climate, for example, would respond to an irate customer's complaint about a €60 surcharge for not printing a boarding pass with a dismissive: "We think Mrs McLeod should pay €60 for being so stupid... She wasn't able to print her boarding card because, as you know, there are no internet cafés in Alicante... She wrote to me looking for compensation... thank you Mrs McLeod, but it was your fuck up."

Such examples of his Basil Fawltyish approach to customer relations are legion, and in truth most of them are products of O'Leary's keenly developed sense of mischief, such as suggesting his planes start showing porn, saying: "I'd be the biggest customer."

Similarly, when he joked that they could remove seats from the back of the planes and install subway-style hand rails, it was immediately pointed out, not unreasonably, that such people would likely die in the event of a crash, he replied, with equal logic: "Well, the people sitting down will probably die as well."

The billionaire has recently tried to reinvent both himself and his airline as a 'nicer, kinder' operation, and as Cooper points out, younger passengers now want a better service.

But do they really?

He may be a hard man to work for - his inner circle of advisers were known as "the Z team" because he doesn't want them getting notions - and he may be a hard man to fly with. But as long as he keeps prices down, millions of customers will continue to grumble while also booking tickets.

It could be argued that O'Leary made a misstep by condemning the book so forcefully before he read it, but he better resign himself to receiving numerous copies as mischievous Christmas gifts.

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