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O'Leary's plans to join big boys go against the grain

Why would we fly Ryanair if the fares were not the lowest?

Is it for the quality of the service? The friendliness of the staff?

The joy of being told that your carry-on bag does not fit into Michael O'Leary's cage down at the 100 gates, and having to fork out extra to stash it? The prospect of having to travel 130km to your destination from a distant airport?

Yes, all of these would make a Ryanair flight irresistible.

Yet Michael O'Leary is hinting, in that outrageous way of his, that low fares may not be the only option for the airline.

The O'Leary way is to fire off what appears like an outlandish idea, then wait for public opinion to get fired up -- and suddenly things that we never thought possible are acceptable.

He has broken down our resistance in almost every aspect of aviation. Nobody expected him to get away with charging for a cup of coffee. Now we pay for our baggage.

His new high-fares Ryanair will fly to major city airports and we will still have to pay extra for our baggage.

The signs are that O'Leary sees big city airports as the way forward for Ryanair. They are already in Barajas in Madrid and moved into the main airport in Barcelona this summer, meaning they can scale down operations at distant Gerona.

The key to this move is that they are not getting preferential treatment from Madrid and Barcelona, unlike the Canary Island airports where they have sweetheart deals.



TERMINALS

Ryanair has also been in Budapest and Prague.

There is a terminal in Paris Charles de Gaulle which would suit the airline. Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Heathrow must be in their sights.

But these airports are among the most expensive in the world. O'Leary, the rebel, is looking for a place alongside the giant legacy airlines he slags off. He is already bigger than BA, Iberia, KLM, and any of the other national carriers apart from Air France and Lufthansa.

So how will the public react? We like Ryanair for their cheap fares and their cheeky ads. For years they were the teenagers of aviation, irreverent, rude and carefree. Like most teenagers they regarded themselves as invulnerable.

But if the teenagers are about to join the world of the grown-up airlines, will they go the way of those smaller airlines who grew up and lost the run of themselves?

Of course, Ryanair has never been a low-cost airline for those who had to book late.

O'Leary once told a press conference of incredulous English journalists the Irish funeral was central to his business model -- on the grounds that an Irish builder in London had not tipped off his friends in advance on the exact day he intended to die, and they all had to pay outrageous last-minute fares to fly home for the funeral.

Getting us to pay more for his product has always been part of his game plan.



FARES

The airline's growth was based on cheap fares. But with the growth came a reputation for delivering the sort of large numbers that impresses regional politicians throughout Europe.

It may be that they no longer see cheap fares as necessary, especially as legacy airlines are using Ryanair tactics to fill their own aircraft.

But it won't work.

An airline, like a leopard, cannot change its spots.


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