Friday 19 April 2019

'A real test of his abilities' - is ever-outspoken Michael O'Leary still the best captain for Ryanair?

These are testing times for Ryanair as industrial unrest eats into its profits and share price. Is the ever-outspoken Michael O'Leary still the budget airline's best captain?

Batten down the hatches: Ryanair's value has dropped €7.5bn in a year
Batten down the hatches: Ryanair's value has dropped €7.5bn in a year
John Meagher

John Meagher

If the Ryanair story has felt like a rollercoaster ever since that first flight left Waterford airport for London 33 years ago, then this week alone must have felt like a funfair ride, too.

On the one hand, the airline could boast about significant gains in passenger numbers - rising 6pc in September with 12.6 million customers carried that month alone - despite the ongoing strike action that led to flight cancellations. And it could boast of a 97pc occupancy level - or load factor, as it's known in aviation - an achievement that puts Ryanair way ahead of the competition.

But, on the other hand, it was forced to issue its second profit warning of the year, an announcement that knocked a whopping €2bn off its market value. Its full-year profit is now likely to be 12pc lower than expected.

These are fraught days for Europe's biggest airline and for its household-name chief executive, Michael O'Leary. Now, as he celebrates almost 25 years at the helm of the aviation giant, many are asking if its time for a seismic change and if O'Leary is still the man to take Ryanair to a stated aim of being the world's biggest airline by 2024, one capable of carrying 200 million passengers per annum.

The journalist and broadcaster Matt Cooper has just published a book on the businessman - Michael O'Leary: Turbulent Times for the Man Who Made Ryanair - and he believes that the outspoken chief is facing his most challenging period in years. "Yes, losing €2bn (in market value) in a week is a phenomenal figure," Cooper says, "but the more interesting figure in some respects is what he's lost over the 12 months because the company was valued at over €20.5bn - it's now down at under €13bn so he's lost about €7.5bn in value in a year.

"To be honest, most chief executives who would have presided over that sort of fall - about one third of the value - would be under enormous pressure to justify their continued existence. And it shows just how significant O'Leary is to Ryanair and to its continuing fortunes that nobody is even thinking about whether he be given the boot on the basis of bad fortunes. He has such control of the airline - this is his airline - that his departure is still at a time of his own choosing. But the pressure must be coming on him now in a way that he hasn't seen for years."

Cooper believes international circumstances, including the insecurities presented by Brexit, will continue to cause a significant headache for O'Leary. "Not only is the international outlook bad, but there's the possibility of interest rates starting to climb again and fuel prices have gone up quite dramatically. This is a very difficult time that he faces - it's a real test of his abilities."

Cooper's book itemises those abilities in detail and reading again about how a bright young man in his late 20s could take a struggling, fledgling airline like Ryanair and make it the extraordinary success it would become demonstrates a business acumen that sets O'Leary apart from all others. After an extract appeared in a newspaper last weekend, O'Leary issued a statement calling it "fake news" and said he had urged Cooper not to proceed with the book.

"If he had read the book," he says, "he wouldn't have made the criticisms that he did. He was only working off the edited extracts. He never asked me not to write the book, he never said don't do it because of my family, this idea that he came out to undermine the book… maybe it's a tactical thing he does, for fear.

"It's the greatest Irish business story since the creation of Guinness 250 years ago," he adds. "O'Leary is part-man, part-aeroplane, as the joke goes. A lot of businessmen don't get to his role until the age he's at now [57] but in January, he will be 25 years as chief executive.

"That is extraordinary to be in that position that long. He has been with the airline 30 years and he wasn't in love with the business when he started - the phrase he uses is that he's not an 'aerosexual', he doesn't get off on running airlines, or putting them in the air, he just sees it as a cash-generative business that he can make a lot of money out of.

"You wonder though, when you're in the company that long, how you can drive the business forward. No matter how brilliant your past performances have been, are you still going to be able to do it in the future?"

Cooper believes O'Leary's control over Ryanair's destiny has lessened since he started dealing with the unions in countries like France. "It's added over €100m to his annual cost base and it's reduced his flexibility. He used to open and close routes with a speed other airlines couldn't match. When you're in a highly unionised environment, it's very hard to do that. This constrains his ability to manage the way he would like."

Journalist Eoghan Corry, one of the country's leading authorities on travel, tourism and aviation, believes O'Leary's desire to increase passenger numbers is as great as it ever was and it was the primary reason why Ryanair adopted a more customer-friendly approach five years ago.

"It wasn't just a change of heart, 'Let's start being nice to them [Ryanair customers]. They had worked out how far they could grow and what they needed not to lose the pace of that growth. Everything has been about saying, 'This is bigger than last year'. The growth has been big by industry standards - at its slowest, it was down to 4 or 5pc, at its highest it was around 11pc. They had to work out how many people were flying, how many people were not flying but could be coaxed back to be customers and could they continue to grow with the existing number of people they hadn't got as customers yet? Their research showed no. Instead of trying to get the new people, they needed to start coaxing people back from other airlines and they've largely done that."

Corry believes flying with Ryanair is a slightly better experience than before, but argues that there's "an awful lot of hype" around it. "The reality is, flying is unpleasant. All the airlines that claim to be nice to you, are mean to you as well. The whole approach to the passenger has gone from treating them as some sort of well-heeled god and goddess, which it was back in the old days, but now it's basically a bus service. Ryanair pushed customers too far - from weighing the bag at the gate [and charging a hefty fee if it was too heavy]. People's expectations with Ryanair were very low. People didn't expect to be treated well by them. But, in truth, in many ways, there is no difference between the Ryanair of 2018 and 2008."

Ryanair has had to deal with a lot of labour relations issues over the past 12 months, but Corry believes the "actual disruption was minimal to Ryanair. And the figures show that - a 97pc load factor is way ahead of Aer Lingus, with about 82pc, and Turkish who were bigging up a load factor of 87pc this week. People don't desert Ryanair because of bad publicity or strike action.

"Punctuality is more important than people give credit for - that's where Ryanair began to hurt last September [2017] when punctuality began to slip. The indirect striking done by air traffic control [on the continent] caused havoc because the patterns that Ryanair use hopping from one country to another was effected. When Michael O'Leary took hold of Ryanair, the average turnaround was an hour - now it's 20 minutes. Punctuality is the god on which he worships."

It's long been speculated that Ryanair will enter the transatlantic market, but Eoghan Corry is not so sure. "The only thing that would tempt him - mark my words - is if there is a huge sale of wide-bodied aircraft," he says.

"Let's say the likes of Etihad - who are in deep trouble - went bust and suddenly there are 200 wide-bodied planes on order that Boeing, or whoever, have to find a buyer for… that's the only thing that will bring him in.

"It's no secret that 200 million [annual passengers] is the target. Is there enough in Europe for him to grow to that amount without going elsewhere? He would say yes. He wants a bigger slice of the action in Germany. That's why his spat with the German pilots is the most dangerous of all the trade union disputes he has had. He wants to really develop France as well.

"If the market share for low-cost in Germany and France reached the level it has in markets like Spain, Italy and Britain, Ryanair can continue to grow and it can pick up the scraps from places like Eastern Europe. To my mind, the reason he recognises the unions is to open up markets that he was shut out of, such as France and Scandinavia."

Like many commentators, Corry has wondered how long O'Leary will want to stay at the top - or for how long the Ryanair board will continue to tolerate declining market value. "Is his hunger as great as ever? He just adores it. He gobbles it all up. What would break your or my heart makes him happy.

"Do they have a succession plan? We don't know. But if I was to make a guess, I'd say Peter Bellew [ex-chief of Malaysia Airlines] is the man [Bellew is now chief operating officer at Ryanair]. Why else would he leave his big job at a major Asian airline and come back to Dublin?"

Matt Cooper, meanwhile, believes the urge to succeed remains in O'Leary's belly and he's as driven now as he was when as a young accountant-turned-shopkeeper, he opened his corner store one Christmas Day and made an unthinkable £14,000.

"He still has a burning passion but I think there's also a part of him that wonders how long he will go on for. I suspect that he will talk about the potential for leaving, but if someone on the board said, 'That's a good idea', that might be the jolt to make him say, 'There's nothing else in my life - I'm staying put!'"

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