One of Michael O’Leary’s horses may have just won the Crabbie’s Grand National, but the buzz of racing still doesn’t compare with the thrill the Ryanair boss gets from running Europe’s biggest airline.
“Horse racing is a glorious irrelevance,” admits the pugnacious 55-year-old Irishman. “Ryanair gives me far more satisfaction. Horse racing is an expensive hobby, but all it is is a hobby. Running Ryanair is more important.”
Indeed, there has been little time for the airline boss to celebrate the triumph of Rule The World – a 33-to-1 outsider in Saturday’s race.
Just days after jockey David Mullins rode the horse to victory and the veteran airline chief is focusing his considerable energy on launching the third year of Ryanair’s much trumpeted Always Getting Better campaign.
Two profit warnings in 2013 finally persuaded O’Leary the no-frill’s carrier’s dismissive approach towards its customers was no longer tenable.
Since then, the carrier has copied the approach taken by rival easyJet and set about improving the its service by easing limits on carry-on luggage, revamping its website and cutting extra fees.
The overhaul has had a “transformative effect” on the budget carrier, helping to drive annual passenger numbers to 106m in the past year, with annual pre-tax profits expected to hit an estimated €1.2bn (£960m).
However, O’Leary, who wants to carry 180m passengers by 2024, is not finished. Earlier today, the airline unveiled another round of measures to make travelling with Ryanair more attractive.
The 108 different baggage booking options across its network of 200 destinations will be reduced to six; a so-called “Leisure Plus” fare, which includes reserved seats and priority boarding, will be introduced; and the business travel package will be shaken up to include more flexible tickets and auto check-in.
But just because Ryanair is intent on being nicer to its customers to drive up more business doesn’t necessarily mean that O’Leary has mellowed after 22 years at the helm of the budget carrier.
If anything, he is as lively as ever. For one, he is holding talks with Norwegian and other airlines flying from Gatwick, Stansted and Dublin about Ryanair becoming a short-haul feeder into their long-distance flights, a move that would mark a shake-up of the Irish carrier’s business model.
“We have reached an outline agreement with Norwegian but there’s still technical issues which may take more than a couple of months to resolve,” O’Leary says.
The airline chief also speaks passionately about myriad different issues in the aviation industry.
The inability of the British government to decide whether to build another runway at Heathrow or Gatwick is “a shambles”, O’Leary declares.
“There are certain big ticket issues where the Government simply has to steamroller them in in the national interest.”
O’Leary has long expounded his own solution to solving the looming airport capacity crisis in south-east England: build new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.
“The only way to keep the cost down is to get each airport to compete with each other,” he argues. Furthermore, Dublin, where Ryanair is headquartered, last week announced it would push ahead with its dormant plans to build a second main runway for €320m, putting the expansion of the Irish airport in O’Leary’s sights.
The Ryanair boss chooses his words carefully, saying that while he is “supportive of the need” for another landing strip, he has a problem with the cost. “The original budget was €250m, we’re opposed to the €70m cost overrun.”
The creation of a new lobby group – Airlines for Europe – recently gave rise to the unusual sight of O’Leary standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his biggest rivals: the bosses of easyJet, British Airways parent International Airlines Group (IAG), Air France-KLM, and Lufthansa.
“One of the problems the airlines have struggled with over many years is disparate voices,” he concedes. “We have lamentably failed to lobby effectively in Brussels.”
O’Leary says he is “very respectful” of easyJet chief Carolyn McCall and IAG’s Willie Walsh as rivals. However, just when it looks like his famous competitive streak might be starting to fade, he adds: “But I still want to beat the living daylights of them.”
Ryanair has stoked controversy for using pilots supplied by Brookfield Aviation International, which has been scrutinised by authorities in Germany and HM Revenue & Customs in the UK.
Unions have expressed concerns about agency pilots, but O’Leary gives a robust defence. Ryanair’s pilots frequently move countries, especially during the early phases of their careers, he argues.
“The reason we have contract staff is because we have so much mobility built into our system,” says O’Leary, adding that more than half of Ryanair’s pilots are in direct employment.
More recently, he has become an outspoken advocate of the UK – where Ryanair is the second-biggest airline –remaining in the European Union.
“My only interest in all of this is to keep the UK economy strong and growing,” O’Leary says. Ryanair has said it will campaign actively to avert a Brexit.
With so much on his plate, it would be easy to forget that O’Leary, who is contracted to Ryanair until 2019, has now led the airline for more than two decades and he might soon start thinking about retirement.
He says one of the “challenges” facing him and his team in the next five years will be shepherding the next generation of management at Ryanair.
When the time comes to vacate the cockpit, will he devote himself to his horses? “I’d be bored to tears. As an owner I am very privileged but I have nothing to do other than to show up on the big days.”
In any case, O’Leary clearly believes his work is not done just yet. Ryanair is “in very interesting times,” he says. As long as it remains that way, “I’d like to stay and contribute to that.”