Ryanair CEO's outlandish ideas come at a price

By Bill Briggs
|  Thursday, Sep 9, 2010  |  Updated 9:45 PM EDT
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Ryanair CEO's Outlandish Ideas Come at a Price

AP

Please take your seat, buckle up, and momentarily stow your preconceived notions about the brash and brazen Michael O’Leary, whose low-cost Irish carrier, Ryanair, has taken flak as “the Wal-Mart of the skies.”

Because when it comes to O’Leary, his unconventional notions on commercial travel, and his laugh-at-the-world persona, we’ve got a new one for you. Actually, three new ones. First, there’s his latest buck-saving brainstorm. O’Leary said this week he’ll ask airline regulators for permission to place just one pilot aboard his jets. As in: No co-pilot. As in: Who the heck’s going to land this thing if the pilot falls ill?

O’Leary’s latest proposal, not surprisingly, is inflicting some emotional turbulence into the minds of many aviation experts and frequent fliers (and, no doubt, garnering the low-cost carrier incredible publicity that money can't buy).

“Only time will tell whether he’s a visionary or a mad man, or a little of both,” said George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog.com, a travel website.

The lone-pilot suggestion also prompted many media calls to Stephen McNamara, the Dublin-based head of communications for Ryanair.

And here’s where we get to the other two new ones about O’Leary. In trying to explain his boss’s thinking and his reputation, McNamara first compared O’Leary to a sticky brown paste that some folks in Europe spread on biscuits. It’s called Marmite.

“People here say they either love or hate Marmite. It’s well known to say that Michael’s like Marmite — you either love him or hate him,” McNamara said. But the Ryanair spokesman wasn’t finished characterizing his CEO. And this is the third new one: “Michael is never afraid to give his opinion. But unfortunately, in Europe, that’s seen as a bad thing. In the USA, he’d be able to speak honestly and, at this stage, I think he’d probably be running the country.”

This company definitely knows bold. But does it know how to fly right?

O’Leary, who studied the Southwest Airlines business model before launching Ryanair in 1985, has a few simple goals, McNamara said: “We’re always looking at proposals that will reduce cost and reshape the airline industry but always within the strict confines of safety. What you pay for is a seat on the aircraft. We’ll get you there on time, safely and cheaper than any other airline.” The average airfare for a Ryanair flight in Europe: 35 euros, or about $44.

Still laughing at O’Leary’s shenanigans? Ryanair employs about 7,000 people, flies more than 1,000 routes to 26 countries and reaped more than $390 million in profit in its most recent fiscal year. “We have the majority of the share of the (European) airline industry right now,” McNamara said. And that $44 ticket price may drop lower if O’Leary can ram through some of his eye-popping proposals. Below are five of his most controversial ideas:

One pilot
O’Leary is struck by the fact that computers are increasingly navigating commercial jets. This inspired his concept to remove the co-pilot. What if the lone pilot becomes incapacitated? O’Leary has said one cabin crew member, trained how to land planes, will take the controls. The notion “is in its infancy,” McNamara said, and must be approved by airline regulators.

So far, McNamara said, the one group that has shouted down the idea: commercial pilots.

“We already have the technology to fly planes by computer from the ground, so we may actually see the day when there are no pilots in the cockpit,” Hobica said. “But I wouldn't want to rely on a computer to land a plane on the Hudson River, or to dodge an errant Cessna that suddenly appeared on the runway ahead. Thanks awfully, but no. But perhaps an argument can be made that as technology advances, computers will be safer than human pilots. Check back with me in 100 years.”

Forget handlers, load your own baggage
Ryanair is exploring “how we can get to a point” where passengers — after traversing the usual security checks — can lug two bags to a parked aircraft and personally place their luggage in the hold, McNamara said. Like bus passengers do. Again, the impetus is to shave costs and fares.

“Making people handle all their own baggage would likely make security lines longer ... and slow the boarding process down to a near halt,” said Anne Banas, executive editor at SmarterTravel.com “How could that possibly be good for anyone?”

“Huge security risk allowing passengers to access the belly of the plane,” added Carol Margolis, a businesswoman who offers tools and strategies for fellow globe-trotters via SmartWomenTravelers.com. “Bad idea.”

One pay toilet per plane
For flights lasting 60 to 90 minutes, O’Leary wants to remove the two rear bathrooms from his cabins and add three extra rows, or 18 seats. The remaining lavatory would cost passengers one euro to access — but the charge, McNamara said, is “just to disincentivize passengers” from going. All bathroom-slot euros would go to charity, and Ryanair estimates the move could cut fares by 4 percent.

“A ridiculous suggestion and one that goes too far in undermining the health and safety of passengers,” said Pauline Frommer, creator of the award-winning Pauline Frommer Guidebooks. “Not to get too gross, but I bet this idea wouldn’t end up saving Ryanair any money, what with all the seat upholstery they’d likely have to replace yearly from accidents.”

“I’m just picturing this one pilot, with no spare change to go to the bathroom,” Margolis added, “panhandling up and down the aisle looking for coins.”

A standing section
Some have likened this O’Leary vision to a New York City subway, where passengers clutch straps or railings. O’Leary has suggested replacing the 10 back rows with 15 rows of “standing seats.” According to McNamara, these would look more like standing amusement park rides on which people remain upright but are secured by restraints. Standing passengers would pay less.

“You know, for short flights, say those of less than an hour, I think I'd bite,” Frommer said. “As long as the scheme passed the various entities that regulate safety in the air and some sort of standing seat belt was created, I don't think I'd have a problem with it. Especially if fares were much lower.”

Minimal customer service
As a Sept. 2 Bloomberg Businessweek profile of O’Leary pointed out, Ryanair has become known as much for its CEO’s sky-high ideas as for its stripped-down customer service. Got a complaint with the carrier? You must fax your gripe to company headquarters instead of dashing off an angry e-mail. One example: Some Ryanair flyers gasped at paying extra for using wheelchairs.

“Ryanair can take away as many services as they want, but the consumer can always fly another airline,” Banas said. “It becomes more of a ‘buyer beware’ situation where consumers can be empowered by choice.”

And while Southwest Airlines gave O’Leary an early blueprint to copy, that U.S. carrier is often lauded for its hospitable customer service.

“I had my doubts that frequent travelers would travel Southwest’s no-frills model when they first started,” Margolis said. “I’ve been surprised over and over. So who knows [about Ryanair]? There are many, many people who will do anything to save a euro. I’m not one of them.”

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