Ask any passenger crammed into a seat on a no-frills Ryanair flight to describe airline boss Michael O’Leary, and it’s a safe bet that the words “cuddly,” “soft” and “misunderstood” will not be mentioned. But in a recent interview with the Times of London, the brash, publicity-loving man from Mullingar said that he’s just a “cheeky chappie” with a heart of gold.
O’Leary’s interview with the Times sheds some light on the way he perceives himself – and the way he uses the press for free publicity.
Comparing himself to the title character in the Monty Python film “Life of Brian,” he says that he thinks he resembles Jesus – as opposed to his detractors’ view of him as either Superman or “an odious little [expletive].” But he quotes one of the characters, who noted that Brian was “not the Messiah – he’s a very naughty boy.”
The airline boss embraced this “naughty boy” image wholeheartedly, especially in the company’s early days. Reports of his revenue-raising ideas were always in the press, and usually provoked public outrage.
His most well-known brainstorm was to charge passengers for using onboard bathrooms. His aim, he told the Wall Street Journal in 2009, was to encourage flyers to use the bathrooms before and after the flights, reducing the need for onboard loos and allowing him to add in more seats. The plan was never implemented.
But while he and his lieutenants were happy to be “cheeky chappies,” he insisted that he “never tried to be intentionally rude.” In fact, O’Leary insists that he has a “huge concern for [his] fellow human beings.” Those fellow humans include his customers, who are always right – as long as they comply with the rules.
One customer who might be surprised by O’Leary’s magnanimous spirit is Dubliner Jane O’Keefe, Ryanair’s one millionth customer, who was awarded free flights for life back in 1988. RTE reported that within a decade, her attempts to book flights with Ryanair were met with “hostility” from O’Leary. She took the airline to court and won damages of €67,500 ($90,000) plus costs.
The wide-ranging Times interview included O’Leary’s views on subjects as diverse as politics (“there’s so much waste” in government), global warming (“I don’t believe in it”) and whether fathers should be in the delivery room (“They’re bloody irrelevant”).
Of course, the world’s most famous airline boss had plenty to say about needed improvements in his own industry. The Irish Examiner reports that O’Leary would like to see increased airport capacity at London-area airports Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead. He’s frustrated that the British government is “terrified” of a couple of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard)-types.