The relentless expansion of Ryanair will see everything from TripAdvisor to Booking.com close down, flights will be fuel-less and Ryanair will know everything about how you travel. This seems to be the ideal future of travel according to the CEO of the infamous low-cost airline, Michael O’Leary, as he gave a fast-paced and relentlessly humorous address to Trinity Entrepreneurial Society (TES) this morning.
Addressing the expectant crowd, Andrew Burke, Dean of the Trinity Business School noted that it was “exceptional to see so many students here at this early hour in the morning”. He continued by stating that Trinity was “proud” to have “one of largest entrepreneurial societies in the world” as well as proud to welcome “Europe’s top entrepreneur” who, “23 years ago”, was “sitting where you are out there”, going on become “one of the top entrepreneurial thought leaders of the last century”
The tone then quickly changed as O’Leary seemed delightfully incapable of going 30 seconds without making a joke, something that was particularly welcomed at an event that started at 7.30am. As O’Leary reminisced on his student days, he joked that he reckoned it was his first time “in the Edmund Burke Theatre at 8am in the morning”. Recalling his industrial relations lectures on Mondays and Tuesdays, O’Leary commented that: “Of course we blew that off… as my record in industrial relations is a testament to.”
O’Leary began with a 10 minute speech, largely focusing on Ryanair’s successes to date and their plans for future expansion and cost saving. After opening his speech by describing Ryanair as “Europe’s lowest fare airline” he remarked that that was really the sum of his address, but that he would continue to speak for 10 minutes anyway.
Ryanair is, after all, most famous for its fares, and the resulting cost-saving measures and customer experiences that come with them. Addressing the company’s infamously aggressive approach in previous years, O’Leary stated that they were “religiously, fervently cheaper than anyone else … and we didn’t lose most of your bags”. At the time, the belief was: “No one is going to get close to our prices, as long as we don’t fuck this up.” O’Leary described his job as to “pray fervently to the lord … ‘Dear Jesus, don’t let me fuck this up today’”.
But, as anyone who has been paying attention to the news will know, Ryanair has recently begun to take a different approach. Indeed, it is “softening the brand”. This model of being the cheapest and being known for not caring is “no longer going to be the secret of our success”. Instead, Ryanair is trying something “revolutionary… we’re going to try to be nice to you”.
The are many reasons for this change in approach, but O’Leary drew particular attention to how the airline was getting “shit PR”, and having to do have “tonnes of seat sales”. “Everyone was getting so pissed off”, O’Leary commented, leading them to think “something’s going wrong here”.
Of course, while minimising negative PR is a positive thing, the sheer amount of PR that has come with the recent shift has been a whole other benefit for the airline. Being “nice” has “has saved us a fortune in free advertising”.
This kind of public attention, positive or negative, has helped make Ryanair the largest airline in the world. O’Leary would, he boldly stated “do anything I can think of to generate PR for Ryanair”.
So why has he turned down The Apprentice? Such a show would be a “huge distraction”. According to O’Leary, he is frequently contacted in relation to reality TV programs, who want to do things like follow cabin crew through the recruitment and training processes. This, O’Leary states, would be a “disruption”. Anyway, he stated, although he’s not sure if people believe him, that he’s not interested in “personal PR”. After all, he is “very busy”.
Would he “pull a Trump”, then, and run for the President of Ireland? “OK, no. Next question.”
The topic inevitably came up again, with O’Leary seemingly averse to politics for a variety of reasons: not wanting to leave his employees, not giving a “rat’s ass” what people think about him, and the fact that “I wouldn’t demean myself with running for politics in this country”. Ultimately, he concluded: “Am I the Irish Donald Trump? No.”
At the beginning of his talk, O’Leary promised free flights for those who asked his favourite questions. Two flights to Copenhagen would go to someone who asked an interesting question, flights to London would go to someone who asked a “stupid of dull” question, and flights to Amsterdam went to a “young lady” who asked how he retained his “good looks” – a joke that kept on giving as questions rolled in.
The most entertaining awarding of flights? When one student asked “Where do you invest your money and why?”, O’Leary wordlessly jumped up a chair, jabbed indignantly at the promotional screen behind him and threw the envelope into the laughing crowd.
In typical entrepreneurial fashion, O’Leary made the room his own, walking up the steps lining the side of the theatre and occasionally standing on the chairs to make his point. Naturally, as a former BESS student in a room filled with business students and entrepreneurs, much of the questions focused on Ryanair’s competitiveness and future plans to, as O’Leary put it, “spread like a disease all over Europe” as their costs are going down while “everyone else can’t control their fares at all”.
Ryanair is going to “double in size in the next eight to 10 years” – growing from 100 million passengers to about 200 million passengers. But “That’s not enough for us. We don’t just want to be the biggest airline in the world by a factor of two, we want to see can we put some big digital platform on top of that, because we’re going to own the passengers”, he concluded to laughter.
In a “scary concept”, the airline is “going to know almost everything there is to know about you”. “We know your travel plans, who we’re travelling with, where you go, who you shouldn’t be going with … so if you’re not travelling with your wife or husband, you’re paying extra just to keep us quiet!”
The new Ryanair labs helps with the airlines new digital takeover, the new area that O’Leary sees the airline as able to take over. “What the hell does trip advisor do?” By using a similar tool, Ryanair can offer flight deals to those to give ratings, allowing them to “undercut” other platforms, even on things like hotel prices. This way, the airline don’t just become the biggest in the world by a factor of two, but will have “a big bloody Amazon platform”.
O’Leary has never been one to avoid exploiting an opportunity. One student who had recently flown with the airline for €1 questioned the worth of such prices to the airline. First of all, O’Leary countered, he filled a seat: “Better than we had an empty seat at zero revenue.” In addition, such flyers might buy something and, lastly, these flyers will remember getting such cheap flights, and return.
Ryanair has, after all, been mooting the idea of fare-free flights, something which, again, has gotten them “great PR”.
And, after all: “We have so much cash we don’t know what to do with it.”
The question of how the airline can continue to maximise its efficiency was one that came up repeatedly. The airline is “still dealing with the festitudes of what goes on on a daily basis”: everything from air traffic controllers, different airspaces and terrorist threats. Sometimes, these things make people want to stop flying. O’Leary’s response? “You have a seat sale – whoosh. People overcome their fears.”
But, ultimately, O’Leary noted that until Star Trek-style travel is possible, the market is there:“You can’t disintermediate the flights”.
One member of the crowd questioned whether or not O’Leary thought about making the world a better place, or if making money was more important. O’Leary countered that the two are not mutually exclusive and that, anyway, Ryanair “has made Europe a better place”. “You guys all fly around Europe now, and never think about paying more than €100… [and there’s] nothing wrong with maximising the amount of cash we make out of that as well”.
O’Leary repeatedly urged the crowd to “go and push yourself hard”, before they were married or had children. “Don’t piss it away on doing drugs and riding each other.” This was the strategy O’Leary himself seems to have taken – “I have never stopped wanting to go and do something” – and he urged those present to have a similar attitude and to “do something useful: “You have the brains and the ability to conquer the world.”
When asked about what industries he seems as “ripe for disruption”, he stated that IT skills were the most important skill any student can develop: ““If you have those skills you can disrupt any industry.”
He urged the crowd to go into the private sector somewhere and “be ambitious”. The problem with Ireland is that it’s “not ambitious enough”.
Ultimately, he’s confident that the airline is going to continue to grow: “If your parents are concerned about their pensions, tell them to invest in Ryanair.”