Once upon a time there was an airline like no other.
It was bedecked in white and blue and red, and launched its silken wings into skies at dawn, bringing messages of hope to a weary world.
In braids of golden splendour, it anointed those who chose to fly first class, swooning at their every desire.
For it was the keeper of dreams; the pied-piper of the flying age.
Ah yes, British Airways was the darling of the skies, even if it lorded its status above us all, deigning to introduce the rabble to the music of Lakmé.
If only everything could be this perfect, this styled, this…well, go on, we’ll say it…this sophisticated.
That Saatchi slogan captured it all. ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’. It was all just fabulous, darling.
Until suddenly, it wasn’t.
British Airways’ moment of hubris was called out by a Lady with a sharp tongue and a weapon in her handbag.
In its quest to bring meaning to the World’s Favourite Airline slogan, the airline set about changing its famous Union Jack tailfin to multitudinous liveries depicting ethnic art from all over the world.
Swagger had arrived; the brand believed its own PR.
(I am of the view that most brand investment in PR dilutes brand strength, as it is so easily decoded as inauthentic boasting. Who cares about boasting? I can’t stand people who boast. I even hate myself when I catch myself boasting).
In 1997, Lady Thatcher covered a model tailfin of the new BA look with a hankie, declaring to the world’s media ‘We fly the British flag, not these awful things’.
Maggie, ever the pugilist, had delivered a right hook into the face of British Airways’ weakness.
Within three years the tailfin initiative was fully reversed.
British Airways entered seemingly
never-ending doldrums, gained a reputation for snobbery and poor service, and has spent 15 years trying to recover.
Michael O’ Leary is a piece of work.
A piece of work chiseled, rather unexpectedly, from the pallid brown bogs around his native Mullingar.
He has those shrewd smarts which I associate with depots.
O’Leary was good at identifying a deep strategic weakness in the ancien régime of airlines, and set about exploiting it. Incessantly. With gusto.
Ryanair is a highly successful business built, paradoxically, on a myopic vision: the customer will travel cheap at any cost.
With his characteristically crude strut, O’Leary has spent years explaining how he understands travellers best.
His discourse, notably, makes it abundantly clear that he deeply disrespects his own customers.
“The Germans will crawl bollock-naked over broken glass to get (lower fares).”
I am frequently surprised by the level of high camp to be found amongst the men of the Irish Midlands.
What exactly is in the water, down there yonder?
For let us be clear, O’Leary’s media performances are a practiced, camp affect – no less fine-tuned than Gaga or Mrs Brown.
And yet, affect effects. His tonality has permeated his organisation. The despot’s manners have become the airline’s manner.
Ryanair is now the most profitable airline in Europe and second in size only to Lufthansa, which has won its top position through acquisition.
Empires don’t gently expire. They collapse.
This week, it felt like a moment of hubris had arrived for O’Leary and his shrill yellow airline that Europeans love to hate.
Ryanair had its Lady Thatcher moment.
In a public shareholder meeting in Dublin, dominated by profit warnings, O’Leary accepted that his airline’s ‘abrupt culture’ should be addressed.
At the heart of this discussion, driven by shareholder belief that customers in tears at boarding gates must be wrong and must impede growth, is a challenge to the Ryanair vision.
Perhaps low cost is not, after all, desired at any cost? Perhaps it is value, not cheapness, which customers really desire?
Can a bullying leopard change his spots?
I am not convinced.
O’Leary’s pledge, among others, to create a team to handle email complaints is hardly inspiring. Indeed, it is faintly risible.
I also note his garrulous way of expressing a new dawn for customer service at Ryanair, over the next year:
“We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off”
“Piss people off”.
It is phrasing so at odds with common, decent discourse that leading news outlets excised it from their reporting.
The BBC replaced O’Leary’s term with ‘annoy’.
The New York Times reinterpreted it as ‘irritate’.
And yet, for me, that single phrase is the truth behind the news.
Whilst asserting that the days of poor Ryanair service and attitude are to an end, O’Leary simultaneously employs a garish, insulting tone.
In the British Airways-Thatcher débacle of 1997, it took a change of leader to reverse the tailfin fiasco, and several more to begin, slowly, to turn British Airways into an airline which loves its customers more than itself.
In his petulance and disrespect for common decency, Mister O’Leary may well be arriving at his own personal Waterloo.
I have done a quick Google search of Waterloo, Belgium.
Happily, it is a quick 46km bus ride to Charleroi Airport. Mullingar? A quick one-hour spin down the motorway.
Napoleon never had it so good.
Brian McIntyre. September 2013.