April 20, 2024

The Ryanair way: the airline’s intention is to be counterintuitive

In early February 2022, I urgently replaced Market of the Week in my weekly newsletter. The last minute change had nothing to do with Covid: with Russian troops increasing on the borders of Ukraine, I reluctantly begged for a fare war from London to one of the most beautiful cities in south-eastern Europe: Odesa. Wizz Air (from Luton) and Ryanair (from Stansted) have decided to launch flights to the Black Sea pearl of Ukraine in March 2022.

Tickets were on sale for £25 for the 1,450 mile flight. But Vladimir Putin had other ideas. Russia invaded, and all passengers flying to and within Ukraine were stopped.

Since then thousands of people have died as the Kremlin waged a vicious war against its neighbours. Although the Russian President has been weakened by Wagner’s rebellion, the world’s largest country’s war machine grinds to a halt. Moscow is doubling down, with no clear end in sight.

All airlines, therefore, are giving a broad measure in every sense to Ukraine. The nation’s airspace is closed, causing air traffic control sclerosis in Europe this summer: planes between Asia and western Europe as well as holiday air traffic from the UK to Turkey must tunnel along a narrow corridor, causing congestion and delays.

With no prospect of peace anytime soon, airlines write off Ukraine as a source of income – except that routes to eastern Poland, Slovakia and Hungary carry plenty of Ukrainian citizens traveling across the border to their families.

Except for one carrier: Ryanair.

This week Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Europe’s largest budget airline, arrived in the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv. He met with the deputy prime minister and the manager of the city’s main airport, Boryspil. Dismissing any notion of premature action, the CEO announced a massive move into Ukraine once peace finally comes.

The message from the airline is as follows: “Ryanair was the second largest airline in Ukraine before the illegal invasion of Russia in February 2022. “Once the skies over Ukraine have reopened for commercial aviation, Ryanair will cut back into Ukraine connecting Ukraine’s main airports with over 20 EU capitals, and we are working closely with the Ukrainian government, industry and ge Ukraine’s efforts to rebuild its aviation.

“The fastest way to rebuild and restore the economy of Ukraine is low-cost air travel. Ryanair plans to invest heavily in Ukraine and lead this aviation recovery by investing up to $3bn [£2.34bn] and establish up to 30 new Boeings [737] Max aircraft at the three main airports of Ukraine in Kyiv, Lviv and Odesa.

“Having also previously served Kharkiv and Kherson airports before the invasion, Ryanair will also return to those airports, once the infrastructure is restored.”

Absurd publicity seeking exercise or blue sky thinking about swinging? Having charted Ryanair’s course from lost irrelevance across the Irish Sea to European dominance, I lean towards the latter. Michael O’Leary grew the airline by being counterintuitive.

  • Losing money between London and Dublin and about to return? Half the fees
  • A response to the drop in demand after the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Order 100 new Boeing 737s when no one else
  • Looking for new ways to cut costs? Get the right to check in for free at the airport

Add to that list: being the only airline commander to fly to Kyiv and promising to revive the post-war nation. Potential customers will be impressed, and more pragmatically you can make an incredibly good deal with the airport authorities that will seriously disrupt your competitors for years to come. Wizz Air, in particular, must have been intimidated by Ryanair’s promotional machine.

I look forward to the terrible invasion that will be replaced by a fare war, to use the words of that newsletter.

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