Michael O’Leary: A Life in Full Flight: The Story of the Man Who Made Ryanair Take Off

By Alan Ruddock
Penguin Ireland (available through specialty retailers), 2007, 448 pages

“Business books are…usually written by wankers.” So says Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, one of the world’s largest and most successful international airlines. So it’s not surprising that he did not cooperate with journalist Alan Ruddock, who wrote this highly entertaining story about O’Leary and his company. The book’s title makes it sound like a biography, but it’s really the story of how O’Leary built Ryanair into a powerhouse adored by its customers and feared by its competitors. No matter. The biography of the company and the biography of the man are essentially the same: Since he joined the foundering airline in 1988 as the watchdog for its owner, legendary Irish businessman Tony Ryan, it’s not clear that O’Leary has had a life outside the company.

O’Leary and the Ryanair business model fit the principles of crude Darwinism and neoclassical economics perfectly. It’s all about survival of the fittest and the practice of a selfish rationality that, according to modern economics, makes up the invisible hand of free markets. O’Leary is fanatical about cutting costs; air crew who are looking for jobs have to pay for their interviews with Ryanair and fund their own training and uniforms if they are accepted. Head office staff must supply their own pens and are forbidden to charge their cell phones at work. O’Leary has no passion for the airline business at all. What turns him on, apparently literally, is making money. After keeping a convenience store he owned open one Christmas Day and making a bundle, he said, “I have never had a sexual experience in my life like it. The feeling of having one wad of notes pushed down one side of my trousers and another wad of notes down the other….”

A manager with a business model like Ryanair’s can learn very little from a business book. The company’s “pile it high, sell it cheap,” point-to-point flight strat­egy, borrowed from Southwest Airlines, is as old as commerce and works wonderfully well — for Ryanair. Its customers, 99 percent of whom book their fares online, regard air travel as a commodity and are prepared to live with all kinds of inconvenience to get the deals Ryanair offers. The managerial in­novations are not in the strategy but in the details of its implementation in the specific context of a point-to-point airline operating in Europe. O’Leary has proved a master at extracting fees from European regional airports desperate to build their local economies. Ryanair’s competitors are mostly national legacy carriers constrained by onerous labor agreements with militant unions, expensive aircraft, huge infrastructures, and obligations that they cannot abandon unless entering into bankruptcy. After the deregulation of European air travel, competitors can do very little against Ryanair; Michael O’Leary relishes thumbing his nose at them and everyone else.

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