Ryanair's chief executive Michael O'Leary is well known for his bombastic public persona and ruthless management style, but what's he like when you meet him on business?
My colleague Kieran Daly once blogged that Ryanair, as a business acted towards its passengers as if it didn't want to be loved. Michael certainly has the air of one who doesn't care whether he is loved or not, but I have more than a suspicion that he would hate it if he wasn't admired.
Although I speak to Michael quite often on the telephone I've only met him twice, and both times I was summoned. Sort of.
The first time was in 2002 when a CHIRP Feedback report by a controller at Ryanair's biggest European hub London Stansted airport alleged that the pilots of an unidentified low cost carrier were hassling controllers for priority. It hit the television news big time in the UK and Ireland, and I spent some time on screen explaining the context to newsreaders. Michael noticed the appearances, and I got my summons.
But this blog isn't about the air traffic control issue, it's about how Michael operates.
If he's after impressing people, he usually impresses me with his sheer cheek. He said he was going to be in London in a couple of days and could we meet? I said yes, but where? He told me I could decide, so I suggested the RAF Club because I'm a member. Great, said he, book us a meeting room. So I did, and ordered some coffee and biscuits to be delivered at the appointed time. We spent an hour together, me checking out his knowledge of all aspects of his front line operation. Many CEOs - and remember MOL's training is in accountancy not flying - don't know what happens airside, but he did - in fine detail. He does his homework. If anything were to go wrong at Ryanair it would not be because he didn't know the risks.
But that wasn't what impressed me most. When I was happy that the interview was over he shook my hand and walked out leaving me with the bill. You can see why Ryanair makes the money it does.
Actually British Airways impressed me once in a similar way. I was about to board one of their Airbus A320s to Geneva when the Purser genuinely surprised me by greeting me at the gate, passing the captain's compliments and asking if I would like the cockpit jump seat (this was pre 9/11, obviously). I accepted, despite having a business class seat and looking forward to the meal because it was late evening and I was hungry. When, during the cruise, I exited the flight deck for a visit to the washroom, I found BA had sold my seat.
But I digress.
Michael O'Leary's latest summons came because we had given high profile to news stories about four unstabilised approaches in which Ryanair aircraft had been involved between July 2005 and June 2006. Flight International editor Murdo Morrison and I agreed to meet him and his chief pilot Capt Ray Conway at Ryanair's Dublin HQ. Murdo and I boarded a Ryanair Boeing 737-800 at London Gatwick in the morning, took the 10min walk from the Dublin airport terminal to the HQ building, and duly met Michael and Ray in the former's office. Michael went and got us mugs of coffee that actually tasted good and didn't charge for it.
That's more than his pilots get.
We obviously talked about why the unstabilised approaches were happening in the airline and what Ryanair was doing to solve the problem. When that was finished, I began on the "since we happen to be here" session, which wasn't programmed, and our flight back was looming. I just asked whether the so-called European/US Open Skies deal would make any difference to Ryanair's business. It unlocked the floodgates. It wouldn't affect the existing shorthaul business, he said, but it would permit the future long-haul transatlantic operations with a new 50-strong fleet of either Airbus A350s or Boeing 787s. MOL didn't have to tell us that. He hadn't told anyone else in the media about it, so he obviously wanted us to know. The plan is clearly a blueprint, but it's there in his head. In fine detail.
Anyway, back to practical stuff. We had to go, and were preparing to walk back to the airport terminal. But Michael accompanied us downstairs, occupied the driver's seat of one of the crew buses and dropped us off at the terminal. He did offer us a sandwich, but we didn't take him up on it. After all, we could buy one on board.