Photography by Etienne de Malglaive
Ray Webster, who left easyJet in December after 10 years running the UK-based carrier, says the consumer is the winner in Europe’s low-cost revolution, but warns the industry is being held back by vested interests
Aviation in Europe has come a long way since I first stepped off a flight from New Zealand on a flying visit to see Stelios Haji-Ioannou in early 1996. I had spent the previous three decades of my professional career working within a traditional airline environment, but had become a passionate advocate of the low-cost concept as Air New Zealand had looked to profit from the deregulation of the Australasian market.
I joined easyJet when it was an unknown company operating on a couple of routes with two leased Boeing 737-200s. A handful of staff operated from a tin shed next to the taxiway at London Luton airport.
The company I left has grown to become one of Europe’s biggest airlines, with 110 aircraft, 30 million passengers a year and 225 routes (but still operating from that same tin shed). That journey has been the highlight of my career. easyJet today is clearly a very different airline to the 1995 vintage – and the transformation was not for those with weak stomachs.
Air travel within Europe is much cheaper today (in real and absolute terms) than it was 10 years ago – even on those routes without low-cost airline competition where consumers have simply refused to pay the over-inflated fares of the traditional airlines.
Pricing has become simpler, more transparent and the more arcane practices – such as Saturday night stays – are becoming obsolete. The consumer is the clear winner.
I never fail to wonder at the lengths to which entrenched airlines have gone to protect their interests over those of paying customers. I remember with pride our battles with British Airways, KLM and, most of all Swissair, when we operated a charter service (complete with bus ticket and a tent) to beat its monopoly on the Geneva-Barcelona route and deliver low prices. I would like to think that some of our adversaries would hang their heads in shame as they reflect on their behaviour.
Or perhaps not! Consumer-minded airlines are still coming up against the kind of entrenched protectionism that Open Skies should have made obsolete. The failure of France to create a genuinely competitive airline sector is at the top of my rogue’s gallery of serial offenders. Competition in France has gone backwards in the last few years – the polar opposite of the trend in almost every other European country.
Elsewhere, the Italian government’s continued support for Alitalia appears to be a clear breach of the European Commission’s “one-time last-time” approach to state aid, rivalled only by Greece’s support for Olympic Airlines; and the Spanish interpretation of ground-handling liberalisation is a clear block to the successful introduction of a pan-European competitive low-cost airline market.
Once again, in all these cases and many more, the clear loser is the travelling public. In fact, it could be seen that the tremendous growth of the low-cost sector in Europe has been despite, rather than because of, the actions of airports, regulators, and some governments.
There are some bright spots. Germany has generally adopted an enlightened approach that puts the interest of consumers and the wider economy above that of its national airline. And, despite the best efforts of national airlines, some airports are adopting differential pricing for the use of their facilities and are building terminals with facilities and pricing clearly targeted at the low-cost sector.
If I could wave a magic wand it would be to remedy the over-regulation of the commercial element of the industry and the iniquitous ownership and bilateral restrictions that still dominate.
The latest round of the on-off transatlantic talks between Washington and Brussels demonstrated once again that our great industry operates in a cocoon designed for the post-war era that is far removed from the realities of today’s global business environment. I look enviously at the global brands that have become established in telecoms and retailing, among other industries, and wonder how our business can continue to be so closeted.
Looking back, I am proud of having led easyJet through its significant contribution to the major changes in the industry that have happened in the past 10 years.
We have provided a huge increase in the range of services available to European airline passengers, all at lower prices, and the customer has rewarded us by travelling in numbers that would have seemed impossible a few years ago. easyJet has led the way, but the customer is the clear winner and they have responded by travelling more frequently, expanding the market.
We have been responsible for changing the way people think about travel, opened up the continent, making Europe available to everyone whenever they want it.
There is still much to do and I wish my successor, Andy Harrison, and his team the very best of luck. easyJet is in good shape and in very good hands – which is bad news for anyone getting in the way of the consumer.
Read our blog about how Webster was recruited by easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannu. Webster's comments come as Iceland's FL Group builds up a stake in the UK-based carrier. Plus, our exclusive interview with Webster.