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First he outraged the public. Then he attempted to win them over. But the greatest trick Michael O’Leary will try to pull is convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.
The Ryanair boss, who has been the face of the budget airline for almost 20 years of extraordinary growth, has decided to remove himself from the public frontline over the next year, admitting: “I’m getting in the way.”
The man who garnered a thousand headlines first as corporate loudmouth and latterly as reformed character plans to step back from press conferences and interviews as the airline tries to rebrand itself to pull in more families and business travellers.
O’Leary, 52, will stay on as chief executive as new succession plans are put in place with his deputy’s imminent departure. But he has decided that his own image, fostered over decades of gratuitous insults, expletive-laden interviews and cost-cutting ideas mooted with various degrees of sincerity is too ingrained – even after his recent well-publicised commitment to “stop unnecessarily pissing people off”.
That persona, he has concluded, is stopping Ryanair from getting its new messages across as it tries to reshape itself more in the image of easyJet.
O’Leary’s decision to retreat from public view has been prompted by a recent Newsnight interview in which he was tackled by the host Kirsty Wark on such subjects as his sexism and attitudes to customers. “It got all ‘you’re cheap and nasty’,” he said. “The communications has become a bit of a caricature of itself.”
The Irish airline, whose shares dropped recently on the back of a second profits warning, has embarked on a series of changes including cutting penalties for lost boarding cards, introducing quiet flights, relaxing baggage rules and being more flexible with booking errors.
On Thursday it announced plans to increase significantly increase flight frequencies to major European cities from Stansted with a view to expanding in the business market – the kind of traveller that O’Leary thinks should be attracted by his airline’s record on punctuality and swift check-in, but who might sniff at what he calls the “cheeky chappie” Ryanair of old. “This is where it has to change. I’m getting in the way of the brand stuff,” he said.
Ryanair is in the process of appointing a new director of sales and marketing, to start when O’Leary’s deputy, Michael Cawley, leaves in March. That new director will front press conferences and publicity, almost certainly spelling an end to headlines such as pay-to-pee, charging heavier passengers more or shooting environmentalists.
The grown-up Ryanair sounds duller, but O’Leary said: “That’s where it’s got to be.” The airline plans instead to communicate directly with passengers who will be encouraged to register on its website. O’Leary, a recent enthusiastic convert to Twitter and social media, sees the future in customer relations management, or CRM. “We’ll be getting people to register and CRMing the hell out of them,” he said.