An Irishman walks into a bar — it’s the opening line of an old joke that’s taken on a personal twist for Willie Walsh, the boss of airline group IAG SA.

“You’re Michael O’Leary,” Walsh says, recalling the remarks of a stranger in a Glasgow pub who mistook him for the head of Ryanair Holdings Plc. “I’m not,” Walsh replied. “You are,” the man persisted, until, tiring of the exchange, Walsh denied being O’Leary and swore for emphasis. “See,” said the man, triumphantly, “I knew you were Michael O’Leary!”

The two airline executives, one a trained accountant, the other an ex-pilot, have more in common than just colorful language. Between them they’ve carved up Europe’s commercial airline market. O’Leary transformed Ryanair into the continent’s top low-cost carrier and Walsh merging British Airways with Spain’s Iberia, adding discounter Vueling and now looking to cement his hold on the lucrative trans-Atlantic market with the takeover of Aer Lingus Group Plc.

Whether the bid succeeds hinges on Walsh winning O’Leary’s backing, since Ryanair is Aer Lingus’s biggest shareholder with a 28.9 percent stake. Ryanair has been careful to avoid commenting on whether it favors a deal, though O’Leary says he’s open to talks on an offer if a formal approach is made.

Joker Costume

On the face of it the pair, born just seven months apart in 1961 (O’Leary is older) and both holding degrees from Dublin’s Trinity College, are contrasting figures.

Walsh, deliberate and precise in his comments, appears in public meticulously dressed in suit and tie. His opposite number at Ryanair, quick-talking and expressive, favors a dressed-down look that has extended to a joker costume, mask and snorkel and Santa Claus outfit when the occasion demanded.

Both men, though, have dedicated much of their lives to perfecting the tricks of the aviation trade, and with a degree of success that far outstrips their European peers.

After visiting the U.S., O’Leary replicated the Southwest Airlines Co. discount model, transforming Ryanair from a minor airline carrying 1.6 million people a year into a top player moving 90 million. Walsh became a cadet pilot at Aer Lingus and worked his way through the ranks before making the transition to management and becoming CEO just as he turned 40, paving the way for him to snag the top job at British Airways and form IAG.

Union Clashes

IAG’s operating profit rose 80 percent last year and its share price has doubled since the BA-Iberia merger in 2011, giving a market value equal to $17.8 billion — almost three times that of Deutsche Lufthansa AG and five times of Air France-KLM Group.

Ryanair’s stock has tripled in price during the same timeframe, making it worth the equivalent of $17.4 billion, 75 percent more than closest discount rival EasyJet Plc, while its pretax profit surged 66 percent in 2014.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. O’Leary’s brash manners and bouts of rudeness garnered both entertaining and adverse headlines, prompting Ryanair to pursue a charm offensive and image revamp from the end of 2013.

Walsh, after earning the nickname “slasher” at Aer Lingus, tried to take the carrier public in 2005, a move that led to his resignation. Tough union battles at BA and Iberia would follow as he sought to restructure both airlines.

Bear Hug

IAG won government support for its 1.4 billion-euro ($1.52 billion) approach on Tuesday having already secured the backing of Aer Lingus’s independent directors for a bid comprising 2.50 euros for each share plus a 5 cents cash dividend.

“We won’t increase our offer,” Walsh said in Dublin on Wednesday. “Individuals in Ryanair may have views — in the same way I have views — but ultimately, you’re employed for the benefit of your shareholders, and I think that’s what Ryanair will consider.”

Both men have been at pains recently to stress a newfound humility, with Walsh telling an audience in Dublin on May 20 that he has made “quite a few mistakes along the way” and O’Leary describing the realization that better customer service can be good for business as a road-to-Damascus conversion.

That may be a quality much in demand in coming days as Ireland’s aviation whiz-kids lock horns over the future of the country’s flagship carrier.

“What’s it like hugging a panda?” Walsh asked at the Dublin event last week, before flashing up a picture of himself embracing O’Leary. “Not soft and cuddly, it does have big claws and sharp teeth and they do say: don’t make sudden moves.”

This article was written by Kari Lundgren and Dara Doyle from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Photo Credit: A Ryanair promotional image. Ryanair