As Europe awaits a decision from U.K. voters on the Brexit Referendum, O'Leary balances an honest, even cutting, evaluation of Europe's flaws with a vision of a better Europe. It's that same dogged determination against opposition which has helped make Ryanair the world's largest airline in passenger traffic.
Speaking to Skift during a press conference in Copenhagen on Tuesday, the outspoken CEO of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, shared insights on everything that’s wrong within European Airspace, how to fix it, the importance of protecting Europe’s mandate to allow the free movement of goods and people, and why UK voters should vote ‘Yes’ on the Brexit Referendum, keeping the UK an active member of the European Union.
O’Leary answered our question on controversial issue of the Brexit (Britain ‘exiting’ the EU) candidly repeating the importance of a ‘Yes’ vote today during a meeting with the press in London.
“We’re one of the great success stories of the single market, and yet probably the company that has suffered most through incompetent regulation in Europe, but we’re still actively campaigning and will actively campaign in the Brexit referendum in the UK to persuade UK voters to vote ‘Yes’ to Europe,” he told Skift. “There is no doubt that we as countries are better together, working together, as a stronger single trading block. But there’s equally no doubt in my mind that when the European Union sees things that are fundamentally contrary to the free movement of goods and labour, such as the Danish model, for example, such as Norwegian, the refusal of the American congress to allow Norwegian to fly into the U.S. under the U.S. Open Skies agreement, and the European Union should take action. They don’t. So yes, I fundamentally support the UK prime minister. The UK should be in Europe and Europe needs reform. Because Europe is not a competitive marketplace at the moment. We need to make it more competitive. Low fare air travel, roaming charges for mobile phones, are some of the few successes, but we need to do more.”
One of the ways O’Leary believes Europe can do more is to put an end to the endless disruption of air travel from labor action leading to what Ryanair has said are excessive strikes.
Earlier this year, as the French air traffic controllers (ATC) prepared to strike again, leading to numerous flight cancellations and delays, Ryanair called on the European Commission to take decisive action putting an end to these repetitive events.
Despite slow response by the European Commission on a number of matters which concern aviation, O’Leary insists these matters will be resolved in time. He is not relying on hope alone, having helped establish the A4E airline group tasked with addressing issues which impede an efficient airline industry in Europe.
“I think it will be [resolved] because it’s such a shambles, such a disgrace that ultimately it gets so bad that it does get fixed,” O’Leary told us. “I’m fairly sure the fix is not going to be the Single European Sky, which has proven itself to be an utter and complete shambles. I think what we need is more competition between the European ATC providers. We’re calling, as A4E airlines group, for two measures implemented. Firstly, is to allow the neighboring ATCs to run French overflights when French air traffic controllers are on strike. The technical capability already exists to do that and there’s no reason why it doesn’t happen. Secondly, we’re calling for the French ATC unions to be required to commit to binding arbitration first, instead of always using strike as the first weapon of choice.”
O’Leary related these issues to the questions surrounding the Brexit referendum.
“If you look at the UK referendum, one of the great hallmarks of success of the European project has been airline deregulation and the growth of low fare air travel, but one of the great failures has been the shambles of Single Sky and the failure to deliver any reform of ATC. Very small tiny unions with far too much power—because they are able to shut the skies over Europe—continue to use strikes as the first weapon rather than the last.”
O’Leary proposes a two-step solution to the EU’s woes: a call for binding arbitration as the first recourse to address labor disputes, and ensuring that neighboring ATCs can keep overflight control in the event of strikes.
“Then air traffic controller unions lose the power to shut down half of European air travel every time they go on strike,” he said. “You know the remarkable statistic is that the Irish and the British air traffic controllers haven’t had a strike for 20 years. The French had 40 in the last nine years. I mean, it’s a joke.”
This concept that Europe needs fighting for, not abandoning, carried on to the CEO’s announcement today when Ryanair called on UK voters to vote in favor of staying in Europe on June 23. The airline carries over 35 million passengers between the UK and Europe each year.
Ryanair agued that staying in Europe will “lead to more UK jobs and better economic growth.” The airline also warned that, “Foreign inward investment in the UK will be lost to Ireland and Germany if they UK leaves Europe.”
While in London, O’Leary said to the press, “As the UK’s largest airline, Ryanair is absolutely clear that the UK economy and its future growth prospects are stronger as a member of the European Union than they are outside of the EU. Leaving Europe won’t save the UK money or red tape because like Norway the UK will still have to contribute to Europe, and obey its rules if it wants to continue to trade freely with Europe, so it’s clear that UK voters should vote Yes to Europe and Yes to the reformed Europe, that David Cameron has delivered. Ryanair, our people and I hope the vast majority of our customers, will all work together over the coming months to help deliver a resounding Yes vote on June 23.”
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Photo credit: Michael O'Leary meets with Skift in Copenhagen FC Media / Skift