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‘Our disputes are resolved’: Controversial Michael O’Leary on why Ryanair is back in Manchester

By Jeremy Culley

Once troubled relations between Ryanair and Manchester Airport appear to have thawed, as the airline’s unpredictable chief executive Michael O’Leary spoke to Mancunian Matters about new routes, beating the recession and how taxing fat people is only ever requested by passengers.

Controversial, loose-cannon and perennially stealing the limelight.

One man entirely deserving of these tags left Manchester for pastures new this week, but, lo and behold, someone popped up to fill the headlines in an instant.

No it was not a replacement for ex-Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli, but the figurehead of an airline constantly criticised, yet so successful it is opening routes rather than closing them.

Ryanair’s Chief Executive Michael O’Leary is never afraid to make his feelings known (much like the aforementioned Balotelli) and fights fires in such an accomplished, inimitable fashion it is impossible not to warm to him.

This week he flew into Manchester to field questions from journalists – desperate for an archetypally flamboyant sound bite – about a European court ruling that his airline should pay a passenger compensation after her flights were suspended during the 2010 Icelandic ash cloud disruption.

He was evidently hopping (quite literally as his infectious energy saw him constantly rocking forward on the balls of his feet) mad about it, blaming everyone from the government to air traffic control staff.

The dust will settle on this saga but Ryanair will continue to thrive, one suspects.

Mr O’Leary was in the city to announce record advance bookings for summer flights, including those on the five new routes the airline are providing from the city.

While other airlines are closing routes, or shutting down altogether, Ryanair are constantly expanding and still boast the cheapest overall fares, some as low as £16.

Their maverick leader even feels his airline is helping Manchester defy the recession.

“Manchester’s own results prove we’re helping them beat the recession, replacing the losses that were made as a result of BA cutbacks,” said Mr O’Leary.

“Manchester have very good airport managers, they recognise that the future and the way forward is low fare air travel growing and they run the airport specifically to ensure low fare air travel can grow.”

The outlook for the low-fares giant was not always as rosy in Manchester, however.

In 2009, they suspended all their operations after the airport refused to lower charges.

The airport has since expanded its outlook, and has submitted plans to build a £650million ‘Airport City’, clearly an opportunity a firm as savvy as Ryanair would not turn their noses up at. 

Now it seems the airport and Ryanair are the closest of friends, certainly according to Mr O’Leary after he made a customary switch from erratic energy to a smooth PR machine.

“We’ve had a number of disputes with the airport over the years, largely over costs,” he said.

“I think those disputes have all largely been resolved in the last two years.

“We opened a base in Manchester two years ago and, as you can see, it has been a terrific success for both Ryanair and the airport.”

He also said he felt Manchester Airport had moved on and now realised how important low-fare airlines such as Ryanair are, given the struggles faced by competitors such as BA.

They have flourished, having carried 300million UK passengers, who they claim have saved more than £71 billion in the process.

But not everybody laughs at Mr O’Leary’s brazen approach.

The tickets are cheap, but many argue so too is the experience.

Miniscule hand luggage, low luggage weight  limits, disorderly check-in processes and credit card booking fees (where that is the only payment method) have all been the source of gripes.

Frequently mentioned future moves from Ryanair have included taxing overweight people, introducing toilet charges and even getting rid of seats.

Mr O’Leary shakes his head and smiles ruefully when these are put to him – he claims Mancunians should not fear them as they are not under consideration.

In fact, he alleges that the only people who ever propose taxing fat people are the passengers themselves.

“Taxes for fat people is something we have never, ever proposed but every time we run a survey on the website it’s the passengers that are saying ‘we want fat people taxed’.

“I don’t understand it myself but all we do is respond to the feedback we receive.”

A typically smooth finish after an equally typical indignant reaction.

Ryanair, and their continued efforts to transport people around Europe for the lowest fares, will always leave some people spitting with rage after a frustration journey.

The same passengers will still come back, however, as we British rarely ignore the cheapest prices.

That is an attribute Mr O’Leary can always cling, even when buried under the largest mountain of criticism.

Undeniably, without him air travel would provide journalists far fewer interesting stories.

Much like the Premier League, now a certain Italian has returned home.

Image courtesy of BBC HARDtalk, via YouTube, with thanks.

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