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Michael O’Leary: My hope for the future over Brexit

Michael O'Leary at a press conference in Milan in 2016 - Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary tells JOHN KAMPFNER, in characteristically forthright style, just what he thinks of the government’s Covid travel rules, the ‘hijacking’ of his aircraft by Belarus and the future of aviation

The UK’s travel rules are in chaos. The European Union is starting to open up, but not to Brits. Is ‘delta’, the Indian variant, to blame? Or is it Brexit revenge?

Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, is less than impressed. “The traffic light system makes no sense. It’s a depressing lack of coherent planning. Vaccines are rolling out incredibly well in the UK; Europe is catching up.”

Far from tightening up the rules, Britain should have removed all of them, he insists, at the start of June. Failing that, it should do so by the end of this month, at least for short-haul travel. By that point, 80% of Brits will have received at least a first dose, he says, and, lagging just behind, around 70% of EU citizens.

“There is really no justification in my mind for travel restrictions beyond that date. But the politicians are running around, being bounced around by the medical scientific lobby running around with variant-scariant stories”. The vaccinations, he notes, have been remarkably effective. “Serious illness, morbidity, intensive care admissions have dropped, have collapsed. The politicians need to speed up with the reopening economy programme”.

There seems fat chance of a relaxation any time soon, particularly after Portugal has been put on the amber list.

The British system, he says, is a particular mess. “PCR tests are a pain in the arse. Your Border Force in the UK can barely read passports, never mind read a passport and a negative PCR test or know what to do when somebody doesn’t have the right [paperwork]… it’s all a bit bonkers. Badly thought out. Politicians need to grow up.”

O’Leary has transformed air travel in his own inimitable fashion and doesn’t want anyone threatening it. In our conversation, the Irishman sets out his vision of flying over the next decade and his analysis of the political management of the past few years.

Even by his colourful standards, he doesn’t hold back. Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, he says, have been captured. They are being continuously “battered over the head” making it difficult for them to make brave decisions. “There’s an entire industry of medical scientific commentariat who nobody ever paid any attention to until about 18 months ago who have now become media rock stars and personalities and who will only continue to appear on Sky or BBC or ITN as long as they’re worrying and emoting about the possible risks into the future of X, Y, Z variants.”

He praises the 2021 vaccination roll-out; all the other actions not so much. “They did make a dog’s breakfast of it. The UK was late to close down. They didn’t take it seriously. They were clearly going for some kind of herd immunity strategy at the start. I don’t believe Johnson is a particularly good leader in a crisis. Doesn’t do detail. But they are where they are.”

O’Leary believes that within a few months, Europe’s population – particularly the young, in whom he vests his personal (for that perhaps read corporate) hopes – will be back flying as never before. On June 21 he expects the government to remove all restrictions on short haul flying. All restrictions? Sanitisers and masks could stay for a couple of months, but barring that, all. Travel as before.

“We should just get on with life,” O’Leary declares. “We’ve learnt to live with Covid. It will be with us for the next 10 or 20 years but it will be no more serious than the common cold. We’ll all get, I presume, an annual vaccine.” We are “effectively in the post-Covid era in the UK and Europe”.

The French and Germans are not spared his invective either. I mention to O’Leary that I had been planning to get over to Berlin, only for Angela Merkel’s administration effectively declaring Brits personae non grata. His response: “For the Germans to do it made no sense whatsoever. Normally we would expect a more intelligent response from Merkel, but her term is up and she’s increasingly making lots of silly decisions.”

The French approach, marginally less draconian, to require Brits to quarantine on arrival had, he says, more to do with politics than public health. “It was an opportunity for the French to give the brits a kicking again.” Was this Brexit payback from Emmanuel Macron? “I suspect that’s part of it. The French will lose no opportunity to put the boot in wherever they can.”

*****

I wasn’t planning to bring up the B word. After all, what’s left to say? O’Leary’s prompt meant I couldn’t resist. Five months on from our final departure, his assessment? “Look, I was an arch Remainer. I believe Brexit was the greatest economic self-harm ever visited on the UK economy by a bunch of misguided or ill-advised politicians.”

He warns about increased tensions in Northern Ireland and the overall “serious damage” caused by tariff barriers between the UK and Europe. The British public were “ill-advised”; they bought the myth of money-to-the-NHS and the myth of controlling immigration (as we’re seeing now with the French and Germans leaving us to deal with the dinghies coming ashore).

He takes a little swipe at one of the loudest Brexit advocates, Tim Martin, chairman of Wetherspoons, who last week called for more work visas for young Europeans to fill job vacancies in his pubs. “Tim, nice but dim, should have seen that one coming.”

There is no point, he insists, in refighting the arguments. “It is what it is,” he says, three times, before predicting that within 10 to 20 years the UK will have negotiated some form of Norway-style associate membership of the EU, including membership of the single market. “But I can’t see the UK re-joining a political union. In any case, I’m not sure the Europeans would want them back.”

O’Leary didn’t get where he is today by indulging in pessimism. “What gives me hope for the future is that the young population of the UK was hugely pro-Europe and was anti-Brexit and a lot of the older rear-guard who were hugely anti-Europe and pro-Brexit will die out in the next decade. Because I’ve no doubt the UK is better off in Europe and Europe is definitely better off and stronger with the UK in it than the UK out.”

*****

We turn to the wider future of aviation. Will we, I wonder, travel less in the future? “No. I would say exactly the opposite. We’re going to travel more.”

Really? After all, it’s become axiomatic to say that we’re happier now tending our gardens and vacationing closer to home, and we wouldn’t dream of flying half way round the world for a business junket.

O’Leary takes each of these claims separately. Yes, executives won’t be swanning off to Bali for a two-day conference any time soon, if ever. But smaller businesses are desperate to meet suppliers and customers in person again. “Trying to hold business meetings across a screen is a deeply unsatisfying experience.”

As for leisure travel, he acknowledges that very short trips are now the preserve of trains. “Madrid to Barcelona; Rome to Milan; London to Paris and Brussels. They’re not going back onto aeroplanes. But the idea that trains are somehow going to replace flights from Frankfurt to Madrid or from London to the Balearics is just nonsense.”

It is worth noting that all O’Leary’s forecasts tend to coincide with Ryanair’s business model. Far flung destinations are the preserve of legacy carriers. Very short haul isn’t their thing anyway. Where he has cornered the market is one end of Europe to the other, particularly involving regional airports.

Pre-pandemic trends of more leisure time, greater mobility and higher incomes, he says, will continue. While PCR tests have made travel unaffordable for many families – particularly in countries like Britain which are charging full whack – they won’t continue for long. Overall, the cost of flying more generally will continue to come down.

The more impassioned he becomes about flying, the fruiter the language becomes. “Any of this doom-laden stuff that air travel is finished, either because of flight shaming or environmental concerns, or Covid, or people spending the rest of their lives on a f***ing zoom screen is bonkers. The first thing people want to do post-Covid is go to a beach.

“Staycations are fine until you realise that the weather in the UK is s**t. The weather in the west of Ireland throughout May was historically s**t. Nobody wants to be stuck in a caravan on the west of Ireland where it rains three hundred and f***ing twenty days a year with four kids running around freezing f***ing cold and with traffic jams because the road infrastructure is so awful, and the cost of staycations has mushroomed in the last year or two.

“They are all going back to the beaches of Spain, Portugal, where you’re guaranteed weather, there’s a welcome for your kids, it’s reasonably easy to get to and, thanks to vaccinations, it’s increasingly risk-free.”

O’Leary insists he is not being flippant on the climate emergency and that his company is investing in new more carbon-efficient planes. But he has little time for environmental activists; the feeling is mutual.

What of flight-shaming, the movement spawned first in Sweden in 2018, thanks to Greta Thunberg and other activists? He has seen “no evidence that it is having any effect on any demographic group”.

He goes on: “Over the last six or eight weeks, the strongest recovery we’ve seen in air travel or forward bookings has been Scandinavians heading to the beaches of Spain, Portugal, the Balearics and the Canaries. They’ve had enough of flight-shaming up there in the dark of Scandinavia for the last nine or ten months. They all want a bit of sunshine – and I would find it hard to blame them.”

BELARUS

On Sunday 23 May, Ryanair flight FR4973 was travelling from Athens to Vilnius when it was ordered by Belarusian air traffic controllers to divert to Minsk. O’Leary has called the episode, choreographed to enable the seizure from the plane of an opposition blogger, Roman Protasevich, “state-sponsored hijacking”.

The ruse that was used, a bomb warning, has been widely ridiculed. “It’s quite clear there wasn’t any threat,” O’Leary tells me. “The timing of the email which they claimed to have received from Hamas was 30 minutes after they had first contacted our crew.”

He describes the incident, in which the Belarussians dispatched a fighter aircraft alongside, as “in breach of all air traffic legislation”, warning that it could lead to “copycat events” from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East in the future.

And what about the international response? The EU, US and UK announced the banning of Belarus’s national carrier and the circumvention of its airspace – but there was little sign of significant sanctions. Meanwhile, Putin rallied to the defence of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Here O’Leary dives headlong into big-power politics. “It’s another illustration where the EU needs to get its act together. I’d pay great tribute to the Poles, the Baltics, the Romanians and others, who are very active, very focused on Russian misbehaviour and want to see much more effective sanctions.”

They are, he adds, being held back by the Germans, who have been “the least active in this area and the most resistant to any effective sanctions on Russia”.

O’Leary attributes this to Angela Merkel’s decision in 2011 to shut down Germany’s nuclear industry following the Fukushima disaster in Japan. This had two negative consequences – it slowed down the move away from fossil fuels and it led to the decision to build a second gas pipeline with Russia, Nordstream 2, just as Putin’s regime was becoming increasingly dictatorial and aggressive on the world stage.

“One of the many negative legacies left by Merkel was that stupid and illogical decision to shut down Germany’s nuke power infrastructure and leave the country critically dependent on imported oil and gas from Russia,” O’Leary says. “I fail to see how you can be a sovereign state unless you have some element of energy-generation independence.”

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing letters@theneweuropean.co.uk