Michael O’Leary’s admission at the weekend that Ryanair’s “abrupt culture” needs to change was very welcome.
In 2010 I suffered at the hands of this culture myself, after I criticised the airline’s promotion of ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ and its release of a ‘sexy calendar’ featuring female staff. By way of response I was treated to a highly personal attack by the company.
Although my particular experience is unusual I know I am far from alone in feeling aggrieved at O’Leary. Every day countless travellers endure anxiety and degradation at the hands of his airline. They do so because they want to travel abroad and for many on low incomes flying by Ryanair is their only option. Humiliation and discomfort is the price they have to pay.
For a long time O’Leary has delighted in the role of pantomime villain. He is openly contemptuous of women, of the environment, of his staff, of the government and of his customers. He revels in playing the demagogue – the outsider who demeans people by ‘giving them what they want’ – and is on record as saying that his customers will “crawl naked over broken glass” to get low fares.
The argument put forward by O’Leary – that he is doing something anti-elitist by allowing poorer people to fly – simply doesn’t wash. There is nothing progressive about exploiting people without much money when you can afford to treat them better – nor is there anything to be celebrated about thumbing your nose at those same people when they are forced to come back for more.
It is high time that O’Leary and Ryanair outgrew this phase in their development. As we move towards a fairer, more progressive type of capitalism businesses will increasingly need to recognise that their duties extend beyond meeting the bottom line. I therefore hope O’Leary’s comments this weekend were sincere – and I that they represent a genuine change of direction for his company.