Ryanair’s O’Leary: ‘We’re wonderful’

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“More great news for the Norwegian market!” exclaimed Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary as he swept into a conference room at Aker Brygge in Oslo late last week, 15 minutes late for a date with the local press corps. There would be more criticism and sarcastic comments about the Norwegian authorities and his competitors as well.

Michael O'Leary of Ryanair had more critical comments about politicians, regulators and now even a judge in Norway during his latest visit. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Michael O’Leary of Ryanair had more critical comments about politicians, regulators and now even a judge in Norway during his latest visit. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

The fast-talking Irishman didn’t resort to donning a Viking helmet this time, as he’s done in the past, but he didn’t miss a chance to tease and jab Norwegian politicians, labour organizations and airport authorities who won’t ease their laws, standards, regulations or especially fees to suit him. Within the space of a half-hour, O’Leary managed to claim or at least suggest that Norway’s politicians are inept, its court system may be biased, its airline rivals can’t compete with his “ultra-low-cost carrier” and that workers and aviation authorities are either lazy or overpaid or both.

The latter claim came in the context of Ryanair’s attempts, unsuccessful so far, to start service in Northern Norway, where most all the airports are controlled by state-owned Avinor. Landing fees that O’Leary considers “absurdly” high are keeping Ryanair out and he can’t understand why airport authorities don’t want more players in the market in addition to SAS, Norwegian and Widerøe. “‘Why should we,'” O’Leary quoted one airport official in Northern Norway as allegedly saying. “‘Then we’d have to work harder!'”

It isn’t possible to confirm the quote that he threw out to reporters in the room, but it was typical of the statements O’Leary bandied about as he criticized or ridiculed almost everyone in Norway except his paying passengers. “Our passengers love us,” O’Leary claimed. He wants more of them, and confirmed Ryanair would also love to launch domestic routes in Norway if he and his colleagues can overcome the cost barriers that would also make his “ultra-low” fare carrier bleed.

New winter routes
The occasion for O’Leary’s latest meeting with Norwegian media was ostensibly the introduction of 10 new winter routes from Norway, seven from Ryanair’s base at the Rygge airport south of Moss (not controlled by Avinor, but rather by local authorities and business interests) and three from Torp outside Sandfjord. O’Leary started talking about them as he entered the room, before he’d settled down in front of assembled reporters and before some realized the audience with O’Leary was already underway. His two assistants, communications boss Robin Kiely and sales and marketing executive Elina Hakkarainen, barely uttered a word, perhaps knowing better than to interrupt their boss or temper some of his remarks.

“Why should we accept (labour) unions?” O’Leary questioned one reporter, for example, in response to a question about the lack of collective bargaining agreements between Norwegian labour unions and Ryanair employees based in Norway. “We see very little success in airlines with unions. Just look at SAS!” O’Leary denied Ryanair employees were barred from joining unions, as that would violate the Irish law to which Ryanair adheres. It’s just that Ryanair won’t negotiate with unions, only with each individual employee. He claimed several times that pilots and cabin crew were just given a 10 percent pay hike and that cabin crews earn an average of NOK 193,000 (USD 32,000) per year. “The lowest gets NOK 152,000, the highest NOK 275,000,” he said, without mentioning that’s far below pay levels in high-cost Norway.

Conflict over which laws apply
O’Leary preferred to stress that “we are creating new and secure jobs” in Norway, even though a recently fired flight attendant who, along with labour organization Parat, has taken Ryanair to court, would hardly agree. Ryanair’s conflicts with Norwegian politicians, authorities and labour organizations all revert back to O’Leary’s insistence that Ryanair is answerable only to Irish law, not Norwegian law or the laws of any other country where it operates. He said he “can’t fathom” a recent appeals court ruling that claimed the flight attendant’s case must be heard in a Norwegian court, claiming later, though, that the judge in the case is a “former LO (trade union federation) lawyer.” He didn’t elaborate on his suggestion of court bias.

Nor would he assert, under questioning, whether Finance Minister Sigbjørn Johnsen had actually caved in on an earlier-stated demand that Ryanair employees based in Norway must pay tax in Norway. O’Leary flashed an excerpt of a letter sent by Johnsen to Ryanair in which he wrote that “no one disputes” that Irish employees should pay tax in Ireland. The dispute remains the tax- and legal home of Ryanair and its crews. Norwegian law, O’Leary emphatically repeated “doesn’t apply to our people,” and Ryanair won’t accept Norwegian inspectors’ demands either. Rival Norwegian Air is also moving forward with plans to register its aircraft in Ireland with an Irish company owning them, as part of a new “asset management” strategy. Norwegian’s registration of its new aircraft has already enabled the Norwegian-based carrier to avoid Norwegian rules against hiring lower-cost Asian crews on its long-haul flights.

Meanwhile, O’Leary said he hoped “we see more of our new aircraft in Norway,” referring to the 175 new Boeing jets O’Leary said Ryanair has ordered. He said Ryanair wasn’t losing money in Norway, but admitted profits were “small.” That likely explains why’s he’s keen to expand and increase volumes in Norway, despite the conflicts and controversy surrounding the airline.

“Our passengers love us,” O’Leary repeated. “In summary, Ryanair is wonderful.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund