Ryanair’s way: the airline’s secret is to be counterintuitive

War hero? Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, in Kyiv (Ryanair)
War hero? Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, in Kyiv (Ryanair)

Early in February 2022, I hurriedly replaced the Deal of the Week in my weekly newsletter. The last-minute change was nothing to do with Covid: with the build-up of Russian troops on the borders of Ukraine, I reluctantly excised mention of a fares war from London to one of the most beautiful cities in southeast Europe: Odesa. Wizz Air (from Luton) and Ryanair (from Stansted) had both decided to launch flights to Ukraine’s Black Sea pearl in March 2022.

Tickets were selling at just £25 for the 1,450-mile flight. But Vladimir Putin had other ideas. Russia invaded, and all passenger flying to, from and within Ukraine ceased.

Since then tens of thousands of people have died as the Kremlin wages a vicious war against its neighbour. Even though the Russian president was weakened by the Wagner mutiny, the war machine of the world’s largest country grinds on. Moscow is doubling down, with no obvious end in sight.

All airlines, therefore, are giving Ukraine a wide berth in every sense. The nation’s airspace is closed, which is one cause of the air-traffic control sclerosis in Europe this summer: planes between Asia and western Europe as well as holiday air traffic from the UK to Turkey must funnel along a narrow corridor, leading to congestion and delays.

Routes from the UK to eastern Poland, Slovakia and Hungary are selling strongly as the nearest points to the frontier: dozens of buses shuttle each day between Rzeszów in southeast Poland and the Ukrainian city of Lviv. But with no prospect of imminent peace, Ukraine is written off as a source of revenue by airlines.

Except by one: Ryanair.

This week Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Europe’s biggest budget airline, arrived in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. He met the deputy prime minister and the boss of the city’s main airport, Boryspil. And dismissing any notion of acting prematurely, the CEO announced a massive move into Ukraine once peace finally arrives.

The communique from the airline read as follows: “Ryanair was Ukraine’s second-largest airline before the unlawful Russian invasion in February 2022. “Once the skies over Ukraine have reopened for commercial aviation, Ryanair will charge back into Ukraine linking the main Ukraine airports with over 20 EU capitals, and we are working closely with the Ukrainian government to rebuild Ukraine’s aviation, industry and its economy.

“The fastest way to rebuild and restore the Ukrainian economy will be with low-fare air travel. Ryanair intends to lead this aviation recovery by investing up to $3bn [£2.34bn] and basing up to 30 new Boeing [737] Max aircraft at Ukraine’s three main airports in Kyiv, Lviv and Odesa.

“Having previously also served Kharkiv and Kherson airports prior to the invasion, Ryanair will return to serving those airports too, as soon as the infrastructure has been restored.”

An absurd publicity-seeking exercise or some swashbuckling blue-sky thinking? Having charted the Ryanair course from a loss-making irrelevance across the Irish Sea to European domination, I tend towards the latter. Michael O’Leary first salvaged and then supercharged the airline by being counterintuitive.

  • Losing money between London and Dublin and about to fold? Halve the fares

  • Respond to the collapse of demand following the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Order 100 new Boeing 737s when nobody else is

  • Looking for new ways to cut costs? Remove the right to check in for free at the airport

Add to that list: be the only airline boss to go to Kyiv and promise to revive the post-war nation. Prospective customers will be impressed, and more pragmatically you can seal an implausibly good deal with the airport authorities that, in years to come, will deeply frustrate your rivals. Wizz Air, in particular, must have been alarmed by the Ryanair propaganda machine.

I look forward to the terrible invasion being replaced by a fares war, and putting those newsletter words to good use.