High-flyer Michael O'Leary: A no-frills business success

Dublin (AFP) - Speak of Ryanair and one immediately thinks of Michael O'Leary -- the long-standing head of the Irish no-frills airline who is widely known for his foul-mouthed, anti-establishment rants designed to upset just about everyone.

But the street-trader persona camouflages a privileged background that provided the 56-year-old with the ingredients for future success.

O'Leary has once more hit the headlines this week after admitting to "a mess of our own making" as Ryanair decided to cancel about 2,000 flights to the end of October as it struggles with landing planes on time amid a reported shortage of pilots.

A source told AFP Tuesday that Ryanair was willing to offer pilots money in exchange for giving up holiday.

Newspaper La Libre Belgique reported that Ryanair pilots and co-pilots would be offered between 6,000 euros ($7,168) and 12,000 euros to make themselves available for more flights.

The flight cancellations, which are set to cost the airline 25 million euros ($30 million) according to Ryanair's own estimates, is unlikely to have longterm financial ramifications according to experts, who have seen O'Leary frequently fend off heavy criticism to shake up the airline industry and become a billionaire in the process.

For more than two decades since he became the public face of Ryanair, the jeans-clad married father of four has been infamously rude to customers, abrasive to staff, instigated running battles with airline regulators and politicians and heaped scorn on competitors.

- Privileged background -

O'Leary was steeped in commerce from an early age.

His father, Tim, was a serial entrepreneur who started and closed various businesses over the years around Mullingar, a market town 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Dublin.

He attended Clongowes Wood, an exclusive boarding school, and graduated with a business degree from Trinity College, Dublin.

O'Leary became a trainee tax accountant but left to open up a small convenience shop in a working-class suburb of the Irish capital.

He has often related how he became the city’s answer to Charles Dickens' Scrooge character by tripling the price of batteries and chocolates for customers to his store on Christmas Day -- and it wasn't long before such tactics allowed him to buy a second such shop nearby and take a share in a third.

- The rise of Ryanair -

In 1988, O'Leary cut his promising retail career short when Tony Ryan, the Ryanair founder, persuaded him to become his personal assistant and financial adviser.

Three years later, Ryan sent him to the United States to scope out Southwest Airlines, a successful budget carrier, and to import the model to Europe.

O'Leary ascent was swift and in 1994 he became Ryanair’s chief executive, having turned the airline from a loss-making fledgling into the vanguard of an aviation revolution.

While its offer of low fares was the main attraction point, Ryanair soon became the airline people loved to hate because of its notoriously poor customer service.

"Anyone who thinks Ryanair flights are some sort of bastion of sanctity where you can contemplate your navel is wrong," O'Leary once said.

"We already bombard you with as many in-flight announcements and trolleys as we can. Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things."

O'Leary stated more than once that his abrasive nature would encourage him to stand aside in favour of a more diplomatic individual who could better deal with regulators and passengers.

Instead, following two profit warnings, he showed his business acumen once more in 2013 by presiding over a complete change of course when it came to customer service, reaping the airline huge rewards in the process.

"If I'd only known that being nice to customers was going to be so good for my business I would have done it years ago," he quipped.

Following the latest debacle, O'Leary is once more on the charm offensive.