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Aviation: Budget carrier rivalry


The 1980s and ‘90s saw the founding of two of Europe's largest – and at times most controversial – airlines. They brought the ‘budget’ revolution from the United States, and in doing so changing the way people travelled. Tyler McDowell reviews the history and services provided by Ryanair and easyJet.

Irish upstart

Ryanair was formed in 1985 by the late Tony Ryan, who was keen on expanding the scope of his successful leasing firm Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA). His goal was to break the duopoly enjoyed by Aer Lingus and British Airways on air services between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. His fledgling airline began services between Waterford and London Gatwick in June 1985 using a leased 18-seat Embraer EMB110 Bandeirante. The carrier expanded when it opened a base at Dublin Airport and by the early 1990s it operated a fleet of aging BAC One-Eleven jets as well as some second hand ATR42 regional turboprops.

Ryan was keen on the then brand new Airbus A320 short haul aircraft, but his airline was badly in debt. His protégé and accountant, Michael O’Leary, recommended the loss-making airline be closed down but Ryan was aware of the low-cost business model pioneered in the USA by PSA and Southwest Airlines. Sir Freddie Laker had already tried his luck in that market, but regulatory restrictions and the determination of state-supported airlines to protect their revenue streams put Laker Airways out of business.

However, pan-European open-skies were on the horizon and in a last ditch attempt to save Ryanair, O’Leary was sent to Texas to study Southwest. Upon returning to Dublin, O’Leary was appointed CEO of Ryanair and began to change the loss making firm into a completely new airline. The One-Elevens and ATRs soon left, swapped for a single-type fleet made up of second-hand Boeing 737-200s. Amenities and inclusive extras were swept away while ticket prices were reduced, leaving passengers to choose whether they wanted to pay for seat assignments, hold baggage, food or beverages. The airline made money for the first time in years during 1995 and has since become a huge success story. It now flies more than 400 Boeing 737-800s while the name Ryanair, its blue and white livery, and the yellow harp on the tail, have become familiar across Europe. O'Leary remains at the helm almost 25 years after his fateful trip to the USA.

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