Bluster is not muster: A second look at Trump vs. O’Leary

A year ago, tnooz played a game of “what’s my line” comparing some of the many outrageous quotes by US President Donald Trump to those of Michael O’Leary CEO of Ryanair, and considered in what other ways these two larger than life personalities overlap, focused on a central question: “Is Michael O’Leary the Donald Trump of the Travel Industry?”

The question was compelling and entertaining enough for LikeWhere (chief storyteller Matt Walker penned the original piece) to do us the honor of updating the piece this year with the conclusion that only Trump can be the Trump of the Travel Industry. We agree!

Of course, there is more to say when comparing and contrasting these two, not only in their career paths to date but also in what each has managed to accomplish in travel over the past year.

So here we go: Trump vs O’Leary, the tnooz 2018 Edition

Knowing how to run an airline

One major point missed in the 2017 review of the two characters is that one has successfully run an airline for decades, while the other only successfully ran an airline to the ground in a matter of years.

We think that’s a pretty important distinction.

While Michael O’Leary has often expressed his disdain of the inner workings and peculiarities of the aviation industry, that hasn’t stopped him from developing an effective business model to best even the largest rivals in the space. In fact, the rise of “no-frills” Ryanair has made air travel accessible to millions of consumers who might never before have thought to take flight.

The affordability of those Ryanair tickets has always relied on keeping costs to a minimum and charging for every extra the airline can get away with. In fairness, when you are offering tickets for as little as 10 pounds sterling, a bit extra is to be expected.

O’Leary has said in the past he could make up the cheap fares by having passengers fly standing up, or by having them pay to use the toilet onboard. Considering the damage some passengers do to aircraft toilets, the latter suggestion may even be a sensible one. But this has all been bluster. O’Leary has not (yet) followed through.

Instead, Ryanair has consistently invested in maintaining one of the world’s largest and youngest fleets of 737 aircraft, and even updated the cabin interiors to save space and weight and somewhat improve the passenger experience onboard. We were promised a pretty shade of sky blue and less of the bold yellow on the original design, but the final remained true to Ryanair’s traditional, more stain-resistant dark navy blue leather, and the bright yellow advertising spaces (sorry, seat-back shields) are still going strong.

Contrast this with Trump’s demands for the short-lived (1989-1992) Trump Shuttle. Not only did Trump buy over-sized aircraft ill-suited to his planned East Coast shuttle service—and overpaid for the privilege—but the bombastic executive also decided to have the shiniest, sparkliest, lushest shuttle amid falling passenger numbers and an economic downturn.

Trump is said to have been annoyed by designers and engineers pointing out that aircraft toilets couldn’t reasonably be gold and walls couldn’t be marble. These not only raised the costs of refreshing the planes, but also the weight, affecting their ability to fly affordably or even safely.

Can anyone imagine O’Leary demanding gold or marble on a Ryanair jet? If anyone asked for gold trim on a seat, no doubt O’Leary would point out that the bright egg yolk yellow plastic back cover comes close enough.

Supporting aviation safety

In only one of hundreds of controversial tweets sent over his past year in office, Donald Trump took credit for no one dying in a commercial aircraft crash around the world during 2017. This claim was befuddling as he had nothing to do with it. There were no deadly commercial jet crashes in the US going back to 2009, before Donald Trump even ran for office. The 2017 record is an international one, and is testament to the efforts of regulators, manufacturers, operators, employees, and passengers around the world each doing their part to ensure that aviation safety continues to improve.

Of course, flying has long been the safest mode of transport, but this is the result of constant vigilance, transparency of records, and learning from mistakes.

The impact of the Trump administration on aviation safety is still to be determined, and may not be positive. The Executive Order he signed to reduce regulations is also taking effect at the US DOT and driving a review of FAA regulations. Here’s the tricky bit: some of them may be redundant, but a large number of aviation regulations were set up after deadly accidents, to prevent them happening again.

Michael O’Leary may agree that there are too many regulations in aviation, but Ryanair has never skimped on safety procedures. The airline invests in keeping to the letter of the law in that regard. As a result, Ryanair has an impeccable safety record. However, you don’t hear O’Leary taking credit for that.

When it comes to aviation safety, the best thing is to work at it and not talk about it. One does not want to tempt the fates with a boast.

Boosting travel

During his first year in office, Trump threatened the national brand of Sweden by implying that it had been the victim of an imaginary terrorist attack. Swedes were confused. More recently, he is said to have expressed a preference for Norwegians.

His relationship with the Nordics is as complicated as it is with the rest of the world, resulting in reduced demand to visit the US.

Spain is happy replacing the US as the world’s second most popular destination—despite the whole thing with Cataluña. The off-and-on electronic bans in the US have led to major disruptions to international airlines, and losses, as have the changing US CBP and visa policies.

In 2017, Ryanair served 129 million passengers, and O’Leary has done nothing to discourage that. Some might argue that the new baggage fees could negatively affect demand, but if anything they are more likely to boost profitability.

Press

It’s a tie, for the most part. Both of these individuals know how to say outrageous things and get plenty of free press for it.

One notable difference is that while we’ve heard O’Leary complain that the press in Denmark have been mean to him, he’s said that is their privilege and moved on.

Trump appears to hold other opinions.

Brexit

O’Leary has consistently warned that Brexit may negatively impact travel and joined other airline CEOs and aviation stakeholders in asking that an aviation policy be formalized to avoid any troubles.

Trump has made remarks in favor of the UK leaving the European Union, and even cancelled his trip to London so that Theresa May would have more time to focus on it, according to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Negotiating your way out of a box

Trump is a self-professed dealmaker par excellence, but his record on travel deals so far in office is sub par.

Most recently, the week dedicated to his “easy buy-in” US infrastructure program—which would help to modernize those US airports that desperately need it—was overshadowed by a series of gaffes that included calling other countries “shit holes” or “shit houses” or some kind of “shit”—depending on who you listen to. This lead to an inability to resolve important questions on immigration which are even now affecting negotiations on the budget and may lead to a government shutdown. This could be a clever (if contrived) negotiating ploy by Trump to distract from other issues affecting his administration, but it’s far from a clear-cut: “winning, winning, winning.”

Meanwhile, US airports still say they need $100 billion in infrastructure in the next five years. Their ongoing argument with US airlines over the $4.50 Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) which would help pay for improvements may or may not be on Trump’s radar.

By contrast, O’Leary found himself in a heap of trouble with pilots at the end of last year and despite a long track record of avoiding the unionization of staff has managed to come to terms with representatives which has avoided major flight disruptions. Ryanair announced increases to pilot wages to fight back against Norwegian and other competitors pinching their crew.

Does O’Leary still have a lot of work ahead to do? Yup.

He’s probably going to rattle cages all the way there, but O’Leary is too focused on keeping a healthy bottom line to let anything as immaterial as his ego get in the way of profits.

Davos

Trump is scheduled to go to Davos to make friends and influence people at the World Global Economic Forum Annual Meeting. No doubt he will be moving and shaking with the movers and shakers and making bigly deals which will help foster investment in the US and boost travel.

There *are* cheap flights to Basel (starting at £9.79) on Ryanair which will get attendees nearly there. Bus or rail transfers range from €58-75. ✈️

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