The boss of budget airline Ryanair has announced plans to use his company’s clout to campaign for Britain to remain within the European Union (EU), suggesting that his planes may be plastered with pro-EU slogans.
But his campaign has got off to a muddled start, as he both agreed with and then denied claims that leaving the EU would increase the cost of air travel.
Michael O’Leary has carved a reputation for himself as a no-nonsense straight-talker – he once called a customer an “idiot” when she complained about having to pay to print a boarding pass for one of his flights. Now he’s promised to “bore everyone to death” with his pro-EU messaging in the run up to the referendum in June.
At a meeting in London on Wednesday, Mr O’Leary said: “As the UK’s largest airline, Ryanair is absolutely clear that the UK economy and its future growth prospects are stronger as a member of the European Union than they are outside of the EU,” the Guardian has reported.
He continued: “We’ll be getting involved in the debate and trying to influence people to vote in favour of Europe because the UK economy and UK jobs are better off in Europe.”
He also warned that the company would “invest less in the UK if it’s not part of the European Union,” shifting investment focus to European countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic.
And he appeared to warn that the cost of flights would rise, in part due to the government being freer to drive up taxes on flights still further in order to claw some revenue back, which he said would be necessary as the economy stalled post-Brexit. He also blamed the expected price rise on the government’s refusal to build a new airport, limiting competition and driving up fares.
“The UK government will continue to push up the cost of air travel … I would fear more from UK bureaucracy than EU bureaucracy,” he said.
The claim proved popular with the Prime Minister David Cameron, who continued to roll out Project Fear today by warning “Since we joined the EU, the cost of flights, the cost of holidays, has come right down. That’s something we benefit from.”
Yet Mr O’Leary later backtracked on the claim, telling ITV news “I don’t believe leaving the EU will cause airfares to rise. The thing that will drive up airfares here in Britain is the UK Government’s travel tax, and they have a pretty poor record on travel tax in recent years.”
Ryanair currently employs around 3000 UK staff, flying more than 35,000 passengers between Britain and continental Europe each year. The company has just announced plans to increase traffic out of London by 10 percent this year, adding five new routes and extended services to 18 destinations from Stansted, Gatwick and Luton. It expects to fly about 20 percent of it’s passengers from the London airports this year.
Mr O’Leary drew on this experience to dismiss the London Major and Conservative MP Boris Johnson and other leaders of the Leave campaign as “career politicians” who “don’t employ anybody, don’t create jobs and are generally passengers when it comes to the economy.”
In 2014 Ryanair was ordered to return almost €10 million of French state aid which had been granted to improve services in three regional airports, after the European competition watchdog concluded that the aid was illegal. The order was a reverse of fortunes for the Irish company, which ten years earlier had won a landmark case in the European Court of Justice allowing it to keep state aid granted for the refurbishment of Charleroi airport near Brussels, Belgium.
More recently, allegations have surfaced in the European Parliament that Ryanair is in receipt of €30 million from the Puglia Region of Italy through the European Regional Development Fund. Italian MEP Rosa D’Amato questioned the Commission on the payment, saying “there is a distinct possibility that regions are using EU funding for purposes far different to those intended by the Commission.
In this connection, the former ‘Aeroporti di Puglia’ chief executive is currently under investigation for fraud and falsification in connection with a judicial inquiry into a contract worth €30 million signed in 2009 with AMS, a Ryanair advertising company. According to the case file presented by Bari Public Prosecutor’s Office, EU funding intended for tourism has been siphoned off by ‘Aeroporti di Puglia’ to the company in question.”
The Commission replied: “On the basis of the information available, the Commission is not aware of any irregularity or fraud connected to the case mentioned.”