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D.F. Krause
  D.F.'s Column Archive
April 5, 2006
Fly Free, Pay Plenty

Since the airline industry has collectively made $0.00 in profits since it was established, you can hardly raise much objection to anyone who comes along with a different idea.


But there’s counterintuitive and then there’s really counterintuitive. Michael O’Leary of Ireland’s Ryanair has an idea that is exceedingly counterintuitive, especially if you’re trying to figure out a way to make more money off what you do.


O’Leary wants to make flying free. What’s more, this comes from a guy who runs one of the few profitable airlines on the globe. Ryanair made $368 million in net earnings last year – a margin of 22 percent. So if it’s working, why change it? Mainly because of the reason it’s working.


A full $265 million of that take came from stuff other than ticket sales. Ryanair spends hardly any money, and gives away hardly anything.


Baggage check? That’ll cost you. Beverage? Show me the money. Plan to keep your eyes open while you’re facing the back of the seat in front of you? We’ve taken the liberty of putting an ad there for you to look at – and we charge confiscatory advertising rates, so do buy whatever they’re selling.


When you think about it, there is a lot you have to do when you fly – too much stuff for some of us, who opt for the simplicity of two days on the Interstate whenever possible. You have to park (cha-ching). You have to either check (cha-ching) or carry on baggage (cha-ching redux). If you eat or drink anything (do I have to say it again?), you have to put the wrapper or cup somewhere. Who do you think is going to clean that up? The maid? Let’s see some money, honey.


Oh, and you were looking around for a bathroom? What’s it worth to you, junior? Your eyes are turning yellow, but yes, it is free to hold it if you can.


But there’s more. Much more. O’Leary wasn’t about to spend money painting the outside of the plane, not when corporate sponsors could do it for him and pay for the privilege. OK, they’re going to paint their logos on the plane and not his, but he doesn’t seem to care. He can always write “Ryanair” with a Sharpie somewhere if he really wants to, but I don’t think he really wants to. In fact, he’d probably rather charge Sharpie thousands of dollars to write its name on the plane instead.


Ryanair already allows 25 percent of its passengers to fly free, and by the end of the decade, he expects that number to reach 100 percent. We’re talking 2010, and you might think that by that time people would expect to be able to use their cell phones in the air. O’Leary certainly thinks they will expect that, so he’s already working on making it possible. For a small price, you understand. And in a year or so, he even plans to offer in-flight gambling. Of course if you win, Ryanair gets a cut. (And if you lose, presumably Ryanair gets the whole cut.)


This idea is almost limitless. A window seat is free, yes – all seats are free, remember – but if you want to look out the window, well . . .


Flight attendants? If you want them to walk over to your seat, that’s one price. Then you can ask them for something, but if you want them to actually listen to you, just a small consideration will be required.


Oh, and remember, it’s free to fly. Landing, however . . .


This is not the worst idea I have ever heard in business. It couldn’t be, because the worst idea I’ve ever heard in business is the way traditional airlines do things. Maintain a 7000 percent fluctuation in what you charge for tickets from one hour to the next. Invent the maddening concept of “stand-by” tickets, which means you get a ticket, but maybe not a seat.


Cancel flights on a whim. Fly people from Detroit to Chicago via San Antonio. Negotiate union contracts that make pilots wealthy for working five days a month. Oh, and never make any money.


Compared to this, how can you criticize the concept of an admission-free, flying casino/supermarket/advertising board where you can sit down for nothing and breathe for practically the same money?


It just might work. In fact, I think Michael O’Leary may be sending me a bill right now just for knowing about it. Enjoy your flight!


© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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