Most airline executives are your standard suits: boring and business-like but such individuals are not the subject of this column. What follows is a glimpse of some of the airline industry’s more colorful characters – past and present.
Ryanair’s O’Leary: Outrageous, Outspoken
The latest outrage from Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Europe’s ultra-low cost carrier Ryanair: calling a customer ‘stupid’. And, an ‘idiot’. He felt her complaints about Ryanair’s steep fees were without merit since they are listed on its website. O’Leary is also the man famous for proposing pay-toilets on planes and standing-room-only sections, none of which has yet materialized but you never know. Said O’Leary, “The standing cabin would be [priced at] one euro, the sitting cabin would be 25 euros [and] I guarantee you, the one-euro cabin will fill first.”
All this brings him priceless publicity and a fair amount of condemnation (critics have called him crazy, a clown and even, the Antichrist), but O’Leary professes not the care; he once said, “I swore when I hadn’t two shillings to rub together that if I ever got rich I wouldn’t give a [expletive] what people wrote about me in newspapers.”
Southwest’s Kelleher: Wild Turkey
If ever an airline executive was “beloved” it would be former Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher, the man who led the carrier for decades. His outrageousness was strictly self-deprecating; a good example can be found on YouTube where the then sixtyish chain smoker with a fondness for good bourbon is seen “training” for a Southwest charity event with a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he bench presses gallon bottles of Wild Turkey. But outrageousness morphed into sentimentality when he spoke of his feelings for Southwest employees: “A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.”
Virgin’s Branson: The Rock Star
I’m not sure if it’s the long hair, the goatee or the fact that he’s so often surrounded supermodels but Richard Branson has long been considered the rock star of the airline industry. Not only is his Virgin empire a favorite of celebs and civilians alike, he’s been known to pull a stunt or two. One targeting rival British Airways took place back in 2000: BA was holding a live televised press conference to announce sponsorship of the London Millennium Wheel when a sharp-eyed Virgin employee noticed the giant Ferris wheel lying on its side. Branson quickly hired a blimp to fly over the site bearing a banner proclaiming, “BA Can’t Get It Up.” Since then, Branson has ventured into space flights and more. So how does he see the business of running an airline? Not unlike Kelleher. “Loyal employees in any company create loyal customers,” said Richard Branson, “who in turn create happy shareholders.”
Honorable Mention: American’s Crandall, the Olive Man
Robert Crandall was the legendary head American Airlines during most of the 80’s and 90’s and he too was an outspoken fellow who advised his employees not to invest in their own airline (or any other) saying, “This is a nasty, rotten business.” One of his more famous actions: he once removed a single olive from each airline meal’s dinner salad as a cost-cutting measure and it worked, too, saving the airline $40K a year (and I recently had to the chance to ask him about the olive story; his response, “Yes, it’s true.”)
What These Airline Executives Share
Never mind the outrage; these execs are all smart tough business leaders who’ve shown they can keep planes in the air – no matter how nasty or rotten the business gets.