l MICHAEL O'Leary the bellicose boss of Ryanair is always good for a quote, regardless of the news he has to deliver. Yesterday was no exception. It's a bloodbath out there he said, commenting on the increasingly difficult conditions for low-cost airlines and, indeed, for some of their longer-established and more costly rivals also. Mr O'Leary's news was that growth at Ryanair had stalled, with its first quarterly loss since it was founded fifteen years ago, and that in the full year to the end of March profits had fallen by 5 per cent to £239 million the first annual decline in the airline's history. Was O'Leary downhearted? Not a bit of it. We're Irish, we're used to losses he said, insisting that The times you test the mettle of a company is when it's losing money.
Customers of Ryanair will hope that Mr O'Leary's self-belief is infectious and that it will spread to other leading low-cost carriers in Europe. Budget airlines transformed ideas about air travel throughout the decade of the 1990s but there have been signs since then that they are more vulnerable to shifts in market conditions than their full-price competitors. It was therefore bold of Mr O'Leary to promise not to introduce a fuel surcharge following the rise in oil prices; instead the company intends to cut back on maintenance charges (a wise move?) and to expand its hotel, travel insurance and car hire business over its website. Another quote? Mr O'Leary is ready to oblige. Referring to some of the recent arrivals on the low-cost scene, he said We believe some of these loss-makers will go bust, some over this winter, some over the next two years. He named names, but we won't repeat them here.