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Will Labour follow Ryanair to Rwanda?

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary pictured in London on Wednesday. Credit: Getty

April 25, 2024 - 11:55am

After the UK Government passed its controversial Rwanda bill this week, Ryanair’s famously abrasive CEO, Michael O’Leary, made headlines for telling Bloomberg he’d be happy to pitch for deportation flights to the country.

“If it was a winter schedule and we had spare aircraft sitting around […] we would happily quote for business,” O’Leary told Bloomberg. It was a throwaway remark amid a broader and largely commerce-focused conversation about the airline’s fleet and strategy, but inevitably the reaction was polarising. Some declared that if Ryanair operated deportation flights, they’d never use the company again. Others hailed O’Leary as “a friend of the British consumer and British people”. Wags asked if it wasn’t bad enough being deported to Rwanda, without having to fly Ryanair to get there. Or whether this would inevitably mean arriving in Burundi and having to take a shuttle bus.

The Rwanda bill itself is expected to receive Royal Assent today, after which a bidding process will begin for carriers to fly the deportations. The issue is, to say the least, controversial; we can expect any provider who operated deportation flights to attract protest. But while GB News’s Chris Hope wondered if O’Leary’s statement was “a turning point” on public views of the scheme, it seems more likely that it was little more than a throwaway remark of the kind for which he is notorious.

This is far from the first provocative O’Leary headline-grabber, such as proposing to charge for toilet paper and impose a “fat tax” on obese passengers. This has long made him the CEO everyone loves to hate — hardly an obvious candidate to serve as a moral bellwether for a shift in centrist opinion on the Rwanda policy. The remarks seem even less serious when one considers that Ryanair uses Boeing 737s, short- and medium-haul planes which usually have a maximum range of 6,000-6,500 kilometres, which is less than the distance between London and Kigali.

The most likely inference is that his utterance was in much the same spirit as the toilet-paper or “fat tax” ones: a form of troll marketing through controversy. Indeed, the Rwanda Act itself has something of that quality, more a moral posture than a serious proposal. I won’t believe otherwise until actual flights (which probably won’t be Boeing 737s) take off.

Be that as it may, in an attention economy the relation between moral criticism and market share is by no means straightforward. It’s far from obvious that previous O’Leary provocations have done anything to harm Ryanair — especially not when offset against extremely cheap headline fares. And we can, perhaps, speculate that something similar may come to apply in the relation between Government policy and public response to policy.

For it’s almost always the case that pragmatism beats moral posturing, whatever people say in public. The number of consumers willing to pay over the odds for a non-Ryanair airfare, on purely anti-O’Leary grounds, is vanishingly small. And I suspect that, if the Rwanda policy ever happens and turns out to be at all effective, a similar calculus will hold. In that case, we can be certain the Labour Party’s relation to the policy would, in practice, resemble that of the average Ryanair customer: bitter complaints about its unpleasantness, mingled with resigned acceptance of its utility.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
27 days ago

Surely sending migrants to Rwanda is harsh enough. Flyimg them there on Ryan Air sounds like cruel and unusual punishment.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
27 days ago

I’m sure they’ll love the little trumpet announcement of a safe landing in Kigali.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
27 days ago

I am proud to say I have NEVER flown Ryanair and a large part of that refusal is because I can’t stand O’Leary and don’t want to put any of my hard-earned cash in his pocket.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
27 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I can’t stand them either. More than anything because their headline prices are false advertising: by the time you actually add luggage you could be paying twice as much. But it so happens that they are the only airline flying from the airport I want to leave from to the various airports I want to travel to. More expensive tickets? Just maybe. Several hours extra transfer time in buses on the two ends of the flight? Too much, I am afraid.

Robbie K
Robbie K
27 days ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Yes they do that, but it’s still good value. I’ve flown with them many times and never had a problem tbh.

Peter B
Peter B
27 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Likewise. First used them over 20 years ago when they were much smaller (and before all the salami slicing pricing tactics for extras took off) on Stansted-Dublin. Never enjoyed flying with them, but very reliable and never had a problem. All airlines and air travel are awful, just some less disagreable than others. My highlight of lockdown was not having to go to an airport for 2 years.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
27 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I rather appreciated his comment on weather relative to Net Zero: how is it my meteorological team can’t accurately tell me the weather for flight scheduling next week, but experts can predict with certainty a climate catastrophe in 2050.

Stephan Harrison
Stephan Harrison
27 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

Susan. That’s because weather and climate are different (which is why we give them different names).

Rob N
Rob N
27 days ago

I am a stalwart disbeliever in any climate crisis but have to completely agree with SH on this.

Liam F
Liam F
26 days ago

very droll I’m sure, but perhaps doesn’t help much? And anyway climate is really just weather over a longer period of time

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
27 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

For the same reason, let us say, that you can predict that a heavy smoker is quite likely to get lung cancer, but you cannot predict whether he will be having a heavy coughing fit next Friday the 13th. You can predict general trends much further ahead than you can predict specific details.

Anthony Loftus
Anthony Loftus
27 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Are you familiar with the personalities of every shareholder in the airlines you like to use?

R S Foster
R S Foster
27 days ago

…if it seems to start working even a little…and then Starmer wins…it is the biggest political bear-trap in history. The Country will explode if he stops it…his Party will explode if he doesn’t…

Matt M
Matt M
27 days ago
Reply to  R S Foster

Exactly the same thing happened in Australia.
In 2001 John Howard’s government implemented a policy of offshoring all people arriving illegally by boat to the island of Nauru. This was extended to include Manus and Papua New Guinea. By 2002 the number of arrivals had dropped from 5,516 to 1! Such was the deterrent of winding up on some Pacific island for the rest of your life, that between 2001 and 2007 only 300 illegal immigrants arrived in total.
Then Kevin Rudd’s Labour won the 2007 election and ended the Pacific Solution policy. The illegal immigration problem came roaring back to life! In 2013 20,587 illegal immigrants arrived by boat.
That swung the September 2013 election for Tony Abbott’s Liberals and Operation Sovereign Borders was launched which introduced PNG as the main offshoring location. By November 2013 (2 months after the election) 207 illegals arrived in Australian waters as opposed to 2,629 in the previous November.
Today both Labour and the Liberals support the offshoring system and the Nauru government signed a new deal to provide offshoring facilities with Australia in 2021.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
27 days ago
Reply to  R S Foster

Wishful thinking. He will have a big enough majority to silence the left and most of the Corbyn trash has been evicted or left. Labour in government is invariably authoritarian.

Peter B
Peter B
27 days ago

I doubt RyanAir actually have the right planes for long haul to Kigali …

Matt M
Matt M
27 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

 The remarks seem even less serious when one considers that Ryanair uses Boeing 737s, short- and medium-haul planes which usually have a maximum range of 6,000-6,500 kilometres (3500-4000 miles), which is less than the distance between London and Kigali.

They could fly to Gibraltar to refuel. London to Gibraltar – 1000 miles. Gibraltar to Kigali – 3400 miles.

Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke
27 days ago

Ryanair seats don’t recline so you can’t sleep on their flights, which would make a trip to Rwanda very long indeed.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
27 days ago

I’m sure if it was effective the LP would keep it, even if it seems a bit nasty. I just can’t quite see how it would be effective though.

William Brand
William Brand
26 days ago

America needs to remove border crashers in the same way. Send them to Africa. It is much harder to return from there than from central America. Just being sent home is no deterrent to another trip north.

Ana Cebrian
Ana Cebrian
25 days ago

Flying is such an unpleasant business not so much because of the airlines themselves as it is the airports, and the journey to and from them.
Whoever it is that designs airport terminals have reached an impressive degree of expertise in the creation of a holistic environment of non-stop nerve-jangling banality. It’s generally a relief to get out of that and on to the plane.
Then it’s tablet out, headphones on, and time enough for a movie. Or a nap.
It’s the 70%-80% – the non-aeroplane part – of the doorstep-to-doorstep journey, that’s life shortening.