… Ryanair?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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How did a no-frills airline that flies businessmen on a budget and hard-up holidaymakers to destinations around Europe become a symbol of evil, greed, mankind run amok?

Reading about Ryanair in the press and the blogosphere you could be forgiven for thinking that the airline is single-handedly, and maliciously, destroying our green and pleasant planet. ‘Ryanair is evil!’, says one blogger. Ryanair is ‘the irresponsible face of capitalism!’ says UK climate change minister Ian Pearson. ‘Book Ryanair today to ensure a real climate disaster!’ said the anti-aviation campaign group Plane Stupid in a full-page ad in the national press. That’s right – book a return flight to Magaluf on Ryanair and you too can help propel the world into a future of floods, hurricanes and civil unrest….

Get a grip. Firstly, the aviation industry’s contribution to carbon emissions is not as great as the shrill headlines about the dangers of man-made flight suggest. A pretty exhaustive study published in The Economist last year found that aviation’s contribution ‘to total man-made emissions worldwide is around 3%’. Electricity generation, industry, agriculture and the upkeep of residential properties all contribute more CO2 than do globe-trotting aeroplanes. And Ryanair’s contribution to that three per cent of man-made emissions is miniscule. The Irish king of cheap European flights is totally dwarfed by the American Airlines and British Airways of this world, who fly more people to more destinations, and in the process fart out more CO2, than Ryanair boss-cum-bogeyman Michael O’Leary could ever hope to.

For example, it is reported that in 2005 Ryanair flights burnt a total of 245,817,605 US gallons of fuel. Yet flights by members of the British Air Transport Association (BATA) – which includes six airlines, including British Airways – burnt 2,901,374,804 US gallons of fuel. If you divide this figure by six, then it seems the average BATA airline burns around 483,562,467 US gallons of fuel per year – almost 238,000,000 more gallons than are burnt up by Ryanair. Yet when did you last read shock-horror stories or watch undercover documentaries about Excel Airways (one of the airline members of BATA), or hear a leading New Labour politician denounce BA Connect (another BATA member) for being sly, cheeky and irresponsible? Ryanair is greener than most of the old-guard airlines because it has a young fleet of 130 Boeing 737-800s, which emit fewer gases than older, creakier aircraft, and because it tends to cram more people on board each flight. Indeed, research conducted by the Dutch Consumer Organisation suggested, believe it or not, that Ryanair is ‘the least polluting airline in Europe’ in terms of carbon dioxide emissions per 1,500km.

So why does it take so much of the flak from the green-minded, anti-flying wing of contemporary political debate? The framing of Ryanair shows up the snobbish and killjoy sentiments behind today’s anti-flying arguments, and the politics of environmentalism more broadly. Ryanair is seen as facilitating wasteful holidays for the working classes, who apparently only go abroad to have pointless fun and frolics on a beach or in some unfortunate city or town. Bloggers refer to Ryanair as a ‘chav carrier’ which deposits our ‘lager louts’ in ‘unspoiled areas which have thus far not been penetrated by the adidas tracky bottom or Burberry cap’. Behind the attacks on cheap flights there lurks a loathing for ‘cheap people’. Also, Ryanair are not considered to be ‘proper capitalists’, what what….certainly not like the posh Brits who run companies like BA, who are sophisticated and measured and well versed in dressing up their profit-making in social-responsibility talk. The people at Ryanair are viewed as Irish cowboys, uppity ‘Gombeen men’ out to make a quick buck.

Yes Ryanair is a profit-making machine, like every other airline. Yes its passengers sit in uncomfortable seats in overcrowded planes and sometimes suffer delays; that is the lot of someone who’s paid £12 for a flight. But it’s also a hugely popular airline with holidaymakers looking for a cheap and cheerful jaunt overseas – and that is what the Ryanair-bashers really can’t stand. So they’ve turned a small airline into a big folk devil for our times, which they can rail and rant against and froth at the mouth over. Perhaps they need a holiday.

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Topics Politics


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