Who is Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary? Background, salary, how the airline grew - outrageous comments and cake in the face incident

Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary recently bought a €1.3m country house, accused Nats’ CEO of “piss performance” and got pied in the face with cream cakes

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Ryanair has announced it will start to regularly pay its shareholders for the first time ever after soaring air fares put the airline on track to make record profits. The budget carrier said it expected to notch up profits of between €1.85bn (£1.6bn) and €2.05bn in the financial year to the end of March, far outstripping its previous highest profit of €1.45bn in 2018. It has also posted a 59% surge in post-tax profits, to 2.18 billion euros (£1.89 billion) for the six months to 30 September.

The airline has been helped by a 24% rise in average air fares, and will now pay shareholders $400m as CEO Michael O’Leary said it is the “opportune time to declare an ordinary dividend policy”. Despite the firm’s positive results, O’Leary noted there are issues in the form of rising fuel costs, Boeing delivery delays - as well as Europe’s “inefficient” air traffic control system

He has been very outspoken in recent months about the “useless and incompetent” National Air Traffic Services (Nats) after staff shortages caused flights to be limited. At a press conference in the City of London, O’Leary said that Nats “isn’t understaffed” but employs many controllers who “just don’t show up to work.” He accused Nat’s CEO, Martin Rolfe, of “piss performance” adding that he is “incompetent” and “should be sacked”. His comments came after Nats announced on Monday 25 September that flight numbers will be cut for a week as 30% of its Gatwick control tower staff were unavailable for “a variety of medical reasons including Covid”.

O’Leary being outspoken about this issue is not the first topic the CEO has shared his views on. The Irish boss has come under fire before for his controversial comments.

Here we take a further look into O’Leary, detailing his salary, his background, how Ryanair has grown into the company it is today - and what comments of his have been slammed as “outrageous”. And we also explain the cream cake in the face incident.

All about Ryanair’s outspoken CEO - as airline’s profits surge to £1.8bn. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images) All about Ryanair’s outspoken CEO - as airline’s profits surge to £1.8bn. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
All about Ryanair’s outspoken CEO - as airline’s profits surge to £1.8bn. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

How much does Michael O’Leary earn?

O’Leary’s pay deal was confirmed in this year’s Ryanair’s annual report which shows that the executive has seen his base salary double. This new deal came into effect on 1 April this year and is set to remain in place until July 2028.

Under the new terms his base salary has jumped to €1.2 million - around €23,000 per week. According to the report O’Leary earned a total of €2.7 million in the 12 months running up to the end of March 2023. This is slightly down from the same period in 2022 in which he earned €2.76m.

The €1.2 million he now earns includes his base pay of €500,000 plus a non-cash fee for 10 million unvested shares in the company. O’ Leary’s invested shares are apparently worth in the region of €1.78m.

On top of that he also took home a bonus of €450,000 in the year running up to March. The new deal he agreed in April will see his base pay jump from €500,000 to €1.2m, an increase of 140%.

According to The Times, O’Leary recently bought a cliff-top country house for €1.3 million. The property is a five-bedroom, two-storey house built on a 2.5-acre site on the north shore of Bing Bay Beach in Ireland.

What’s his background - how has Ryanair grown into what it is today?

O’Leary is originally from Mullingar, the county town of County Westmeath in Ireland, and was educated at Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare. He studied business at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in 1983 with a second class honours degree.

He then went on to work as a tax consultant with KPMG (Stokes Kennedy Crowley), and ran two small retail outlets before becoming financial and tax advisor to Tony Ryan at his small and troubled airline, Ryanair.

Ryanair was founded in 1984 by Christopher Ryan, Liam Lonergan and Tony Ryan. They launched its operation a year later with a service between Waterford and Gatwick Airport.

Now the airline operates more than 300 Boeing 737-800 aircrafts and has undergone a massive expansion since it began, due to the success of its low-cost business model. According to a new book, called Tony Ryan - Aviator, written by British historian and biographer, Richard Aldous, Ryan and O’Leary had been at loggerheads over his brash and abrasive style and particularly over his approach to customer service.

Aldous writes in the book that O’Leary’s rants caused Ryan to nearly resign from the board of the company in 2004. However, he remained on the board until his death in 2007.

O’Leary worked as deputy chief executive of the airline between 1991 and 1994, and was then promoted to chief executive of Ryanair. In an interview with The Business Report, O’Leary claims Ryanair’s success is all down to “utilising Southwest Airlines model, which was developed to create the first pan-European low-fare airline.” He also added that the airline was “the first to charge for checked-in bags” and also “the first to sell all of our tickets online”.

Irish low-cost airline Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary addresses a press conference in Brussels on 17 January. (Photo AFP via Getty Images) Irish low-cost airline Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary addresses a press conference in Brussels on 17 January. (Photo AFP via Getty Images)
Irish low-cost airline Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary addresses a press conference in Brussels on 17 January. (Photo AFP via Getty Images)

What are some of his controversial comments?

Despite stepping up for airlines and demanding Nats’ boss to resign, O’Leary has been well-known for making outspoken comments that have been slammed as controversial and outrageous. In 2020 O’Leary said that Muslim men should be profiled at airports because “that is where the threat is coming from”. In an interview with The Times, the businessman said that if the tactic were deployed to prevent terrorism, it would “generally be males of a Muslim persuasion” who were flagged. The comments were condemned by charities and an MP, who accused him of Islamophobia and stoking racism.

In 2014 he was forced to apologise by Conservative politician Andrew Rosindell for a joke he made about “making love to the Queen” while speaking to high-profile British politicians days ahead of Irish President Michael D Higgins’ visit to England. Mr O’Leary began his speech with: “It is a great pleasure to be here and in such august company. Addressing such an august body as this reminds me much of making love to the Queen of England – you know it is a great honour, you’re just not sure how much pleasure it is going to be.”

He also apologised to pilots working for his airline in 2017 after he accused them of being “precious about themselves” and “full of their own self-importance”. O’Leary sent a letter to pilots at the airline “to apologise personally to each of you for the disruptions you have experienced”.

Some other quotes of his which have been noted include:

  • “Our strategy is like Wal-Mart: We pile it high and sell it cheap.”
  • “I’m Irish and we don’t have to prove anything. We are God’s own children.”
  • “Screw the travel agents. Take the f***ers out and shoot them. What have they done for passengers over the years?”

Why did he get a pie in the face?

On 7 September environmental protesters threw a cream cake at O’Leary while he was preparing to hold a press conference in Belgium. Video footage showed that the first woman approached O’Leary and then said "welcome [to] Belgium" before she smeared the dessert in his face. She then shouted “stop the pollution of the f****** planes" as a second woman threw another pie in his face.

O’Leary laughed - and sarcastically remarked "well done". He tried to laugh off the incident afterwards, telling reporters: "I love cream cakes, they are my favourite." Ryanair, which is known for its comical social media posts as a PR ploy, later uploaded a photo of the incident on X, formerly known as Twitter. The airline said: "Shame it was soy-based cream, definitely not as tasty as the real stuff."

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