18:40 21.07.2023

Group CEO of Ryanair Michael O'Leary: What Ukraine needs now, apart from defeating Russia, is a serious plan for a very aggressive reopening of Ukrainian aviation

21 min read
Group CEO of Ryanair Michael O'Leary: What Ukraine needs now, apart from defeating Russia, is a serious plan for a very aggressive reopening of Ukrainian aviation

The exclusive interview with Michael O'Leary, Group CEO of Ryanair, to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency

Text: Alena Manzelo


Now I remember that I had the honor to be at your press conference at Boryspil Airport in 2018. No one then could have imagined the events after which we are meeting now...

It’s my first trip to Kyiv since then.

At that time, Ryanair had to make a lot of effort to start flights from Ukraine...

We are very proud and pleased with my backdrop in here. Today we brought this (shows a jacket, reading “Ryanair supporting Ukraine”). We presented it to the minister (Oleksandr Kubrakov). Today we've had a meeting with the minister, a meeting of the Kyiv-Boryspil, Lviv and Odesa airports. So we've had a very good day of meetings talking about how we can reopen air travel to and from Ukraine, as soon as it is declared safe to do so.

Could you tell in detail what was discussed at these meetings?

Sure. We submitted to the minister plan to restart aviation in Ukraine. We've committed that if the EASA confirms opening the skies and there have been competitive cost at the airports, we will put 5 million seats into Ukraine in year one. Within six weeks of the skies reopening, we think it's possible that we can connect Kyiv to 25 European cities.

You said 25 cities... The press release mentioned 20...

Yes, between 20 and 25 European cities from Kyiv, probably 10 from Lviv and Odesa, maybe another five, but all within six weeks of reopening.

What will be the first EU cities to which Ryanair will fly?

They all will be on the same day. But the main cities that we think we start from will be obviously Warsaw, Krakow, Berlin, Frankfurt, Milan, Rome, London, Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris. So these are all the main cities. And because we have aircraft based in those cities we can just turn those aircraft to serve Kyiv and Lviv in, I think, about between two and six weeks.

What will this time period of 6-8 weeks be needed for?

Firstly, because we had to put the flights on sale. And it will typically take us probably about two weeks to put the flights on sale. And then another four weeks to fill the flights. We can't [do this immediately] because there's going to be very little outbound traffic from Kyiv and Lviv going to Europe. We think most of the traffic will be inbound. It typically takes three, four weeks to fill the flights. Because we have to take those planes away. Those planes today are flying from London to Malaga, or they're flying from Brussels to Milan or from Milan to Warsaw. We have to switch them now to flying London - Kyiv or Milan - Lviv or Warsaw - Lviv. So it would take two weeks to cancel those flights. So, we have to run them for at least two weeks. And then we switch them. It takes us about another four weeks to fill them.

Did you discuss this today with Ukrainian authorities?

What we discussed was this kind of restarting Ukraine aviation. Here's the big plan: 5 million passengers in year one, growing to 10 million passengers within five years. But it might be more complicated than that… We may not be able to open up all of Ukraine on day one. There are Ukrainians working with experts in Israel, for example, and they may be able to open a small number of flights to Kyiv and a small number of flights to Lviv. We are also discussing if they do that if we can make those flights. And but it may not be 5 million passengers in year one. We may have to fly a smaller number of flights. And then we need to work with the airport to discuss if, for example, we can operate five flights or 10 flights into Kyiv. [We have to determine with Ukrainian authorities] which airports do you want, which are the routes you want first, and we'll work to deliver the routes they want first. So, there are two plans, one, the war finishes and everything reopens in one day or two. And then there is the more likely [scenario], under which we can put some small number of flights in here at the end of this year. Can we persuade the European safety authorities and the Ukrainian authorities that flying will be safe that they can protect the aircraft from drones or rockets and things like that, which they do in Israel? So the Ukrainian authorities are working with the right people to try to reopen airspace, but we can't do anything unless they persuade the EASA, the European safety agency, and the insurance companies that it's safe to fly even a limited number of flights to Kyiv and Lviv.

One word from EASA will be enough to open the sky for Ukraine?

Yes. I mean, if the agency says it's safe, then there's no reason not to fly back to Ukraine. Okay. We were the second largest airline in Ukraine before the war, before the Russian invasion. And when the Russian invasion finishes, we intend to be the largest airline in Ukraine, because we have the aircrafts. We have the ability selling tickets on the website to fill these flights into Ukraine straightway. Ukraine International (MAU), for example, their aircraft are stuck on the ground. They will all have to go to a maintenance before they can fly again. We have all our aircraft flying. All we have to do is pivot those aircraft to fly them back into Ukraine. We want to work with the airport. Particularly Boryspil and Lviv and to do that quickly.

You are also considering Odesa Airport, as well?

We're not sure how much damage the airport has suffered, they tell us today that they've suffered no damage. So if it's open, we will fly there. Because I think it's very important. Ukraine is still battling Russia. It is very important, as Mr. Kubrakov said, to show people that there is a future here. We need to show our people that once the war is over, we can rebuild, that we can return to life the way it was and that we can have low-cost flights all over Europe. And that we can bring back or at least create a pathway to reignite the millions of Ukrainian families who have been divided by the war.

It is unlikely that this will possible until the Russian shelling stops?

It's possible. Look at what the Israeli authorities do. We operate in and out of Israel. We fly to Tel-Aviv airport. Occasionally, there are rockets coming from the West Bank, with Hamas firing rockets. So, it is possible, but we have to persuade the European safety authorities that it's safe. The airport and the government here have to show that they can protect flights going in and out of Kyiv and Lviv, because without that the safety authorities and the insurance companies won't allow the flights to take place. Firstly, Ukraine needs to demonstrate that it's safe or that it can protect flights. If they can do that, then the Europeans say its safe, then we'll be back. And we'll be back within six weeks.

Eurocontrol gave a disappointing forecast - in particular, according to their estimates, restrictions on flights from Ukraine will remain until 2030. Do you agree with that assessment?

It will change very quickly, because Eurocontol is not an accurate forecaster. Nobody knows what will happen with the war here. I think we should be optimistic. Certainly, the ministry is working on trying to reopen some flights to Kyiv and Lviv in the end of this year. And if they can prove that it's safe to do so then we will operate those flights.

Aircraft can land on a daily basis in Tel Aviv, which is only 10 minutes away from the West Bank, where they are launching rockets. It has been determined that it is safe to fly and that they can protect the aircraft, so I see no reason why we can't return flights [in Ukraine]. The question in my mind is do we return with a small number of flights, that at least we reopen the skies? Or do we do the big plan which is 5 million passengers in year one. I would like to do 5 million passengers in year one. But for that you need a ceasefire or a victory or an end of the war.

Is a scenario under which EASA will issue permission for flights from certain airports, for example from Uzhgorod or Lviv, and keep the rest closed realistic?

It's possible. They can give permission for flight corridors into specific flight paths into Lviv into Kyiv. At the moment, Kyiv seems reasonably safe, it seems reasonably well protected. Life is continuing as normal here. So, everything is possible. But the challenge lies with the Ukrainian authorities to persuade the European authorities. I think the Europeans and the Americans want to reopen flights to Ukraine. The trains are running, buses are running and normal life is continuing. There is obviously a huge risk to return flights [now]. What would happen if a plane gets blown out of the sky like when the Russians shot down the Malaysian Airlines [MH-17]? Nobody can afford to run that risk.

I wanted to clarify whether this is your first visit to Ukraine after the start of full-scale aggression?

Its my first visit since February 2022.

Actually, we understand that if you are here, it is a sign that we might hear some good news soon.

I think so. We have a plan. It is, subject to the war ending to fly 5 million passengers in year one and to increase the number of passengers to 10 million within five years. So the plan is there. I think the minister was very excited by the plan. He recognizes that the government has to play its role, that the airports can't afford the investment. We're talking about basing up to 30 aircraft here. That's an investment of $3 billion by Ryanair in Ukraine. It is one of the biggest ever inward investments in Ukraine at a time when there's a war in progress. So we're committed to Ukraine. We are committed to investing our money in Ukraine. But Ukraine has to deliver us safe airport facilities and low cost airport facilities. We can only fill these flights with air fares, 15 euros and 20 euros and 25 euros. So need to have very low airport charges here. The ministry needs to help with that.

Did you discuss the position with Ukrainian government? Are they ready?

I think so. Earlier today minister has said he wants a waiver for a week to work through the numbers with the airports, then he's going to come back to us in a week. I see no reason why not.

What is the current situation with insurance companies, are they still not ready to insure the risks of airlines in Ukraine against possible threats due to the war?

It's not an issue of the insurance companies. You can't fly, period. The issue will arise when the European authorities say it's safe to fly back to Ukraine.

I think what's likely to happen is that maybe for the first six months, maybe the first 12 months the European Commission will give the airline some kind of insurance, some kind of indemnity. I think everybody is committed in Europe, and both the Europeans and the Americans to supporting Ukraine. They recognize the vital need to rebuild the Ukrainian economy. And the only way you can do that in the short term is get aviation restarted. People can't and won't rebuild Ukraine if they have to drive on roads and the bridges that have been damaged. The way to get things really started quickly, like in Germany after the Second World War, when they had a Marshall Plan, is aviation, flights into Europe, to deliver [materials for rebuilding] infrastructure by air. The same thing will happen in Ukraine.

We need almost like a Marshall Plan for Ukraine, like the Marshall Plan after the Second World War when Americans helped rebuild the economies of Germany, France and other European countries. We will have to have a similar joint program, I think, a European “US Marshall Plan” for Ukraine. Ukraine is fighting for freedom, for democracy, defending all of Europe from Russia. I think when Ukraine defeats Russia, all countries of Europe need to stand beside Ukraine, invest in Ukraine. That's why Ryanair wants to come here today. We want to be here. We want to be the first year and to come down to Kyiv. Stand with the airports in Kyiv, in Lviv and Odesa, commit that we will return to flying here. Here's the plan. Here's 5 million passengers in year one, here's 10 million passengers in year five, here's where the aircraft will come from. Here's how we will deliver it. Give us the cost base, give us the safety umbrella, and then we will do the rest.

Do you have your own forecast, vision of when it might happen? When will the first passenger plane from Ukraine fly?

It depends when the war ends, and none of us knows when. I think the end will be sooner rather than later. Because Putin has made such a mess of the war. I'm not sure how long Putin will survive. I'm not sure how long he can keep pouring men and material into a war that he's clearly loosing. I don't know how long he survives. I don't know when the war ends. I suspect and I hope that it will be this winter. But none of us know. And a lot depends on Ukraine, where the people have done a lot, done an incredible job of defending the country. But it's a much bigger challenge now to push the Russians back out. We know how difficult it is now in Ukraine’s southern regions, which are mined. It is very difficult to make progress there. These are challenging times for Ukraine. I think it's important that different companies, like Ryanair, which is biggest airline in Europe, stand up and say we will stand with Ukraine. We are here in Ukraine, and we will invest heavily in Ukraine to realize that the peace or the peace dividend that's coming.

You named three airports as priorities for Ryanair. Are you considering flying, for example, from the airport in Uzhgorod? Do airports in western Ukraine have better chances to restart flights first?

Before the war, we flew to five airports in Ukraine. So Lviv, Odesa and Kyiv, of course. Because of damage in Kherson, we can't go back. We actually learned today we're going to start talks with officials in Zaporizhzhia, as well, but there is damage there too. It appears from the meetings today that two airports are undamaged and are available to start tomorrow. They are in Kyiv and Lviv. We think the airport in Odesa will also be available reasonably soon.

Ryanair will base up to 30 new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft worth over $3 billion at the three main Ukraine airports, giving Ukrainian citizens and visitors access to Europe’s lowest air fares. Am I correct in my understanding that the company plans to create its own bases, including aircraft maintenance services in Ukraine?

Firstly, we have plans to base aircraft, pilots, cabin crew engineers, spares in Boryspil, Lviv and in Odesa within 12 months. We could have 10 aircraft in Kyiv maybe five aircraft in Lviv and maybe one or two aircraft in Odesa. And that would double that we would grow that then over the next 2-3-4 years as the traffic builds up. We are also looking over the longer term as to whether we could build up our own aircraft maintenance hangars here and do heavy maintenance for aircrafts, as well as doing engine maintenance. We're looking at building our own engine maintenance shop, which is a $500-million investment. We certainly will put one in Europe, and I think Ukraine would be a very interesting location for something like that. Ukraine has a highly-skilled population. I think Ukraine will become a member of the European Union rather quickly. 

In January, you started a recruitment program for Ukrainian flight attendants and pilots in order to prepare the base for returning to Ukraine. How many employees do you plan to recruit? What is the total number of people you are ready to transport to Ukraine when you start work?

Today we employ about 260 Ukrainians. We have about 100 pilots, about 120 cabin crew and about 40 IT professionals. Most are in hubs in France and Poland. We're hoping at the end of this year to grow that to between 300 to 400 people. One of the critical things for us when the war is over is have enough Ukrainian pilots and enough Ukrainian cabin crew. We will ask them to return here and live and work in Kyiv. We need the people to want to work with us to rebuild Ukrainian aviation as well. I think we can hire also maybe ex-UIA [Ukraine International Airlines] pilots or cabin crew, WizzAir pilots or cabin crew, but you have to train them. So, it's going to take three to six months to train those people, but we have the training facilities. We believe and I think in the future, you know if we base 30 aircraft here in Ukraine, there will be 1,000 pilots, cabin crew and engineers at those airports. Three hundred people translates to 30 per each 10 aircraft.

Most of the people who have completed the training are currently based and working mainly in Poland?

Mostly in Poland, although we do have some at the southern Slovakia, there are some in Belgium as well.

Have you calculated how much tickets from Ukraine might cost and how they will differ in price from tickets from Poland to similar destinations?

The minister asked us today and we gave him a commitment that of the 5 million seats will offer in year one 20% or 1 million of those seats will be sold for less than 20 euros.

Will you be able to do this based on pure economics or will you need special arrangements for airport charges?

We will need to have a low cost base at the airports. But that's a decision for the ministry. The minister asked about providing low airport costs. He asked if we will commit to low fares and we said yes. Some 20% of the seats will be sold at fares of EUR 10-14-19 euros, million seats, and most of those we sold at EUR 24-29-34 and 39. The only way we can fill this number of seats will be with very low airfares. So, Ukraine would have lower fares to Poland. But Ukraine has to deliver lower airport costs than Poland.

Ryanair in Europe provides and develops related partner services - car rentals, hotels, ordering taxis on the website and through its app. Do you plan to develop these services in Ukraine?

Not really. The most important task after the war is to get air travel going again. The critical thing is to build a wide network of routes and to connect Kyiv to 25 European cities within six weeks. The critical thing is to get flights started again, to get the airports working again. It's difficult today not to be inspired by the visit to Boryspil, which today is a huge, empty airport with no passengers. However, people continue to work. They are keeping the terminals clean, repairing the baggage and check-in areas. Everybody is working. It must be very frustrating to work in that environment where you have no customers. But they're doing the work that keeping the airport ready for to reopen quickly. And they deserve our support.

Everything is ready at Boryspil International Airport to resume work?

Yes. It could happen tomorrow.

Do you plan to visit Lviv Airport during this visit as well?

No. We're going back to Poland tonight. I've got to go back to work. It's been an inspiring visit here. I met people working at the airports and looked at the tremendous work they've done for the last two years in what have been incredibly difficult circumstances. It's very easy for us. We're flying away in Europe. COVID-19 has ended and our flights are full. We're all making money. Everybody's back traveling, going on holidays, doing their business again. It feels normal here in Kyiv. Except the only way you can get here is by road or by rail. We have to get the skies of Ukraine open again. Your minister said the same thing. We want Ukraine to be open for business.

Do you have statistics on how many Ukrainian migrants, in general, Ukrainians, since the beginning of the full-scale Russian aggression, have used Ryanair in which directions?

It's impossible to know now, we don't calculate those. This is because we fly to 47 different countries. We don't care what the nationalities of our passengers are. The UN estimate that about 8,5 million Ukrainian citizens have migrated to Europe as a result of the war. The population of Ukraine pre-war was about 42 million. It might be down to 34-35 million today. Some 8 million Ukrainians have left the country.

When we came in last night on the train from Poland, we saw many women and children. Obviously men can't travel. They are here fighting the war. But we saw many women and children traveling. I have a farm manager in Ireland. He is from Ukraine. He's been working with me for 20 years. He has a Ukrainian wife, and they have raised their family in Ireland. He had about, I think, eight or 10 of his relatives, mainly sisters, cousins and their children who have come to Ireland. He has provided them with accommodations. Their children are going to the local school where I live. This is happening all across Europe. I think those people want to be able to come back to Ukraine, not all of them, but many. Some will settle and live and grow their families in other European countries. But they will always want to come and visit their family here in Ukraine. I think that would be a source of business for the airlines going forward.

Our traditional question - tell us a little about how Ryanair supported Ukrainians during the war? What philanthropic projects and programs have you managed to implement and which ones are you currently working on?

From Ryanair, particularly, we committed to having very low fares for people who were fleeing from Ukraine. In February and March of last year, we continued to offer low fares, a range of low fares for Ukrainians who are mostly traveling to and from Poland, to access Ukraine. We are the largest airline in Poland. We have been hiring . As I said, now we have recruited about 260 Ukrainian citizens who are working directly for us as pilots, cabin crew and engineers. We want to double that number over the next 12 months and we want to bring that up to 500 people, mostly based in Poland. We are continuing to donate funds to charities working with Ukrainians and providing for Ukrainian refugees who fled the country at the outset of the war.

We hope that the minister will be able to persuade your government that what Ukraine needs now, apart from defeating Russia, is a serious plan for a very aggressive reopening of Ukrainian aviation. Let’s get people back flying again. But let's get it back fine in huge numbers. The first year or two of reopening Ukraine will be difficult. It will take a number of years before you get the tourists to come back. So, there is a lot of hard work to do, a lot of low fares, a lot of partnership with Ukrainian airports. The price is big for all of us. Ukraine is a country with about 42 million people. So it's essentially the same population as Poland, but a bigger landmass. Actually, Poland has nearly three times the air travel that Ukraine has. We need to replicate that success here in Ukraine.

You have the airports, the facilities are outstanding. The people are hardworking and committed.

Ukraine needs a plan like the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Ukrainian aviation. I say with all my heart we wish Ukrainian people success in defeating Russia and joining the European Union. What Putin has achieved from this war is that Ukraine will never, ever look east towards Russia. Putin has managed to unite Europe, unite NATO, but he's failed in almost everything he thought he set out to achieve in Ukraine. Demagogues need to be defeated. Democracy needs to win.

Thank you very much.