Possibly, there is no such polarizing airline in the world as Ryanair. A love-hate relationship between the airline and its passengers or unions that has developed over the years has not stopped the airline from growing into the biggest carrier in Europe in terms of passenger numbers. But in the airline‘s history, no other moment was as pivotal as the period between 2003 and 2006, when Ryanair ballooned in size and firmly established itself as a formidable force in the continent.

On July 8, 1985, a small Embraer EMB 110 Bandeirante departed Waterford Airport (WAT) in Ireland and headed for London’s Luton Airport (LTN), marking the date when Ryanair’s operations had started. 35 years later, the airline announced its FY2020 results. The four company group’s results included 148.6 million passengers and a fleet of 470 aircraft, including the Boeing 737 and Lauda operated A320s, overtaking its closest competitor Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) by 350,000 passengers. The German airline group ended the year with 145.1 million passengers.

But at one point in time, the company was more than 10 times smaller: in 2002, 41 aircraft were registered under Ryanair’s company name. The airline transferred 11.1 million passengers. Despite its small scale and fairly unfavorable market conditions, due to the post-9/11 travel blip and the SARS outbreak, 2003 marked the start of a pivotal moment in the company’s history.

Ballooning growth

In 1998, the low-cost carrier announced an order for 45 Boeing 737-800 aircraft: 25 firm and 20 options were written down in the contract. While Ryanair received its 25 aircraft, it only exercised three options and canceled the 17 options.

The company, however, canceled it for a good reason: In January 2002, the two parties shook hands for a then record-breaking deal. The Irish airline would add 100 new 737s to its fleet over a period of seven years, with the first deliveries starting in December 2002 and ending in 2008. The first of these arrived on December 2, 2002, planespotter.net data indicates. EI-DAC was the first, while EI-DAD and EI-DAE joined the airline‘s fleet the same month.

Option to purchase an additional 50 aircraft was also available to Ryanair.

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In the same financial year, the Irish airline increased the number of aircraft to 250, split by 125 firm orders and 125 options, further increasing its growth plan. It ended FY2003 on March 31, 2003, with 15.7 million passengers and a fleet of 54 aircraft. Summing up the year, Micheal O’Leary the Chief Executive of the airline, stated:

“So, 2002 was another awful year in the airline industry. Nothing new about that, since every year seems to be an awful year for them in the airline industry… at least according to our high fare competitors. If only there hadn’t been a War in Iraq, if only SARS hadn’t broken out in the Far East, if only 9/11 hadn’t happened, if only foot and mouth hadn’t broken out, but for the fuel shocks, etc., the list goes on and on.”

Ryanair overtook KLM and became the fourth largest airline in Europe, stated its FY2003 financial report.

The year also marked a change in strategy. A strategy on how the airline planned its growth.

Mergers and acquisitions

In 2003, the company agreed to acquire Buzz, a low-cost brand previously owned by KLM, a move which O’Leary described as “unusual and uncharacteristic.”

For a measly $22 million (€20.1 million) Ryanair acquired the airline and its assets, namely six Boeing 737s and four Bae 146 aircraft, which were all on lease. Most importantly, it acquired additional slots at London Stansted Airport (STN), as well as access to numerous European airports that are “ripe for growth over the coming years,” according to Ryanair’s report.

Its next attempt at an acquisition, unfortunately, did not pan out. In September 2006, the company started its acquisition of Aer Lingus shares, initially acquiring a 19% stake at the airline. With the 19% secured, Ryanair announced its intention to acquire the Irish full-service carrier fully. However, the European Commission (EC) had other ideas and blocked the merger of the two Ireland-based airlines, as the merger would have “significantly impeded effective competition in the common market.”

The company believed it was a political decision to “appease the narrow vested interest of the Irish government,” and appealed the EC’s conclusion.

“The strategy to acquire Aer Lingus was part of this trend which would, in turn, lead to the formation of one strong Irish airline Group able to compete with the mega carriers such as Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA)/Swiss and Air France/KLM,” reasoned the company in a statement.

The appeal was to no avail. Ryanair, despite two additional bids, never acquired Aer Lingus. Eventually, the Irish airline was acquired by the British Airways and Iberia-created group, International Airlines Group (IAG) (IAG).

Continued growth

Despite the failure to acquire a 100% stake in Aer Lingus, Ryanair’s growth spur continued, even with a $442 million (€392 million) investment in Aer Lingus’ shares. The low-cost carrier acquired a 29.4% stake.

Ryanair grew from 15.7 million passengers and 54 aircraft in 2003 to 34.8 million and 103 in 2006. The management of the company successfully balanced growth with profitability. For example, an Analysis of the EU Air Transport Industry prepared by the European Union in 2005, highlighted that Ryanair had an average fare of $60. Its closest rivals in terms of fare were easyJet (approximately $80) and the now-bankrupt SkyEurope ($80). However, the Irish low-cost carrier managed to control its costs to achieve a break-even load factor of 60%, while its load factor was just shy of 80%. Its competitors, meanwhile, struggled to do so.

Fast-forwarding more than a decade, an example of an unsuccessful attempt of growth could be Norwegian, which expanded massively, yet has been a loss-making airline.

Nevertheless, the growth was not without any controversy.

Illegal airport support

In a yearly report filing with the United States’ Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) dated September 2005, the company highlighted that it is subject to legal proceedings related to unlawful state aid from certain airports across Europe. There is no secret that one of the main ways to reduce airline costs is to operate to lesser-known, secondary airports. Possibly one of the prominent examples was Frankfurt: while full-service carriers chose Frankfurt Airport (FRA), low-cost carriers landed at Frankfurt-Hahn (HHN). Another example could be London-Southend (SEN), another airport dominated by LCCs. However, the tradeoff is that passengers have to travel much further to reach those airports.

On the other hand, airlines can market these airports as an extra gateway to a city and push the prices down as operational costs at the airports remain low, relative to the mega-hubs across the continent. For the airports, it means extra traffic which also brings in extra revenue from shops and flight activities.

But Ryanair and the government of Wallonia, a region of Belgium crossed the line, deemed the European Commission. In 2001, the two sides entered a 15-year agreement: in exchange for a substantial financial contribution, the airline would drive traffic at Brussels South Charleroi Airport (CRL) in Belgium.

Throughout the 15-year agreement, fees for a departing passenger for Ryanair ranged from $5.6 (€5) to $7.4 (€6.6). The landing fee, for example, was capped for the Irish company, while other airlines had to use a general system, whereupon the landing fee was calculated based on the aircraft’s tonnage. Further contributions, like direct cash aid for pilot recruitment or staff hospitality at the airport, were also made. In exchange, the company would base between two to four aircraft at the airport, with at least three rotations per aircraft per day.

“Ryanair is facing similar legal challenges by third parties with respect to agreements with certain other airports,” stated the SEC filing. Adverse rulings, according to the company, could cause it to rethink its strategy related to publicly or privately owned airports.

Nevertheless, other deals made throughout the three years helped to propel Ryanair into unparalleled heights. As the financial crisis of 2008 loomed around the corner, the airline was perfectly set up to handle it and even grow. Mainline carriers, on the other hand, struggled, giving way to their no-frills counterparts.

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