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 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.

While the O'Leary name carries its fair share of controversy, the expressive CEO of Ryanair has successfully managed to steer the carrier into the number one spot in Europe. The growth of Ryanair's fleet visualized.

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.