Getting Personal in Europe's Budget Airline Wars

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The offending easyJet ad that the Advertising Standards Authority banned

The "Cola Wars" of the mid-1980s was a dark time for the soft drink industry. Pepsi and Coke were engaged in a battle for supremacy of the two-liter landscape, using any means possible to bury one another. First, they tussled over celebrity endorsers (George Michael, Elton John for Coke; Madonna, Michael Jackson for Pepsi), and then they began airing negative ads. Pepsi launched its massively successful "Pepsi Challenge" commercials, showing real people choosing Pepsi over Coke in blind taste tests. Coke responded with a parody ad in which a chimpanzee was offered the choice of both soft drinks and a tennis ball. The chimp wasn't much of a cola fan — it picked the tennis ball.

Now a new corporate battle has broken out across the Atlantic in Europe. Call it the "Low-Fare Airline Wars." The dueling companies, Ryanair and easyJet, have always had an intense rivalry, but in recent weeks, the backbiting between the bargain-basement airlines has gotten ugly — and personal. The fighting began when Ryanair launched an ad earlier this year accusing London-based easyJet of trying to hide its on-time flight statistics and depicting the airline's founder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, with an elongated Pinocchio nose. The Greek-born tycoon was not amused. In a statement last month, he lashed out at Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary and said he would sue. "I am not a liar. That is libelous, and I will seek substantial damages. See you in court, Michael," Haji-Ioannou wrote. Taking a swipe of his own, he added that O'Leary has "an ego to match that of Napoleon. But every Napoleon has his Waterloo."

This was just the opening salvo. The outspoken O'Leary, who once said that swine flu was only a risk for Asians and Mexicans "living in slums," went on the offensive. In his own statement on March 15, he questioned why, if easyJet values punctuality as its website claims, the airline hasn't published its weekly on-time flight ratings since last April. "Like all spoilt children, [Haji-Ioannou] laps up the attention of being Mr. easyJet, but he can't take the criticism, even when in this case it's valid," he said in his message. Then things got truly bizarre. O'Leary reiterated an earlier challenge he'd made to Haji-Ioannou to settle their differences with a race around London's Trafalgar Square or a "Sumo Smackdown." "I believe that 'gutless' Stelios should take up my challenge," O'Leary said. "If he is really worried about it, I will give him a head start or a big weight advantage."

Haji-Ioannou didn't take the bait. But easyJet did publish an ad mocking Dublin-based Ryanair by comparing the airports it serves with those easyJet flies to. Focusing on four metropolitan areas — Paris, Barcelona, Milan and Venice — it boasted that it flies to the cities themselves, while Ryanair flies to obscure towns that are hours outside the cities. "Who loves flying you to the place you actually booked?" a banner message at the top of the ad asks. Ryanair quickly asked the Advertising Standards Authority to ban the ads on the grounds they are misleading and denigrating. The advertising watchdog ruled in Ryanair's favor this month. (It's a tad ironic considering Ryanair has had a number of run-ins with the ASA over the years and once referred to the body as "Absolutely Stupid A__es.")

Analysts say the tit for tat illustrates the different styles of the companies. "[O'Leary] is a strong believer in getting any sort of publicity for Ryanair," says John Strickland, a London-based aviation consultant. "EasyJet's position has changed. When it was born it was relatively cheeky as well. ... Now it's taking more of a sober approach. Stelios is not going to take O'Leary up on his sumo wrestling offer." Still, Strickland says, both companies are well aware that a healthy rivalry can be good for business: "It certainly raises the profiles of both companies."

Despite the threat of a lawsuit, Ryanair sees the back and forth as all in good fun. "People expect airlines to poke fun at each other. We make comments about Stelios and he makes comments about us. That's just the way the world works," says Stephen McNamara, spokesman for the airline. Did things go too far this time? McNamara doesn't think so: "Pinocchio is a much-loved character. ... It's probably increased Stelios' profile quite a bit." EasyJet, however, doesn't believe the ad was harmless. "I don't think that's the way it's been interpreted by our founder," spokesman Andrew McConnell says. He declined to comment further, citing the legal proceedings.

Europeans have a real love-hate relationship with the two airlines, which offer some of the lowest fares around Europe, but have become infamous for their bare-bones service and exorbitant add-on fees. The numbers suggest that travelers have been happy enough to continue flying with them — their annual passenger load has increased dramatically from a combined 13 million customers in 2000 to more than 100 million today. But passenger complaints have spiked in recent years, too. Since 2005, Ryanair's complaints have increased by 70% and easyJet's are up by a third, according to a report released earlier this month by the London-based Air Transport Users' Council (AUC). Ryanair, in particular, has been derided for its penny-pinching ways — O'Leary even suggested last year that he may start charging passengers to use the toilets on planes.

This begs the question: Should the squabbling rivals be focusing more of their energies on making their passengers happy than on tearing each other down? Neither airline looks to be in danger of losing their customer base. But if the fighting continues, it could just open the door for other competitors to make a play for their business.