Environmentalists were seen as ‘nutters,’ Ryanair CEO says, and he was an ‘original skeptic’

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A Ryanair Boeing 737-800 aircraft parked at Eindhoven airport in the Netherlands.
Nicoloas Economou | NurPhoto | Getty Images

LONDON — Climate awareness has come a long a way, according to Ryanair‘s CEO Michael O’Leary, who concedes he was an initially an environmental skeptic himself.

Speaking to CNBC on Wednesday, O’Leary said: “I was one of the original skeptics.”

When asked what made him change his mind, he replied: “We learn from our experiences. Frankly, 20, 30 years ago we all thought the environmentalists were a bunch of nutters, you know. Clearly, it’s moved front and center, it is something that our customers and the people working here at Ryanair wants us to focus on and we tend to be very responsive.”

The airline industry has come under immense pressure to reduce carbon emissions in recent years, and policymakers have faced renewed calls to enact measures designed to tackle the climate emergency in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

This is paramount from an environmental perspective, but also for the airline business itself. Trends such as “flight shaming,” a term which refers to the feeling of guilt of travelling via plane due to its environmental impact, have gained ground and could severely disrupt business models.

In France, for example, lawmakers have voted to suspend domestic flights on routes that can be taken by a direct train in less than two-and-a-half hours.

When asked about the initiative, however, O’Leary said he was concerned about this sort of step.

“I get very worried about these, you know, big-stake initiatives. Largely speaking on flights below two-and-a-half hours, the trains (already) dominate that market,” he said, citing how traffic from London to Paris and Brussels is already done by train.

Eurostar trains, for example, allow customers to go from Paris to London in two hours.

But ultimately, the domestic short-haul flight was “never a big feature of our business,” O’Leary said.

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