Will That Be One Pilot or Two, Sir?

Maybe his wildest ideas are pure bluster, as some charge, but Michael O'Leary, the CEO of profitable, growing, Dublin, Ireland-based Ryanair Ltd., has a knack for voicing outlandish ideas that commercial airlines hear and eventually adopt for themselves. We passengers are paying for every carry-on or checked bag now, free sodas are vanishing, and the airlines we fly still can't turn a profit consistently. How long will it be before we're flying jets equipped with O'Leary-proposed pay toilets and low-priced tickets for which the passengers would stand throughout the flight?

Actual seats would still be available on all planes for those willing to pay more, he says. Having passengers tote and load their own bags makes sense because airports were designed when only the pampered elite could afford to fly, so their perks were designed in, he adds.

O'Leary's latest bit of brilliance came in a BusinessWeek interview in which he suggested commercial flights don't need a co-pilot. (Would alternate aircraft be available at a scheduled departure time, with passengers charged more for the two-pilot plane or choosing the cheaper trip, hoping its pilot does not suffer an emergency in flight? How would this idea affect the cost and usage of flight insurance?) In the interview, O'Leary said a stewardess on each flight would be trained to fly the 737-800 aircraft Ryanair operates and could be summoned to take over if the solo pilot pushed an emergency button.

Having this happen just once could kill the idea -- not that it would be allowed in the United States anyway. It's true, however, that commercial air passengers apparently want cheap fares above all else; the magazine article noted several passengers on one Ryanair flight originating in England descended to the tarmac and loaded baggage onto their flight after the pilot announced that a shortage of ramp workers was about to cause a long delay in their departure.

Ryanair's headquarters are small and unimpressive, according to the article. But here's what matters: Its fares are low. Its annual passenger counts have steadily climbed and are on pace to reach 69 million this year with an 84 percent load factor.

If you fly commercial often in the United States, you've experienced soaring fees and the loss of in-flight services. So tell me, could O'Leary-style air travel happen here?

Posted by Jerry Laws on Sep 07, 2010