Realizing that O'Leary had no intention to acquiesce, Sabena took its case to court, saying that Ryanair's ads were "provoking and denigrating and misleading the consumer in a cunning way." The brief also charged that Ryanair was misusing the Sabena trademark.
Ryanair maintained that the price comparisons were fair. Sabena claimed that the price comparisons featured one-way tickets to the same destinations on the same days, but that Ryanair compared its economy class tickets to Sabena's business class rates. True enough, said O'Leary, but Sabena doesn't offer one-way economy fares, which, maintained O'Leary, is part of Sabena's sham.
O'Leary went so far as to call Sabena a bunch of "swindlers" engaged in "daylight robbery" at a February press conference announcing Ryanair's emergence in the Belgian market. Unfortunately for him, the Brussels' court thought differently. On July 10, the court ruled, holding that the ads were misleading and offensive. Ryanair was ordered to discontinue the ads immediately or face fines. The judge also ordered Ryanair to publish an apology in Belgian newspapers and post the summary of the judgment on its website for three weeks, in three languages.
The negative judgment seemed to play into Ryanair's hands. Intent on furthering the publicity of the case, Ryanair did as instructed and indeed issued an apology in Belgian newspapers. "We're Sooooo Sorry Sabena!" said the advert, which went on to list seven more one-way price comparisons, insolently maintaining that Ryanair is up to 89% cheaper. The ad concluded: "Ryanair is really, really sorry and promises to include this information in our future advertising."
Sabena is seeking 99,000 euros from Ryanair in light of the Commercial Court's imposition of a penalty for every subsequent breach of the court's initial finding.
This was not the first time that Ryanair has been taken to task over its uncouth advertising. British Airways sought penalties against Ryanair in England's High Court over a print advertisement that ran in 2000.
The ad in question was headlined as such: "Expensive Bastards!" BA also took issue with the accompanying price comparisons, just as Sabena did. However in this case, the court sided with Ryanair, throwing BA's case out. "The complaint amounts to this: that Ryanair exaggerated in suggesting BA is five times more expensive because BA is only three times more expensive," ruled the judge. "Accordingly, in my view, the use was honest comparative advertising. I suspect the real reason that BA do not like it is precisely because it is true."
Ryanair has waged similar campaigns against its sister air carrier, Aer Lingus.
In May of 2001, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority ordered Ryanair not to re-run adverts, which contained explicit sexual innuendoes after it promoted its Valentine's Day fares with the slogan: "Blow me! (These fares are hard to swallow!)" and "Satisfaction Guaranteed!" with an illustration of two pairs of feet, one on top of the other.
Like the class clown who is repeatedly sent to the principal's office for discipline, Ryanair has had numerous run-ins with the Advertising Standards Authority. Most recently, the firm was reprimanded for its ongoing acrimony toward Mary O'Rourke, the Minister for Public Enterprise in Ireland. O'Leary and Ryanair have vociferously taken issue with O'Rourke and the tariffs that Aer Rianta, the operator of Ireland's airports, applies to airlines at the Dublin and Shannon hubs. O'Leary has lampooned O'Rourke as the "Monty Python Minister" and the "Minister for Minding Monopolies" for rejecting Ryanair's repeated requests to expand its fleet in Ireland's main airports.
The ASA has a history of taking action against Ryanair, upholding complaints that range from "misleading" advertisements to the ambiguous and intentionally altered wording of advertisements.
But does any of this work against Ryanair's bottom line? Most firms in most industries bend over backward to forge a positive image in the public's eye; Ryanair seems to revel in offending and engaging its competitors and regulatory adversaries.
Considering that the airline was started in 1985 with a single 15-seat prop aircraft that ran one daily flight between Waterford Airport in Ireland and Gatwick airport in London, its current position as one of Europe's most prolific low-fare airlines is all the more astonishing. Its business continues to grow by 25% per year despite the high fuel costs, economic downturns, and bovine mystery diseases that have plagued the lion's share of the aerospace industry in Europe. It recently posted pretax profit of 123.4 M euros for the fiscal year ending March 31, and its passenger traffic was up 35% in that same period. Because its website now accounts for 72% of all bookings, the company has been able to slash marketing and distribution costs by 60%.
Ryanair’s philosophy is simple: provide low-cost, no-frills air travel to as many people going to as many places as possible. By selling tickets online, Ryanair is able to cut out the profits that ticket agents take, thereby deflating the consumer's bottom line. Moreover, operating expenses are allayed because the airline tends to deal with secondary airports, like Stansted in London and Prestwick in Glasgow, as opposed to larger international airports where slots are more expensive. The fact that the airline owns its fleet when much of the competition leases has also been integral to its exponential growth, which most industry analysts feel will continue well into the next decade.
And what about those saucy, sometimes insidious ads? Does Ryanair run the risk of alienating portions of the market because of court injunctions, bad press and its executive’s penchant for cantankerous behavior? The reality, it would seem, is that there are a select few products in the world that don't have to associate compassion and goodwill with their products. Clearly cheap airline tickets are among those. The airline industry has been maligned worldwide, with long delays and cancellations being standard fare in many of the world's major hubs. People don't necessarily associate pleasure with flying these days; but when allowed to think of it as cheap, all of sudden air travel doesn't seem that bad after all.
But what about marketing standards and ethics in advertising? Granted, competition is the way of capitalism, but shouldn't some comity between competitors be expected, even if it is completely disingenuous? And shouldn't we the consumers – the very lifelines of these companies – demand a level of appropriateness from the world's marketers? Or are those cut-rate airline tickets simply too much to resist?
Ryanair is betting that they are.