DUBLIN – Is a bathroom an optional extra when you're at 30,000 feet? Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary seems to think so — and says his no-frills airline might charge customers to use its aircrafts' toilets.
O'Leary whipped up a frenzy of indignation and potty humor Friday as he suggested that future Ryanair passengers might be obliged to insert a British pound coin (U.S. $1.40) before they gain access to in-flight relief.
As always when introducing new charges, O'Leary suggested a separate toilet fee would lower ticket costs and make flying, somehow, easier for all. Nobody, even his own aides, seemed to be sure if he was serious or pursuing his well-documented penchant for making brazen declarations to win free advertising.
"One thing we have looked at in the past, and are looking at again, is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door, so that people might have to actually spend a pound to `spend a penny' in future," O'Leary said, using a local euphemism for relieving one's self.
When asked, during an interview on BBC Television, what would happen if a customer really had to go, but didn't have the correct change, O'Leary dismissed the scenario as implausible. This even though Ireland and most of Europe uses euros, not the British currency, and even on-board attendants often find themselves without the correct change.
"I don't think there's anybody in history (who has) gone on board a Ryanair aircraft with less than a pound," he said.
Politicians and analysts agreed that the man who pioneered charging airline customers to check bags, to use a check-in desk, and even to use a credit or debit card to make an on-line booking just might be serious about mile-high toilet extortion, too.
Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist at BGC Partners in London, cautioned consumers that O'Leary might be attempting two for the price of one: Free publicity backed by cut-throat reality.
"This begs a simple question retort of: Is there absolutely nothing that this airline won't do? Not really, so if you are thinking about flying cattle-class Ryanair in future, beware," he said.
O'Leary's own chief spokesman, Stephen McNamara, said his boss often spoke tongue in cheek — but then defended the idea of charging for a toilet as part of a logical trend.
"Michael makes a lot of this stuff up as he goes along and, while this has been discussed internally, there are no immediate plans to introduce it," McNamara said, adding, "Passengers using train and bus stations are already accustomed to paying to use the toilet, so why not on airplanes? Not everyone uses the toilet on board one of our flights, but those that do could help to reduce airfares for all passengers."
Rochelle Turner, head of research at British consumer rights magazine Which? Holiday, said Ryanair had a well-documented practice of "putting profit before the comfort of its customers" — but this one could backfire.
"Charging people to go to the toilet might result in fewer people buying overpriced drinks on board. That would serve Ryanair right," she said.
Tommy Broughan, transport spokesman for Ireland's Labour Party, said the toilet-charge idea had to be taken seriously.
He noted that Ryanair last month began threatening customers with fines if they tried to carry on board a second bag regardless of size — even one filled with a just-purchased item from the airport's duty-free shops.
"When Ryanair introduced this euro30 extra duty-free charge, many passengers joked that next they would be charged for using the toilet — not realizing that this indeed seems to be the newest extra charge on Ryanair's agenda," Broughan said.
On the recession-hit streets of Dublin, Ryanair-bound people waiting for the airport shuttle bus seemed resigned to the idea of paying for an O'Leary-provided potty.
"Your only choice with Ryanair, really, is not to fly Ryanair. Your dignity goes out the window. If you have a complaint, they're not programmed to care," said Samantha Jones, a 30-year-old Welsh woman who has been using the airline to commute between her weekday Irish job and weekend boyfriend back home near Liverpool.
Jones discounted the practicality of a restroom rebellion. "If you are given a choice between wetting your knickers or not wetting your knickers, you will pay whatever fee they make you pay, and Mr. O'Leary knows this well," she said. "Frankly, I'm surprised he's talking about letting us have a wee for a pound, not more!"