When Ryanair put a Pinocchio nose on the Easy founder to supposedly criticise Easyjet’s flight punctuality, it must have expected a backlash, and sure enough, as Mark Smith reports, it came and has culminated in a statement in open court ending defamation proceedings.
Who: Ryanair / Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou
When: 15 July 2010
Where: High Court
Law stated as at: 4 August 2010
Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary has been forced to make an unreserved High Court apology to EasyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou and pay his legal fees and £50,100 in damages in order to settle a libel action.
Sir Stelios, who controls 38% of EasyJet's shares, brought the action after Ryanair took out adverts in The Guardian and Daily Telegraph newspapers which featured a picture of Sir Stelios with a Pinocchio-style elongated nose, a speech bubble stating "punctuality is our top priority" and the caption "EasyJet's Mr Late Again". The adverts demanded that Sir Stelios "stop hiding the truth" about EasyJet's flight delays and resume publishing its weekly punctuality statistics. The adverts were arguably a clear allegation that Sir Stelios was a liar.
Although Michael O'Leary's initial response to the action earlier in the year had been to challenge Sir Stelios to a race around Trafalgar Square or a sumo wrestling match (?!) the court heard that Ryanair accepted that the adverts should not have been published and that Michael O'Leary and Ryanair had apologised unreservedly to Sir Stelios for the statements in the adverts so far as they related to him personally and suggested he was lying.
Ryanair was also forced to print a full-page apology in The Guardian and Daily Telegraph and on Ryanair's website and agreed not to publish the adverts again.
The apology is the latest twist in the often contentious relationship between the two airlines.
Why this matters:
The settlement of the libel action demonstrates the risks involved in making accusations against individuals in advertisements that could amount to defamation, an area of law in which the damages awards and legal fees are notoriously high.
That said, it is worth noting that following the apology Michael O'Leary stated in an interview with the Sunday Times that he had no regrets about the advert, despite having to make a "humiliating" apology. He asserted that the adverts and the resulting publicity surrounding the libel action had focused attention on EasyJet's punctuality issues, and that Ryanair had actually experienced a spike in booking after the apology was issued.
It remains to be seen whether Ryanair's latest advert, which claims that Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe is EasyJet's new head of punctuality, will attract any complaints. It is based on recent reports which claim that more Air Zimbabwe flights took off on time than flights run by EasyJet.