Last updated: 01:30 PM ET, Tue January 12 2016

The Biggest Airline in the World Isn’t Who You Think

Airlines & Airports | Paul Thompson | January 12, 2016

The Biggest Airline in the World Isn’t Who You Think

Photo courtesy of Boeing

If you follow the airline industry, a handful of international carriers come up time and time again on the list of “World’s Best Airline” lists. Names like Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore may sound familiar, but these airlines do not top the list for international traffic. We can also leave out the largest U.S. carriers, American, Delta and United.

Believe it or not, the much-maligned, Ireland-based Ryanair happens to be the world’s largest airline when it comes to the number of passengers flown. In 2015, it became the first carrier ever to fly over 100 million international passengers in a year, with plans to carry up to 160 million on 520 aircraft by 2024.

That’s a pretty remarkable number, but remember, the company is based in Europe — where entire countries are roughly the size of most states in the U.S.

Ryanair flies a fleet of all Boeing 737s, like its low-cost American counterpart Southwest Airlines. This helps keep operational costs low, by only having to train pilots on one type of plane.

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But what is so bad about Ryanair?

Similar to Spirit in the United States, Ryanair is the carrier everyone loves to hate. Just like Spirit, Ryanair nickel and dimes customers for everything from baggage to boarding passes.

Aircraft configurations are all-economy, meaning no business or first class. Overhead storage bins have advertisements on them, and seats have no storage pockets for magazines or anything else. Emergency evacuation information is printed on a decal, stuck to the back of the headrest in front of you.

Ryanair has received a lot of publicity over the years, in large part due to comments from CEO Michael O’Leary. He has released such gems as: “Germans will crawl bollock naked over broken glass to get low fares.” “Screw the travel agents. Take the f***ers out and shoot them. What have they done for passengers over the years?” “I should get the Nobel Peace Prize. Screw Bono.”

The airline also issued a bikini calendar of its flight attendants for several years, but 2014 marked the final year, as it didn't fit into a new family-friendly image.

If quotes and calendars aren’t bad enough, O’Leary has also wanted to make some aspects of air travel truly medieval, all in the name of the almighty Euro. Back in 2010, a “standing seat” concept was introduced, which O’Leary found appealing enough to announce his airline would actually move forward with. The configuration would allow Ryanair to wedge in even more passengers on each plane, provided they were able to successfully pass the required evacuation tests.

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In 2009, O’Leary said he wanted to remove all but one toilet from each plane, which would reduce weight, and of course make room for more seats. But not only did he plan to have nearly 200 people share one toilet, he planned to have them pay to use it.

Thankfully, neither of these harebrained ideas has ever taken flight.

Ryanair’s 737-800 fleet currently seats 189 passengers, but they have ordered 100 of the new 737-MAX 200s, which will seat up to 200 people in a plane of the same size, along with options to buy up to 100 more. This will be accomplished by shrinking some of the galley and lavatory space, but plans to keep the same 30-inch seat pitch as its current fleet.

Passengers are willing to go through a lot in order to get to their family or vacation spot in a less expensive manner. This is why airlines like Ryanair are becoming even more popular and profitable year after year.

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