That’s Some Quirky Marketing Strategy: CEO Calls His Customers ‘Idiots’

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Michael O’Leary, the CEO of the fee-happy European airline Ryanair, isn’t scared of a little controversy. In fact, he seems to actively welcome it, periodically making outrageous statements (“The best thing you can do with environmentalists is shoot them”) and announcing possible new money-makers for the airline such as in-flight porn and pay toilets. Well, O’Leary is in the news again, this time for referring to Ryanair passengers—the people who have made him a rich man—as “idiots.”

In his defense, O’Leary didn’t call all Ryanair passengers “idiots.” Just the passengers who forget their boarding passes, or who for whatever reason can’t get their boarding passes printed out before arriving at the airport. In exchange for such idiocy, O’Leary finds it perfectly reasonable for his airline to assess a financial penalty: For example, a family of five recently had to fork over around $380 to have their boarding passes printed at an airport in Spain.

The UK Telegraph reported the tale, in which Suzy McLeod and her family were charged €60 per person (about US$380 total) because they’d failed to print their boarding passes before heading to the airport in Alicante for a flight back to England. McLeod wrote of the experience on Facebook:

“I had previously checked in online but because I hadn’t printed out the boarding passes, Ryanair charged me €60 per person! Meaning I had to pay €300 for them to print out a piece of paper! Please ‘like’ if you think that’s unfair.

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More than half a million people “liked” what she posted. To which O’Leary, in his usual sensitive manner, replied:

“We think Mrs McLeod should pay 60 euros for being so stupid,” he said. “She wasn’t able to print her boarding card because, as you know, there are no internet cafes in Alicante, no hotels where they could print them out for you, and you couldn’t get to a fax machine so some friend at home can print them and fax them to you… She wrote to me last week asking for compensation and a gesture of goodwill. To which we have replied, politely but firmly, thank you Mrs McLeod but it was your ****-up.”

After describing the woman and anyone else who doesn’t print out boarding passes in advance as “idiots,” O’Leary later backtracked slightly, explaining to the Irish Independent, “I was not calling her stupid, but all those passengers are stupid who think we will change our policies or our fees.”

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O’Leary also admitted that he himself had been known to be stupid. Not for, you know, insulting the people who have made him a very wealthy man (i.e., Ryanair customers), but for once forgetting his passport when embarking on a trip.

Fee-heavy carriers like Spirit and Ryanair have proven to be the most profitable players in the airline business, and it would be stupid to think for a second that Ryanair would change its business model now. To these airlines, it doesn’t matter whether the fees are reasonable or not. Spirit recently introduced a $100 fee if a passenger wants to bring a carry-on bag aboard the flight and fails to pay for it in advance. The slips of paper that Ryanair had to print out for the McLeod family cost the airline maybe 5¢.

It’s understandable that neither Ryanair nor Spirit is willing to make exceptions for customers, even when there are extenuating circumstances. If it did so even for a few passengers, it would be expected to do the same for many others as well. Before you knew it, the revenues from fees wouldn’t be quite so enormous.

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It is equally understandable, though, that a traveler would never want to do business with a company that is known for charging astronomical fees at every turn—or one run by a guy who blatantly insults his customers.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.