Pride comes before a fall. No sooner had Easyjet smugly congratulated itself on an intoxicatingly funny parody of BA’s latest ad campaign (To Fly. To Save – see post below) than its fractious founder and biggest shareholder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannu, spoiled all the fun with a headline-grabber of his own.
I’ve heard many reasons over the years for launching a new brand, most relating at least tangentially to a perceived gap in the market, or even market in the gap, with the prospect of profit – however evanescent – somewhere in the equation. But never one based entirely on spite and paranoia.
Yet this is what the board of Easyjet would have us believe; it took the initiative in disclosing that Stelios was plotting a rival airline, Fastjet, after fruitlessly engaging in years of guerilla warfare with the company he once set up.
Most commentators take the Easyjet line: that Fastjet is no more than an audacious, if alarming, bluff – a way of continuing Stelios’s war with the Easyjet board by other means, in order to extract extra concessions. And it is true that there seems no more present substance to the threat than a red-washed website and a brand name, not even trademarked.
On the other hand, never underestimate the power of the irrational. Especially when it is deployed by a gifted and demonically driven entrepreneur. Civil aviation may be wracked by recession and rising fuel costs; it may be saturated with low-cost airlines. But that does not necessarily mean Stelios’ bluff will be called. He probably has the family resources to remain “irrational” long after others have ceased to be solvent. Where most (especially left-brain City analysts) see sector cul-de-sacs, entrepreneurs see opportunity (step forward Philip Green, Richard Branson and a host of others) and are prepared to back a hunch.
Besides, it may not be a new airline he is planning: merely a radical repositioning of an existing operation. As Paul Simons – who knows a thing or two or about airlines; he’s even tried relaunching one – points out, there are still market segments other than the low-cost sector worth targeting, particularly at the upper end of the social scale.
What, however, makes me reasonably confident that Fastjet is not simply an extravagant corporate warfare stratagem is the irreparable loss of face involved if it were revealed to be so. That really would make Stelios look like a spoilt rich kid who has thrown all his toys out of the pram.
For that very reason Easyjet and others should be wary of writing off Fastjet as an empty threat. The project may target a different sector of the market, it may well fail. But one thing we can be sure of: it will cause competitors some unwelcome turbulence if it ever heaves itself off the runway.