How easyJet was nearly ‘Stelair’ – and other secrets of the airline’s beginning

Simon Calder
Orange blossom: Tony Anderson tells the story of how the airline grew: Tony Anderson

Twenty-four years ago this month, a tiny airline with two borrowed planes started “making flying as affordable as a pair of jeans”, at least for travellers between Luton and Scotland.

At a time when British Airways wanted a minimum of £120 one way from London to Edinburgh or Glasgow, easyJet promised £29 fares.

Tony Anderson, who was employee number three, has revealed many secrets in a new book called easyJet Rising: How an orange airline changed the way we fly.

The former marketing director tells an engrossing and entertaining story of audacity and (mis-) adventure while transforming the skies of Europe.

“The headhunter had told me to expect an answer by the end of the week,” he writes, recalling his interview with easyJet’s founder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou.

“Instead the phone call came midway through my drive home to Peterborough. I turned the car around and headed straight back to London. I’d just become easyJet’s third employee.”

Rivals, notably British Airways, sneered at the start-up. Anderson had previously worked for BA. It was, he writes, “weighed down by its history, cultural baggage and aversion to commercial risk”.

The longer the national carrier ignored the prospect of low-cost competition, the longer it gave the challenger to exploit the vast expanse between what British Airways want to charge the defenceless traveller, and the actual cost of putting an aircraft seat in the sky from Luton to Glasgow.

“National airlines had treated the continent’s travellers as cash cows and had been milking them for decades. Stelios was on a one-man mission to kick down the door to the dairy. Currently that door was double-locked, barred and bolted.

“Opening it would require considerable financial firepower, but as I kept reminding myself, the Haji-Ioannous were well and truly loaded.”

Anderson’s unusual dedication reads: “To British Airways, whose high fares made this book possible.”

The original easyJet business plan envisaged fares set at £29, £39, £49 or £59 one-way on the Scottish routes and up to £99 outside the UK.

Initially the airline vowed it would never sell a seat for less than £29. That rule has long gone. And BA has been busy turning itself into easyJet and cutting its fares.

I have just booked a Gatwick-Palma outbound flight on easyJet for £21, and the return leg on British Airways for exactly the same.

Naturally, I booked both flights directly – for which Tony Anderson and his pioneering easyJet colleagues deserve credit.

As he explains: “Carriers were paying more in commission [to agents on airline tickets] than they were on their fuel bills.

“It simply couldn’t carry on. If history tells us anything, it is that all things too good to be true eventually come to an end.

“Ours would be the first airline anywhere in the world to completely cut out the middleman. The move put clear blue water between easyJet and every other carrier on the planet.

“Fundamentally, it was a huge gamble. We were banking on the long-term costs of building and sustaining a brand through advertising being lower than agent commissions and associated costs.”

The easyJet brand has triumphed, but the name could have been so different. The start-up airline was at one stage going to be named Stelair.

“This was a logical enough extension,” says Anderson, “given our founder had already set up a shipping company called Stelmar and later went on to establish a financial company called Stelinvest.

“However, shortly before I joined, Stelios had a change of heart. Sanity had trumped vanity. His ultimate intention was to develop a portfolio of consumer businesses under a single overarching easy brand.

“The name ‘easyJet’ was filed at Companies House on 1 March 1995.”

The rest is aviation history.

‘EasyJet Rising: How an orange airline changed the way we fly’ by Tony Anderson is published by Oranssi

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