In a dramatic about-face, Ryanair will establish a “base” at Brussels-Zaventem airport in February. This is a sharp departure from the low-cost carrier's usual strategy to only serve secondary airports, sometimes reinventing the point's name, for example “Brussels Charleroi” or “Paris Beauvais,” which are actually quite distant from the listed destination. This is misleading, of course, but travelers are now used to this way of conducting business.

For years, the airline's CEO, Michael O'Leary, has decried certain aspects of European hubs and major provincial airports. He criticizes their excessive fees and time-consuming, lengthy taxiway runs that make quick ground turnarounds difficult or fiscally undesirable. Ryanair's Boeing 737-800s usually remain no longer than 25 min. at the gate in order to log higher daily use, a goal achievable by serving secondary airports, avoiding the busy ones. In addition, continental Europe's secondary airports are largely under-utilized and local authorities are usually willing to absorb some of a newcomer's airport charges in order to attract more traffic.

In other words, Ryanair was certainly not expected to include Brussels-Zaventem in its route system. Moreover, Charleroi is close to the Belgian main hub, about 50 km (30 mi.). As usual, O'Leary declines to elaborate on decisions, saying only that four 737s based at Zaventem will carry about 1.5 million passengers per year to 10 destinations, mostly in Italy and Spain.

He mentions that the additional customers originating from Belgium will enjoy “service improvements.” This is a reference to the airline's recently announced consumer-friendly initiatives such as allocated seating, up to two free carry-on bags and “quiet flights”—before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m.—when the public address system remains silent, except for safety instructions.

Next February, Ryanair will also significantly increase its presence in Italy. It intends to base six aircraft at Rome-Fiumicino—another major international hub—with six more to be added sometime within the year. Previously, the Irish carrier's operations to Rome were centered at Ciampino, a tiny downtown airport. Apparently this means O'Leary now acknowledges the benefits of key hubs, although his decision is probably more pragmatic: Spain's Vueling is evolving into a serious competitor that believes in the merits of Brussels, a promising market located in the middle of the open 28 member states of the European Union, while ailing Italian flag carrier Alitalia is becoming weaker by the day and may not survive its ongoing financial crisis. An aggressive player such as Ryanair senses the opportunities at hand.

Vueling is one of Europe's youngest low-fare carriers, established in mid-2004. It was acquired by the International Airlines Group, the parent of British Airways and Iberia. “Nonconformism is what sets us apart,” Vueling executives say, although the airline's robust two-digit growth is based on attractive prices. In a deregulated European market, Vueling is increasing its service to a number of city pairs and is now France's third-largest “French” airline, behind Air France and EasyJet.

In Italy, Ryanair plays it down the middle. It offers links to Alitalia to establish close business ties and to serve domestic routes feeding the Italian carrier's long-haul routes. But Ryanair is also ready to replace Alitalia if the Italian carrier fails, which, in the aftermath of the Air France-KLM group's deciding against acquiring a controlling stake in the ailing airline, seems imminent.

O'Leary claims he is responding to “numerous requests from southern Italian airports” to establish new domestic city pairs and, in the next few days, is scheduled to inaugurate more routes. In addition, even more European destinations will be served—including Rome-Brussels—and Ryanair is ready to increase flight frequencies to cover gaps if Alitalia cuts back or drops services. “Since Ryanair is Italy's No. 1 airline, it is important we respond to our airport partners, who are looking to ensure that they have secure domestic routes [that] feed to and from Rome Fiumicino, particularly as Alitalia continues to restructure,” O'Leary expounds.

Ryanair is well established in the Italian market, is a respected player and could probably succeed where Lufthansa failed. Recently, the German carrier created an ill-fated Italian subsidiary, Lufthansa Italia, which was disbanded when it proved unsustainable.

Can Ryanair implement a genuine strategic reorientation by adapting its economic model to new realities or by seizing short-term opportunities? Serving Zaventem and Fiumicino involves an all-new marketing strategy and an acceptance of major airports' higher costs. But the move could help the airline garner a bigger share in the business travel market, with the benefit of higher yields. Indeed, the Belgo-Italian laboratory could forge the Ryanair of the future.