There was a pantomime-like end to the CAPA Airlines in Transition event in Dublin last week when Ryanair’s former deputy chief executive hijacked proceedings somewhat.
The intervention was all the more bewildering because here was Michael Cawley, one of the most senior figures at the carrier which almost pioneered ancillary revenue, pretty much questioning the entire concept as a bonanza for carriers.
So what happened?
What started as a post-lunch sleepy discussion on "Awakening Revenue Opportunities..." fast descended into a sparky exchange between Cawley, who stepped down last month, and intermediary execs (Booking.com, Sabre and Travelport) - on the value to be had in selling ancillary services.
Ryanair bosses might be known for their outspoken nature but few were expecting the "effing and blinding" that ensued.
Some decent points were made such as this one from Travelport's global distribution sales and services boss, Derek Sharp:
"Airlines need to focus on area that they are good at. I don’t think about my airline as good for buying a vacuum cleaner from or my next mortgage.
"They also have to have those skill and fit into the travel agency workflow for us. There are technical issues and business process issues but they have to understand and operate in that ecosystem as well and make as seamless as possible for the travel agency experience otherwise it will break down."
Cawley didn't dispute the need for airlines to be specific or the required skills. He talked about the carrier swapping the prioritisation from the people who don't want priority boarding or bags to those that do. And, he made an excellent point on big data and the jury being out on how useful it will be if regulators get involved.
But, then the pace shifted up a notch when he launched an attack on intermediaries who think there is a huge amount of value in airline ancillaries. Lots of it made sense, like not annoying passengers by trying to constantly sell them items on-board.
“There is not any possibility of selling more stuff on board. We can annoy passengers and we’re pretty good at that. The idea that we are going to bombard people on a 14-hour flight is, in my view, bananas.
"Hope that I would have for this business is low. All the people pushing it are intermediaries, it has low potential for growth in general unless it’s car rental, hotels, insurance."
It was certainly entertaining - more follows and is detailed below.
But, what if anything should we conclude from all this. Ryanair has only just signed a deal to come back to the GDS table, those same GDS are pouring huge amounts into investment in merchandising capabilities not to mention IATA's NDC project.
So, was it all just more bluster from the airline that likes to, well, bluster? Or, is there more to the argument on how much revenue there is in the ancillary pot?
After all, this is an airline that has been coming up with far more customer-cuddly initiatives of late.
Booking.com, a Ryanair partner from which the airline gleans "modest income", also threw its own rather one-sided view on how it should all be left to experts like, err, Booking.com and Cartrawler.
A voice of reason from the airline quarter in the shape of BMI Regional boss Cathal O’Connell who pointed out that airlines needed to be part of the transaction.
"What happens if an airline does not service that gap for the customer. We’re providing travel and that provision gives immense opportunities to offer services around travel and it's about who controls that? It’s a retail opportunity at all points of the journey and how the airline maximises that.
"If we cannot be the retail opportunity of choice, we lose the management of that customer, we become part of the package that is being bundled and sold, so continuing to have customer interaction for the airline is critical."
But Cawley wasn't to be deflected from his cause. Ryanair has undoubtedly been successful at filling aircraft and selling ancillaries, but where dissent came was in the idea of there being not much more money in it:
"We have the highest conversion on ancillary revenue. You can’t get blood out of a stone, you are not going to sell any product on board in great volume that airlines can get great profit from. Ancillary revenues will grow more or less in line with passenger numbers.
Naturally, the intermediaries had to defend their corner and Travelport's Sharp responded:
"I disagree there is no more money to be made or that it's about how you divide the pie differently.
"Paying for some of the services that used to be bundled into the ticket is the way the industry has to go and there is more value that can be created through retail. I don’t buy the idea that it is a zero sum game. We know there is value in it since Ryanair signed an agreement with Travelport, it wants to sell ancillaries."
Which is where it all became a little silly with Cawley spitting back with a "just not through you".
He rounded off with an excellent soundbite on questioning the wisdom that there is really a "treasure trove at the end of the retail rainbow" - rather appropriate given the Dublin location for the conference.
NB: Rainbow image via Shutterstock.
NB2 Disclosure: Writer's accommodation at the event was supported by Travelport.