Why Did Stelios Haji-Ioannou Start easyJet?

Entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou was making a pretty penny in the shipping industry in his early post-graduate days. But at age just 28, he switched his career path from ships to aviation, launching the low-cost behemoth we now know as easyJet. We take a look at what led him down this path.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou easyJet
What made Stelios launch easyJet? Photo: Getty Images

What Stelios was doing before lift became ‘easy’

Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s family came from humble beginnings. His father, in particular, was born to a poor farming family working the hills high up in the Troodos Mountains. Loucas Haji-Ioannou was one of 12 siblings but had a flair for business that propelled him out of poverty. Before he was 40, he had built a fleet of cargo ships, and went on to become a dominant force in the global shipping industry.

With such big shoes to fill, it’s not surprising that Stelios was drawn to the world of entrepreneurship. After graduating high school in Athens, he went to London to study Economics at the LSE, and then obtained an MSc in Shipping, Trade and Finance from Cass Business School.

As a self-proclaimed ‘serial entrepreneur,’ Stelios began life working for his father’s successful shipping company. At just 25 years old, his father gifted him £30 million to set up his own shipping business, Stelmar Shipping. His work often took him around the world, which, at the time, was an expensive business. Back then, low-cost carriers weren’t a ‘thing,’ certainly not in Europe.

In 1995, when Stelios was just 28, he was approached to invest in a franchise for a Greek arm of Virgin Atlantic. Recognizing a gap in the market, he declined the investment but instead went off to research setting up his own airline. He became fascinated with the operating model of United States-based Southwest Airlines and believed he could replicate the same thing in Europe. With another loan from his father, of £5 million this time, easyJet was born.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou easyJet
The planes had their phone number plastered across the side. Photo: Getty Images

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The birth of a low-cost carrier

easyJet was ready to shake up the market. Stelios had a vision of cutting out meals onboard, removing the travel agent from the equation and making flights from Luton to Scotland ‘as affordable as a pair of jeans’. At the time, these were pretty revolutionary concepts.

From what was essentially a sizeable shed at London’s Luton Airport, Stelios began building his empire. Starting with a couple of rented planes from GB Airways, easyJet plastered its phone number on the side of the jets and started flying from Luton to Glasgow and Edinburgh. At the time, the only way to book a ticket on easyJet was via telephone.

It wasn’t until 1996 that easyJet took its first aircraft. Wholly owned, the plane was used to establish a new service to Amsterdam, with the same budget-friendly foundation that has become the hallmark of easyJet to this day. Interestingly, until late into 1997, all of the airline’s aircraft were operated under a wet lease by GB Airways, as easyJet did not have its own AOC.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou easyJet
Richard Branson later presented Stelios with a model calling him a ‘low cost hero’. Photo: Getty Images

In the coming years, easyJet would prove to be a force for change in the UK market. Stelios remained a colorful character throughout, sabotaging British Airways’ attempt at a low-cost competitor by turning up to Go’s inaugural flight with six colleagues, all dressed in orange boiler suits.

In the coming years, easyJet would buy out BA’s Go and its original wet least partner, GB Airways. It moved into Gatwick and spread across Europe like a huge orange wave. While recent times have not been kind to the airline, the future is beginning to look up. And while Stelios, now a minority shareholder, has sometimes been unhappy with the direction the airline is taking, his legacy is set to live on.