Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary doesn't just run Europe's No.1 discount airline. He apparently fancies himself a specialist in infectious diseases.

Speaking at a press conference today, O'Leary dismissed warnings from health officials that the swine flu epidemic which killed about 150 people in Mexico and claimed its first victim in the U.S. could turn into a global pandemic. The Times of London reports that the airline executive believes that the disease was only a threat to Asians and Mexicans living in slums.

"It is a tragedy only for people living . . . in slums in Asia or Mexico," the paper quotes O'Leary as saying. "But will the honeymoon couple from Edinburgh die? No. A couple of Strepsils will do the job."



Of course, this all may be a publicity stunt.

Earlier this month, Ryanair proposed the idea of levying a "fat tax" on overweight customers, a proposal that brought the Irish company an avalanche of free publicity. A few years ago, the Swedish prime minister sued Ryanair for using his face in ads that asked people whether it was time to flee the country.

Whatever the motivation, O'Leary's statement went too far.

First, the swine flu is a virus that does not care if you are rich or poor. Media accounts indicate that otherwise healthy young people are being stricken. O'Leary's notion that the lives of poor people are somehow worth less compared with rich ones is simply offensive.

The outspoken executive should keep his mouth shut about things he knows nothing about.

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