The “surprise” announcement of the departure of its chief operating officer Peter Bellew has again put Ryanair under the spotlight of investors as the airline may face into more turbulence as fuel costs rise for the industry.
Ryanair shares reversed early losses to gain over 1% in the session but they have nonetheless dropped almost a third of their value in the past year.
Mr Bellew said he’ll leave at the end of the year after helping to guide Europe’s biggest discount airline through crucial pay talks with trade unions.
While Mr Bellew, 54, had been regarded as a candidate to become head of the main airline division, a newly created position directly under chief executive Michael O’Leary, he told Bloomberg his decision to go was unrelated to the appointment and that there was nothing at all personal behind it.
“Operations in great shape and a super team in place,” he said in a text message, adding that there are “lots of opportunities globally”.
A native of Bettystown in Co Meath, Mr Bellew, who was previously a senior director helping to manage Kerry Airport in the 1990s, had previously left Ryanair only to return two years ago.
He had spent almost a decade at Ryanair before exiting in 2014 and in time becoming CEO of Malaysia Airlines as it sought to recover from two fatal crashes.
Mr Bellew had initially joined as second in command at Malaysia under its then new chief executive, Christoph Mueller, who had left as boss of Aer Lingus earlier in 2015 to help turn around the troubled Asian carrier.
Mr Bellew returned to Ryanair in 2017, and while the COO role included responsibility for flight operations and engineering, his chief task was to deal with fallout from a pilot rostering failure that caused 20,000 flight cancellations and sparked a unionisation drive and the company’s first strikes.
After a fraught year of staff negotiations and disruption in 2018, operations at Ryanair have returned largely to normal this year following a series of union agreements across Europe, with the threat of industrial action moving on to rival carrier British Airways amid a pay dispute there.
Bernstein analyst Daniel Roeska said Mr Bellew’s departure after not much more than 18 months is a “surprise move,” and suggested it might be linked to succession issues, the executive’s own ambitions or possibly Ryanair’s switch to a multi-brand structure, which could increase operational complexity.
Earlier this week, Mr O’Leary had warned the fallout of the prolonged grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max on the airline’s growth plans may start to spill over to next summer if the airplane is not flying again by November.
The airline needs up to eight months to take delivery of some 50 newly built planes left at the factory by the grounding crisis, so it may have to trim its capacity growth plans for summer 2020 if the 737 Max flights have not resumed by November, Mr O’Leary had told Reuters.
“Boeing are telling us at the moment they expect to be back flying by the end of September,” he said at a meeting of the European airlines lobby A4E, which he also chairs.
“I think it will fly before the end of this year. I am not sure they will meet the end of September date, but I take comfort from the fact that it seems that now the American, European, Brazilian and Canadian regulators are working together,” he added.