Victoria White


If Ryanair’s CEO can’t change his ways then he should take flight

Ryanair needs a leader who can communicate to people what the airline can do for them, not just what it can’t, writes Victoria White

If Ryanair’s CEO can’t change his ways then he should take flight

WHEN Michael O’Leary announced in 2013 that Ryanair’s new strategy was to avoid “unnecessarily pissing people off” he should have extended the policy to his own staff.

He didn’t. That’s why Irish-based pilots were on strike last Thursday, why there will be another strike tomorrow and yet another on Tuesday.

Cabin crew based in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Belgium are planning strikes next Wednesday and Thursday because they, too, are “pissed off”. The reasons cited are various.

The pilots represented by the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association want seniority to be properly valued by the company in the granting of leave and in the promotion of captains. They claim the current system is not transparent.

They also complain that new captains are routinely assigned to new bases even when a captain is required in the pilot’s original base.

When you drill down through these complaints, family bubbles up. In many cases pilots are looking for leave when their kids are on holiday, feeling they have done their time on the hard rosters. Being off when the kids are off would be a “benefit-in-kind” which need cost nothing if handled properly.

Similarly, changing base may have devastating consequences for the families of coupled-up pilots who may have to factor in a second career and the schooling of kids.

When it comes to the cabin crew, the complaints are much more wide-ranging and reflect a culture in which the individuals feel seriously under-valued.

They refer to pay, to safety and rostering, to the lack of a “fair and supportive work culture”, to a reliance on agency employment, to the right to sick pay and the pressure of sales targets.

“Three down, one to go” sighed the cabin crew member sitting in front of me on a Ryanair flight last week, as he finished his pitch on scratch cards, travel adapters, perfume and much, much more.

The reason I was on the flight at all was a sign that “unnecessarily pissing people off” is a habit which has been hard to break at Ryanair.

My daughter was booked into an expensive language course and was looking forward to it when I was tipped off that at just under 16 she would not be able to fly alone.

Her mammy would have walked with her to stop her missing out on the opportunity but in the end I just had to spend €300 on a return ticket. I did not have the wit or the interest to spend another €4 booking a seat beside her and it was ironic that the airline which had forced me to travel with her forced me to sit at the opposite end of the plane from her.

A cabin crew member then attempted to get us to exchange places because as a 15-year-old she was not meant to sit near an emergency exit. However she wasn’t meant to sit in the front row where I was, either, so we both had to sit down again in our seats.

My daughter was a bit freaked out. She was nervous during the bumpy landing. But that was nothing compared to the discomfiture of the man beside me whose wife was sitting at the back of the plane and had the sandwiches. He looked disapproving but hungry when I buckled and spent €5.50 on a panino.

Our flights weren’t cheap, particularly when you add the €100 it took to fly my daughter’s large suitcase both ways. The thing is, though, that there is no way the tiny European airport which was our destination would not have been served by a direct flight from Dublin before the coming of Ryanair.

When my school planned a French exchange in the south of France nearly 40 years ago we had to factor in a 10-hour train journey after our flight to Paris. The major airlines kept development in the capitals and major cities of Europe and there were no direct flights to regional airports.

Ryanair has changed the geography of Europe. It has put places like Bergamo, Nykoping, Beauvais, Carcassonne, Pisa, Chania, Zadar, Murcia, Santander, Girona, Lodz, Lublin, Kaunas and Vigo on the map in a completely new way.

It has connected the regions of Europe as never before.

It has massively facilitated the integration of the expanded Europe by developing cheap routes to and from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania, Czech Republic, and Estonia, among others.

This intricate web of connections has created an entirely new social geography. It has created a Europe in which, for instance, emigration from Poland to the UK no longer seems like the life challenge, because you can always go home and your family can visit you.

So Ryanair has changed migration patterns.

It has created new housing markets in previously un-served areas of Europe, with house prices typically 40% higher within 16km of an airport served by low-cost airlines than those the same distance from an airport serving traditional airlines.

It was arguably sheer snobbery which held these regions back in the past, including snobbery manifest in European regulations. The people who flew in Europe were of a certain class and they wanted to go to the major airports.

Nowadays you will find those same people on a Ryanair flight to their holiday homes near Pisa or Carcassonne or Dalaman. Low-cost carriers have created a new market in which 71% of the journeys would not have been undertaken had the cheap flights not been on offer.

These facts should be to the forefront of our minds when we think of Ryanair, not the latest snide comment from CEO Michael O’Leary or the latest industrial relations issue.

O’Leary’s attitude was once a PR gift but not when we discover his staff being treated with what looks like contempt. Cabin crew are not given bottled water or tea or coffee, much less a meal and must buy their own uniforms, and yet the company will not even enter negotiations with those who are threatening to strike.

Ryanair has made a virtue of brutality in its dealing with its staff and with the public, but I do not believe low fares are really dependent on such small cuts. Even if they were, the Ryanair network with slightly higher fares could still be a successful business, particularly if the staff were happy in their work.

Low fares can be offered by other carriers and indeed, they are. Fluctuating oil prices will threaten all low cost carriers in the future as will — hopefully — a growing awareness on the part of travellers and regulators of flying’s exorbitant cost to the environment.

The airline which started with a Waterford to Gatwick flight in 1985 because Margaret Thatcher said “yes” while the Irish Government said “no” is still growing exponentially but its increasing inability to hold staff, and its worsening reputation with the public, will surely begin to impact in the near future.

If Ryanair’s CEO does not change his ways then Ryanair should change its CEO for someone who can communicate to people what the airline can do for them, not just what it can’t.

Ryanair needs a leader who can communicate to people what the airline can do for them, not just what it can’t

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