Clodagh Finn: Is an extra 2,000 Ryanair jobs the good-news story we think it is?

Climate collapse is happening at a faster rate than we want to admit and air travel plays a role 
Clodagh Finn: Is an extra 2,000 Ryanair jobs the good-news story we think it is?

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, and Ryanair DAC CEO Eddie Wilson at an announcement of the airline’s plans to add 2,000 jobs. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA

I’M STILL programmed to think that a report announcing new jobs at Ireland’s largest airline is not only good news but exactly what we need to face this winter of discontent.

More jobs equal more growth which, for decades nay centuries, has been seen as the way forward.

It is hard, too, to counter the celebratory tone which accompanied media reports, without exception, of Ryanair’s “unmatched contribution to Ireland’s economy over the past 35 years”.

I don’t dispute the independent report prepared by international consultants PwC showing that the airline is one of Ireland’s largest contributors to economic growth and development since 1985.

You’ll have seen the impressive statistics proving that to be the case. What is problematic, however, are the figures outlining the stages on the path ahead. With great fanfare, the airline said it would create 2,000 jobs and increase air passenger numbers to Ireland from 20m to 30m per annum by 2030.

The Tánaiste and soon-to-be Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was at the press conference, happy to be associated with the “good news”. He paid gushing tribute to an Irish company which, he said, is “a driving force for change”.

I was swept along on the tide of hope. But only for a time, because the same brain that knows jobs are good — and vital — also knows that air travel is bad for the environment.

Wasn’t it only last week that I read an article saying that aviation emissions rose more than any other sector, growing 30% between 2013 and 2019 compared with just 4% in the wider economy?

It is also one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise. To be fair, there was a paragraph on the environment and cutting emissions in Ryanair’s statement. And we are, after all, an island nation that depends on good connectivity.

Good and bad sides of air travel

Air travel is good, but we also know that it is bad. Thank heavens for F Scott Fitzgerald who once said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

But there is another very troubling story behind the jobs announcement headline. Last month, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary took a pot-shot at aircraft manufacturer Boeing over its delivery schedule.

His highly quotable and colourful language made headlines. In essence, he thinks Boeing is dragging its feet, using supply-chain issues as an excuse, and he’s concerned about the arrival timelines of Ryanair’s order of new Max 8-200s, aka ‘Gamechanger’ model. It is so named because it seats eight more people per flight, burns 16% less fuel, and lowers noise emissions by 40%.

This seems like good news to the part of the brain worried about climate change. Although, that mithered brain can also recall the nagging statistic saying that nearly all targets set in the aviation industry since 2000 have been missed, revised or quietly ignored, according to a recent report by climate charity Possible.

Speaking about being quietly ignored, the story of the as-yet uncertified Max 10 model, and the approach and ethos of its manufacturer Boeing, should be making many more headlines on this side of the Atlantic. The plane’s flight crew alerting system does not meet the US Federal Aviation Administration standards, but Boeing, and certain politicians, are now lobbying US Congress for an exemption from the aircraft safety act of 2020.

If that sounds technical and vague and distant, it is not. Boeing’s culture — “a reckless, profit-driven culture that put profit over safety” to quote one former senior manager — was shown to have contributed directly to two Boeing 737 Max 8 plane crashes that killed 346 people within five months of each other in 2018 and 2019.

Naoise Connolly Ryan's husband Mick Ryan died when the Boeing 737 Max his was flying in crashed minutes after taking off in Addis Ababa in Ethopia in 2019. Picture: Dan Linehan
Naoise Connolly Ryan's husband Mick Ryan died when the Boeing 737 Max his was flying in crashed minutes after taking off in Addis Ababa in Ethopia in 2019. Picture: Dan Linehan

The second of those crashes, on March 10, 2019, has particular resonance in Ireland because it claimed the life of Clare-born Mick Ryan, 39. He died with seven colleagues when a Boeing 737 Max crashed six minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, killing all 157 people on board. After the second crash, all 737 Max planes were grounded and what emerged in the aftermath was a shameless attempt by Boeing to hide its safety problems from the US Federal Aviation Administration.

Last Friday, on September 30, in a hard-hitting opinion piece, former senior manager at Boeing Ed Pierson described how he saw first-hand some of the company policies that led to the crashes.

“For example,” he writes, “in 2016 and 2017, Boeing laid off engineers and reduced its commercial airplane workforce by almost 8,000. In the first few months of 2017 alone, Boeing cut 1,332 engineering and technical jobs from its workforce. This was done to trim expenses and boost profits. Significantly, from 2013 to 2019, Boeing’s board voted to spend what amounted to 104% of its profits on stock buybacks, rather than allocate funds for additional engineering and safety measures.”

Time and time again he has called on Washington to deny Boeing a special waiver on the next version of the 737 Max, the Max 10, and stand up to a company that puts profit over safety.

Closer to home, Mick Ryan’s widow, Naoise Ryan, has led a brave, selfless and lonely campaign since his death to highlight the shortfalls at Boeing and the ongoing failure to get accountability or justice. She is working with other families who lost loved ones to help improve safety and transparency in the aviation industry for the benefit of all.

Political interests v safety

“We tend to think that there are these superheroes out there in big corporate buildings protecting us at all costs, but it’s just not the case. Unless the public decry what is going on and demand better safety, profit and political interests will be put ahead of safety every time,” she says.

Ryanair, it should be said, has a good safety record. It has never suffered a fatal air crash. It has also said it would not fly a plane unless it conformed to safety standards.

It is much more difficult, however, to do the same of the company that supplies aircraft to airlines all over the world.

The Seattle Times, for instance, reported last week that the US Federation Aviation Administration warned Boeing that the documents it provided for certification of the Max 7, another model, were “wholly inadequate”. The 737 jet family is the only Boeing jet that doesn’t meet the latest safety standards, it continued.

So why are we not asking more questions of Boeing, or scratching beneath the surface of seemingly good-news stories announcing expansion, business deals, and more jobs?

The challenge of the years ahead will be in trying to find a balance between living in a sustainable way and frankly just living because we are facing climate collapse at a faster rate than we dare to admit.

It is much easier to resort to the kind of double-think that allows us to avoid painful change but, if we want a better world, we are going to have to ask different, and difficult, questions of all the facts.

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