Commission officials do not regularly use Ryanair from Charleroi — called ‘Brussels South’ in that cheeky way Ryanair links the nearest metropolis to their airfield
THE American Express travel agent who told Michael O’Leary he could not fly Ryanair to attend an EU conference on innovation was taking on the wrong person. The offer to fly him on Aer Lingus — the company the European Commission blocked him from taking over five years ago — did not go down well either.
The outspoken and frequently caustic chief executive did not spare the commission when he gave a talk in Brussels on how to stimulate Europe’s crisis-hit economy. With his knack for belittling his opponents with sharp, memorable invective, he said the commission, who were hosting the conference, would not know innovation if it hit them in the face.
He said the last time they had a good idea was 30 years ago when they deregulated the skies, giving Ryanair lift off. He accused them of banning their employees from using Europe’s favourite low-cost airline, and told the young people at the conference to “get the hell out of Brussels”, which he dubbed the “evil empire”, and the Berlaymont that houses the commission as “the Death Star”.
It gave the man, who is named in no less than 22 cases involving the commission, an opportunity to lodge a new complaint against them with the EU Court of Auditors, claiming they have illegal travel policies.
The man renowned for generating lots of free advertising with his bizarre suggestions from paying for using toilets to having just one pilot on board, could hit the jackpot again with the strange story of the European Commission banning its staff from using Ryanair.
According to Michael O’Leary, the American Express travel agent that arranges commission bookings told him: “The European Commission does not allow us to book low-cost flights so we can only arrange the transfers to Brussels airport, not Charleroi.”
This, he says, was followed up by a commission official telling Ryanair: “It is true that the terms of this contract do prevent AmEx from booking tickets with low-cost airlines.”
The commission agrees its officials do not regularly use Ryanair from Charleroi — coyly called “Brussels South” in that cheeky way Ryanair links the nearest metropolis to their local airfield.
Mark Grey, a commission official, denies they have banned Ryanair and in fact say that there are arrangements in place to reimburse those who fly with Mr O’Leary’s airline.
But many do not fly Ryanair for a host of reasons. First of all, Ryanair does not work with travel agents, so commission staff must make their own reservations with Ryanair, which they can do using a commission credit card provided for the purpose.
Many choose not to because Ryanair offers little flexibility to change flights and offer flights just a few days a week to some destinations. They cannot reserve without making an immediate payment. Destinations can be some distance from cities where meetings are being held, taking much longer to get there.
Ryanair argues they could simply buy a second ticket if their dates change — something the commission says may suit Ryanair’s balance sheet but buying a ticket at the last minute from any airline can be very expensive and infringe their best value rules.
While Ryanair does not allow travel agents to sell their tickets, AmEx has about 70 low-cost airlines globally in their Amadeus booking system that commission staff regularly use. Generally AmEx says that about 20% of their bookings are now with low cost carriers.
Ryanair argues that the commission should not employ a travel agent that excludes them from booking their flights, and it wants a new EU rule that prioritises “low-cost carriers as the default method of air travel”. They say the commission should donate €1m to a charity chosen by Ryanair to “compensate for the damage their policy has caused”.
Last year, the commission paid €42m on all modes of transport, including flights for staff travelling to countries checking how EU money was being spent, as well as to countries outside the EU where they have missions involved in international relations and trade.
The rules on expenses run to 20 pages and cover transport, accommodation and meals for short-term stays and longer term missions to places all over the world.
They warn that staff must travel “in the most cost-effective manner and to issue transport tickets at the best available market price”.
This includes being allowed to source your own tickets, using the commission credit card that takes the cost out of the employee’s own bank account. It also allows them transport to and from airports using public transport or airport shuttle. Taxis will not be recompensed unless there is no alternative. This means there is no chance of reclaiming the €130 taxi fare to get to Charleroi from Brussels as the 50-minute bus is available for €13.
Employees are urged to share transport where possible and while using one’s own car is not encouraged, the reclaimable expense is 22 cent per km, compared to the Irish civil service rate of between 39 and 59 cent depending on the car’s horsepower.
They can book first class on trains but for flights it must be economy class unless the flight takes more than four hours and then they can go business class. Last year 87% of flights were economy and 13% were business class, according to AmEx records.
Commissioners can travel in first class and an official can join him or her on long-haul trips. The commissioners are free to take flights on Ryanair — and Irish Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has done so on occasion as did her predecessor, Charlie McCreevy who later joined the company’s board.
Ms Geoghegan-Quinn regularly flew Ryanair when travelling home to Galway. That was hen they flew from Charleroi to Shannon and she was based in Luxembourg — and she said she would fly with them again if they reinstated the Shannon route.
Commissioners’ drivers can collect them from airports — something which Mr O’Leary was cross about when he referred to the fact that they would not send a limo to collect him from Charleroi.
The commission was happy to pay his overnight hotel expenses in a reasonably priced hotel, he said. Officials have set allowances for hotels and meals that vary according to the country they are visiting.
This ranges from €75 a night for a hotel in Afghanistan or Niger to €275 in New York or Japan. Inside the EU, hotel allowances vary from €110 in Estonia to €175 in Britain and €150 in Ireland — more than the €109 allowed to Irish civil servants.
If someone shares their room, they can claim only the cost of a single bed or subtract 25% off the total.
A subsistence allowance to cover for breakfast, two meals and all local transport also varies according to the country, ranging from €52 a day for Romania, €104 a day in Ireland, to €120 a day in Denmark. Outside the EU, it ranges from €50 to €150. Irish civil servants are allowed a subsistence allowance of around €33 a day.
But any free meals they are treated to should be subtracted from the subsistence allowance — 30% for each meal and 15% for breakfast. The value of any fees or gifts will be deducted from allowances also.
The commission is installing the latest of video conferencing facilities and recently the commissioner responsible for administration, Maroš Šefcovic, has admired the latest virtual conferencing when the person appears to be sitting around the same table. If this comes to pass, Mr O’Leary’s share of the low-cost flights being used by the commission could be even fewer than at present.
In the meantime, Ryanair has been told it must provide an email address for customers to contact them under the e-Commerce Directive. Their snail-mail address or phone numbers that in Britain charge 10p a minute and another priority line that charges £1 (€1.20) a minute for urgent calls does not comply with the rules.
And when that is done, there is another 21 cases that Ryanair are taking against others, or others are taking against Europe’s largest low-cost carrier.