Michael Clifford: O’Leary claims fly in the face of industry facts

For a long time the market in pilots favoured Ryanair. If the balance of power shifts to the pilots, then cultural change will follow at the company, writes Michael Clifford

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary, discusses the recent flight cancellations, at Ryanair HQ. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Mick O’Leary needs to get out a bit more. On Tuesday he claimed to have no knowledge of a global shortage of pilots. “Is there a shortage of pilots? No, I have never yet come across a worldwide shortage of pilots,” he told a press conference. “We don’t have a shortage of pilots here at Ryanair. We have 4,200 pilots.”

Why is Mr O’Leary so adamant that pilots have nothing to do with the debacle in which Ryanair has cancelled 50 flights a day for the next six weeks?

Somebody should let him in on the secret. There is a global shortage of pilots. The shortage is affecting particular geographic spheres such as North America and Asia, but pilots, as you can imagine, are highly mobile.

In July, CNN reported on the shortage. “Horizon Air, the regional arm of Alaska Airlines, said it was cancelling 6% of its schedule — more than 300 flights — from August to September because it doesn’t have the pilots,” said CNN.

It also mentioned another airline, Republic Airways, which filed for bankruptcy in part because it was “grounding aircraft due to a lack of pilot resources”.

Yesterday, this newspaper reported that Boeing is predicting the requirement of 637,000 new pilots by 2036.

As far back as 2013, the Wall Street Journal was reporting that “China is snapping up the world’s supply of senior pilots, contributing to a global shortage and creating headwinds for Asia’s fast-expanding airlines”.

So why is a captain of the industry like Mickser not in on the secret?

Perhaps he just wants to play down the situation because pilot attrition might be one of the principle reasons he finds himself in the current mess. Surely not?

Norwegian Air claims 140 pilots have left Ryanair to join its expanding company in the last year. Two weeks ago, the company announced it is setting up a base in Dublin.

Other pilots are understood to have left for the Middle East and Asia, where the heightened demand is being met with the offer of tax-friendly incentives.

It is unknown how many pilots may be currently serving out their notice — which is typically three months for pilots — with the airline.

For obvious reasons, Ryanair has no intention of revealing how many pilots it has lost in recent times. But if one accepts that there is tightening in the labour market for pilots, then it follows that pilots are in a position to be more choosy about who they work for, and levels of remuneration.

For a long time, the market in pilots favoured Ryanair. After 9/11 the global airline industry went into recession. Ryanair, to its credit, bucked the trend and provided expanding opportunities for pilots while other airlines folded. Then in 2008, another recession, another chance for the budget airline to make hay and it did just that. Ryanair thrived.

All of which meant it was easy for the airline to recruit, and generally retain, pilots. Not that the pilots were thrilled to be working under the prevailing culture as defined by O’Leary.

Down through the years there have been myriad stories about disgruntled pilots of one sort or another. There have been trips to the High Court to sort out various conflicts between individual pilots and the airline. Nobody would ever claim that Ryanair pilots were a happy bunch of campers.

One pilot who spoke to the Irish Examiner this week claimed the culture that is fostered is one of fear.

“It’s the same with the cabin crew,” he said. “They are under serious pressure to sell, or else they won’t get their base (home airport) of choice. The base thing is held over us also. If you want to live with your family in one place you can’t afford to voice any issues you might have.”

The pilot said there is a “divide and conquer” approach by management. The 4,200 pilots are spread across 86 bases so the opportunities to organise are limited. Ryanair has long been opposed to trade unions having any input into the organisation.

Pilots are employed generally on five-year contracts. Most of the Irish-based pilots have their contracts up for renewal on March 31, yet no new contract has yet been put on the table.

While the basic remuneration isn’t too different from across the industry, many of the complaints concern the whole attitude to pilots in Ryanair.

“It’s about the treatment at work,” the pilot said. “Even those who’ve left for Norwegian Air. That company doesn’t pay much more but you’re treated in a different way there.”

The pilot we spoke to emphasised that despite what he describes as an aggressive workplace culture, there is absolutely no skimping on safety.

“It is highly safety conscious, more so than many other airlines in the business,” he said. “And, to be fair, it does give opportunities to young pilots to progress to captain quicker than they might elsewhere. But the treatment at work, the whole attitude, that’s what gets to a lot of us.

He gives as an example the offer of the €12,000 bonus earlier this week to pilots to forego leave. The bonus is payable on October 31, 2018, but contingent on pilots flying 800 hours in the year up to that date.

“There are a whole range of conditions attached to that offer and the company can actually block it. Pilots are rostered so the company can decide whether anybody has the 800 hours needed to qualify for the bonus. If they have some issue with you or just don’t want to give you the bonus they won’t roster you for the hours,” he said.

The picture painted is much the same as accounts from different Ryanair employees down through the years, including both the positive and negative aspects of working for the company.

Things may be changing. If, as seems likely, the balance of power may shift towards the pilots then cultural change will follow.

This week, Ryanair pilots received a missive from a pilot who left the airline three years ago after a failed attempt to get his colleagues to organise. He is now flying for a Chinese airline, “along with a load of other great folks from Ryanair”, he claims in the letter seen by the Irish Examiner.

“The present crisis for Ryanair is, as you already know, a huge opportunity for Ryanair pilots. It would be a horrible shame to miss this opportunity, which has never been seen before and will almost certainly never be again,” he writes.

He goes on to set out what he sees as the best way forward for pilots to assert themselves.

No doubt O’Leary will get his hands on the letter fairly pronto. How he reacts to a changing marketplace for pilots may determine how he manages to negotiate his company out of the straits it now finds itself in.

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