Ryanair Has Really Created a Mess For Itself


In the last month, Ryanair has greatly tarnished its image as a reliable operator thanks to a pilot vacation-scheduling snafu. It’s been quite the black eye for an airline that has run such a consistently good operation for so long, and it’s even more frustrating, because so much of the damage was self-inflicted. As I was scanning through Ryanair’s press releases, it dawned on me that the story could really be told by reading between the lines (and between the releases) of the airline’s relatively frequent communications surrounding this issue. So I thought I’d do that today.

It started on September 15 with Ryanair saying it needed to cancel flights to improve its on-time performance. “Less than 2%” may not sound like a lot, and that’s clearly by design. For an airline with more than 2,500 daily flights, that really is a whole lot of passengers.

At first blush, Ryanair made it sound like the perfect storm had come together to hurt the airline’s operation:

…a combination of ATC capacity delays and strikes, weather disruptions and the impact of increased holiday allocations to pilots and cabin crew as the airline moves to allocate annual leave during a 9 month transition period (April to December 2017) to move the airline’s holiday year (currently April to March) to a calendar year (Jan to Dec) from 1st January 2018 onwards.

Trying to blame things beyond Ryanair’s control didn’t last long.

Ryanair Publishes List Of Flights To Be Cancelled Up To End Of October – Over 98% Of Ryanair Customers Will Be Unaffected – (September 18, 2017)
A mere three days later, the story had changed. Oh sure, the airline had still canceled less than 2 percent of flights and this would only go through October 31, but it was no longer a confluence of factors. It was common knowledge that Norwegian and others had taken pilots from Ryanair with promises of long-haul flying on shiny, big airplanes, but was that really the culprit? Ryanair fired back sharply with this quote from Michael O’Leary.

Ryanair is not short of pilots – we were able to fully crew our peak summer schedule in June, July and August – but we have messed up the allocation of annual leave to pilots in Sept and Oct because we are trying to allocate a full year’s leave into a 9 month period from April to December. This issue will not recur in 2018 as Ryanair goes back onto a 12 month calendar leave year from 1st Jan to 31st December 2018. This is a mess of our own making.

There’s that pesky vacation problem again, but suddenly it had taken center stage as the heart of the issue. In short, Ryanair used to allocate leave for the year beginning in April. A change in government rules required the airline to move to a calendar year schedule starting in January. To do this, 2017 had to be a transition year where leave was compressed in the 9 months from April through December. It had apparently flown its pilots hard until September and then must have realized it was screwed. There wasn’t enough pilot time to fly the September and October schedule and still give the pilots time off as required.

Beginning in November, Ryanair would move to its winter schedule where less flying was on the docket, so it felt it could handle things after that point.

Ryanair Cancellations – Update (September 20, 2017)
Two days later, Ryanair admitted that 315,000 customers were impacted. When put that way, it sounded a lot more massive than the “less than 2%” figure. This was no tiny issue, but Ryanair seemed confident in its plan to ensure this problem got no worse.

At Ryanair’s annual meeting on September 21, CEO Michael O’Leary made it clear with his usual bluster that pilots wouldn’t be a problem. At the meeting, O’Leary made no friends in the cockpit when he said pilots didn’t have a difficult job and he could force them to defer their leave if needed. He then said he’d dangled incentives in front of them, but if they were to “misbehave” then they would have those incentives taken away.

The reality of the situation is that many pilots were willing to play ball… until O’Leary pissed them off. Pilots are used to O’Leary’s ramblings, but this was like lightning in a bottle. It provided a rallying cry that would only make management’s job more difficult. Yet Ryanair’s press releases made it look like all was well.

Cancellations & Punctuality – Update (September 25, 2017)
A week after 315,000 customers were first notified, 97 percent had been reaccommodated or refunded while the rest had yet to respond to the airline. On-time performance was up, cancellations were down. Maybe the pilot storm had blown over. The worst was over…

Ryanair To End Rostering Cancellations By Slowing Growth This Winter (September 27, 2017)
… except it wasn’t. Ryanair said it would have no trouble past October. It either lied or it still hadn’t gotten a hold of the extent of its problems. Neither inspires confidence.

Just two days after putting out that last glowing update, Ryanair rolled out more cuts well beyond October. For November through March, Ryanair decided to ground an additional 25 airplanes (out of 400). Then in April it would still hold back 10 airplanes.

This update was interesting, because the airline made it sound like there still was no pilot recruitment issue, yet it announced a €10,000 raise for Captains and €5,000 for First Officers at four of its bases. (Ryanair pilots aren’t unionized but have a limited form of representation on the base level.)

It also raised questions about the airline’s ability to handle this whole vacation issue. Incredibly, about 50 percent of Ryanair’s pilots had to take a month off between September and December, and the airline was caught completely flat-footed. In fact, it moved its pilot scheduling efforts to go under its Chief People Officer, an admission that it wasn’t properly set up to handle this function.

Ryanair Explains How And When It Will Re-Route Customers Affected By Flight Cancellations (September 29, 2017)
Ryanair Responds Fully To CAR (& CAA) Requirements To Clarify Customer Entitlements During Cancellations (September 29, 2017)
Ryanair had been working hard to minimize the cost of rebooking people, but it was getting hammered over this from travelers and governments. So, it started to soften. Ryanair had already announced it would give coupons to people impacted by the cancellations, but on September 29 it made it known that options were just a) take another Ryanair flight or b) take a refund. It agreed to put passengers on other airlines, trains, buses, or even in a car if needed.

At the same time, Ryanair had to address the fact that people didn’t seem clear on their EU261 rights. EU261 is a law that provides compensation for travelers when travel plans are disrupted. Regulators felt Ryanair wasn’t being clear about people’s rights, trying to skirt around having to pay out. If that was a strategy, it didn’t work.

Cancellations & Punctuality – Update (October 2, 2017)
And then all was quiet for a few days. When Ryanair did resurface to talk about its problems again, it was good news. The operation was holding up and no further cancellations were needed. But while things seemed to calm down on the surface, anger was boiling over with the pilots. To try and address this, Ryanair changed its tune dramatically.

On October 5, O’Leary sent a note to the pilots in which he actually, seriously, apologized. Shocking, I know. But even beyond that, he announced improvement to pilot pay and working conditions. O’Leary hoped that this would quell the rebellion, but it didn’t.

Schedule Changes & Punctuality – Update (October 9, 2017)
Another week went by with no bad news. With things stabilizing in the operation, you’d think all was well. It wasn’t.

The pilots, still seething with anger, moved toward organizing. The airline has employee councils at each of its 80+ bases, and it deals with them individually. That sounds like a lot of work, but it prevents the entire pilot base from forming a united bloc. Now, the pilots moved toward something bigger.

Just yesterday, a newly-formed pan-European council put out a list of demands. For its part, Ryanair refused to meet with or even recognize this new super council.

Some expected that Michael O’Leary could lose his job over all this, but so far, that seems highly unlikely. Instead, the airline’s Chief Operating Officer Michael Hickey resigned yesterday.

Presumably this is meant to try to keep the critics at bay, but Ryanair has really stepped in it this time. Customers have lost confidence since the cancellations were dragged out over time. This will eventually be forgotten, but the damage done to pilot relationships may not disappear as quickly. Ryanair has failed to placate its people with its efforts so far. It’s going to have to do better or this is likely to continue to drag on.

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16 comments on “Ryanair Has Really Created a Mess For Itself

  1. Ryanair is simply facing the same pilot shortage that most of the rest of the world is facing and their business practices of keeping costs down make the company a fairly low priority company for new pilots even in the EU where the system is more stacked in favor of the airlines’ than in the US.

    Ryanair’s problems also highlight that low cost carriers require very high levels of operational reliability in order to generate their margins. Pilot shortages very quickly start messing w/ their profitability – which Ryanair hasn’t yet addressed – because the cost of cancelling flights in the EU is much higher than in the US.

    Add in that O’Leary has been a lightning rod on many issues for years and Ryanair is now having to work through a very real-world problem where a lot of other interests are driving and will drive the outcome.

    another good article on foreign airlines that don’t often get discussed a lot in the US

  2. Excellent run-down – thanks.

    What I don’t understand is how their senior management – not just the COO – missed this coming. The change in the calculation of the year was well known for a long time (over a year?) There must have been lots of red flags being missed. Crew Planning / Crew Scheduling, Finance & Accounting, H.R. and Route Planning must have ignored the warning signs.

    Perhaps more people need to fall on their swords?

  3. I heard on KCBS radio this morning on the way to MRY that the Ryanair pilots were getting some sort of assistance from their counterparts at our Southwest Airlines. What’s that all about? Thanks.

    Patrick Dee

  4. i have no sympathy for a company that prohibits their employees from charging their cell phones at work, or tells them that they must bring in their own pens and pencils from home…or wants to charge the passengers to use the lav inflight

    1. You believe in “fake news”? Since bad publicity works almost as well as good publicity MO’L came up with many outrageous ideas, such as “stand upright seating” and even charges to use the toilet – simply to gain notoriety. He got good value for his money!

  5. Why would a government rule require the airline to move to a calendar year for scheduling? Since when would a government try and control a businesses employee schedule?

    1. It’s similar to the FAA regulating how many hours per day, week, month or year they can work here.

      However, with pilots moving from one company to another, and each one having different fiscal years, it was possible for pilots to exceed the hours limitations – hence the need to regulate it.

    2. It’s a European thing. The only (or one of the few) countries that started the year in April, was Ireland. They now changed that to the general 1st of January rule that the rest is using. For the rest of the explanation, see the other reply :)

  6. > about 50 percent of Ryanair’s pilots had to take a month off between September and December,

    Wow, just wow. Losing an average of 12.5% of your most important workforce contingent for 4 full months doesn’t seem to equate to “only” cancelling 2% of flights, that’s huge. We all make mistakes, but how this managed to get through umpteen managers at Ryanair (not to mention the pilots who probably saw it coming and mentioned it up the chain, or pilots who tried to take their leave earlier in the year and were denied) will be a fun one to untangle.

    I’m sure a business school professor is already writing a HBS case study on this whole episode.

  7. Having done large industrial scheduling, and also having gone through a vacation period adjustment from fiscal year to calendar year, I can tell you exactly how this happened. In all likelihood, a year or more before the implementation date, the scheduling people went to company executives and told them they would have to modify schedules for certain months or quarters, offer fewer flights and slimmed down timetables, in order to meet intense vacation demands. Corporate execs were likely horrified at the idea of fewer flights, a reduced schedule and lower profits. The schedulers were told nothing would change, and to conduct business as usual. Instead of being proactive in lobbying pilots to take their time off, they were told to just deal with it. As operations scheduled flights, schedulers had to schedule crews. Warnings from schedulers about the coming bottleneck probably went unheeded. Until it hit the fan. Yes, this was Ryanair’s fault. But if corporate execs were presented with the problem and potential solution far in advance, as good schedulers would have done, than those same execs need to hit the road.

    1. David,

      I’d put good money on your version of events at Ryanair. As with politicians, it is often easier for management to kick the problem down the road than to acknowledge and deal with it immediately (and deal with the resulting fallout from shareholders for the impact on profits, and the resulting impact on management’s bonuses).

      Thus Ryanair management got burned, and I’m sure that they are in the process of scapegoating the same schedulers and scheduler managers who raised the alarm months ago.

  8. I’m really confused. Many articles said pilots had to take a year’s worth of vacation in 4 months. Couldn’t they solve this by prorating the vacation time (e.g. give a third of a year’s vacay, not a full year)? One would think this would be easy to do given there’s no collective bargaining. Are the pilots actually forced to take vacation or can they continue working? And if it’s PTO, who’s footing the bill?

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