Saturday 16 February 2019

'I think the tone at Ryanair has gone very miserable' - the airline's chief operations officer admits

New operations boss admits staff are miserable, writes John Mulligan

In recording obtained exclusively by the Irish Independent, Ryanair’s new chief operations officer, Peter Bellew (pictured), has insisted he’s on a mission to make the airline a “tremendous” place to work again.
In recording obtained exclusively by the Irish Independent, Ryanair’s new chief operations officer, Peter Bellew (pictured), has insisted he’s on a mission to make the airline a “tremendous” place to work again.
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

Ryanair “grew too fast”, had a culture where people were discouraged from raising issues, and has become “miserable”, even at head office, the airline’s executives have told pilots.

But in a recording obtained exclusively by the Irish Independent, Ryanair’s new chief operations officer, Peter Bellew, has insisted he’s on a mission to make the airline a “tremendous” place to work again.

“I do think we can fix it,” he told Ryanair pilots at the airline’s biggest base, London Stansted, last Thursday. The meeting was just the day before Ryanair dramatically announced that it will recognise trade unions. Ryanair’s chief people officer, Eddie Wilson, was also at the meeting.

“I think Ryanair is going to be a tremendous place to work,” said Mr Bellew, who rejoined Ryanair this month after serving as chief executive of Malaysia Airlines. “I think it’s been a great place to work in the past. I think the tone has gone very miserable. That’s the way I would see it, even in our head office. Everybody is very wounded by this.”

Mr Bellew also said the airline needed to start treating people “like normal human beings”.

Ryanair has agreed to recognise unions following months of turmoil precipitated by a pilot rostering debacle that saw the airline, headed by chief executive Michael O’Leary, cancel thousands of flights.

Peter Bellew left Malaysia Airlines to take up a job with Ryanair. Photo: Bloomberg
Peter Bellew left Malaysia Airlines to take up a job with Ryanair. Photo: Bloomberg

Mr Bellew (52) conceded the situation between pilots and the airline was “very inflamed” and “very tense”, with strikes in Dublin, Portugal and Italy still set to proceed by last Thursday.

The strikes have now been called off, with tomorrow’s planned strike at Dublin cancelled pending the outcome of initial talks this evening between Ryanair management and trade union Impact.

Mr Bellew, from Bettystown in Co Meath, called for calm and was conciliatory in his remarks to pilots, and said the situation had become “far too adversarial”.

“It’s a time for cool, calm heads,” he told them, adding that his biggest concern right now is trying to get pilots to remain at the company. He acknowledged that people at the airline are “really pissed off”.

He described a litany of administrative failures at the company, which he said had contributed to the rock-bottom morale and the September rostering crisis that prompted a demand from pilots for collective bargaining rights and better work conditions.

“It seems that there was a culture that people who knew there was a problem...that they were not listened to, or they were actively discouraged from even raising the issue any further,” he said.

“Basic, basic, basic things that had been operated here for many years just were thrown in the basement.”

Read more: Ryanair's market cap fall hits €2bn as union talks loom

The culture was one where pilots could not get answers in many cases to simple requests.

“Everywhere I turned, I could see that people were asking for small things to be done and they just weren’t getting done,” added Mr Bellew. “Or, not only were they not getting done, they were getting told: ‘Piss off; I don’t want to know about this’.”

The stark admissions from the executive team lay bare an airline that found itself at the centre of a corporate nightmare in September when its rostering function imploded. The failure thrust the company into the global media spotlight.

Mr Bellew said the blame lay with administrative and operational failures, and that it could never be allowed to happen again. He also said the airline is “open” to a new system of pilot representation.

“Believe me, Michael O’Leary – it’s his biggest focus at the moment,” the executive told pilots. “And it will be, and the board’s as well. This has got primary attention. We won’t let this happen again.”

He insisted that Mr O’Leary – who has been notably absent from the media in recent weeks – wanted to meet pilots to discuss the current situation, and asked as recently as last Tuesday when he could do it.

But Mr Wilson said Mr O’Leary has been cautious because he claimed his comments in public, regarding pilots for instance, are taken out of context. He also said Mr O’Leary would admit that Ryanair lost focus.

“He does recognise, and of course the board recognises that, that we did take our eye off the ball...The reason we’re in the trouble we’re in...is that we grew too fast,” Mr Wilson told pilots.

He also said that treatment needed to include “a certain softness and a kindness that we had at a point, but we seem to have lost”.

Mr Bellew said he now sets the tone of the company.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of craic, and a bit of fun and everybody getting on well together,” said Mr Bellew. “So we have to return to that, change the tone of the way we’re all working together.”

He also said the airline had not even bothered to try to persuade pilots who were leaving the airline to stay.

He said: “Traditionally in the past, where people were leaving, we would have always have contacted them, or we would have known in advance, and say, ‘why are you leaving?’ We’d sort them out and they’d often retract their resignation.

“There appears to have been little or no effort, and that senior management had told people not to contact people, and had actively discouraged trying to retain people.”

He said that “a lot” of the airline’s co-pilots handed in their resignations a couple of weeks ago, and that many of them had left because simple issues hadn’t been addressed or resolved. But the executive said that problems at Ryanair are being fixed.

“A huge amount of work has taken place and a huge amount of work is required to take place. It will take at least six months to get all the basic admin back in place. I can’t come with a magic wand,” he warned.

“We’re increasing the number of staff that are in different functions, but they’re going to have to be trained up. They’re going to have to learn what they’re doing, and they’re going to have to put back in some of the culture and processes that worked in the past.

“There’s a very basic lack of trust I can sense now from the pilots. We have to work very hard to restore that. I don’t expect people to accept that overnight. I think we have to fix things every week over the six months, nine months, 12 months, and then you will believe in us again.”

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