Sunday 20 October 2019

Charities in the money as Aer Lingus seeks to shift blame for PR disaster of its own making

The airline may have said sorry for its memo accusing staff of stealing, but it still wants the messenger shot, writes Fearghal O'Connor

Aer Lingus. Stock picture
Aer Lingus. Stock picture

Fearghal O'Connor

Two of Ireland's most deserving charities have received a welcome pre-Christmas boost after Aer Lingus donated money to make up for its accusations that some of its staff were stealing from passengers, colleagues and the airline.

But despite being forced into an apology of sorts after a stormy meeting with trade unions - at which management's actions were heavily criticised - the carrier was still attempting this weekend to pass the blame for its own PR disaster.

In an unprecedented move, Aer Lingus is to pay €25,000 to Pieta House and Focus Ireland to placate staff outraged about an internal memo penned by chief operating officer Mike Rutter in which he wrote that law enforcement had been brought into the airline "as guest property and company stock losses remain at levels significantly above the industry norms".

In a 'shoot the messenger'- style press release last Friday worthy of Donald Trump's White House, management claimed that reporting of the memo by the Sunday Independent had been "misleading", despite the fact that last Sunday's article and headline were entirely based on the content of Rutter's memo and that the airline had not subsequently raised any direct concerns with this newspaper.

But within hours of releasing a grovelling and disingenuous statement to the wider media, the carrier had already backtracked even further. In a second statement that went only to this newspaper, Aer Lingus outlined that its only cause for concern with the reporting of Rutter's memo was the headline, not the content of the article.

The headline last Sunday read "Aer Lingus chief says staff stealing 'many millions'", accurately summing up what Rutter had claimed in his memo, with full context provided in the article itself.

Not surprisingly, many Aer Lingus staff were outraged by the contents of Rutter's memo.

Neither Rutter nor Aer Lingus has yet publicly backed up his series of claims about theft at the airline with any evidence or data. Despite last Friday's apology by the airline, staff have yet to receive an explanation as to why he wrote and distributed the incendiary memo about which the airline's chief executive has now been forced to apologise.

At a sometimes hostile meeting with trade union leaders last Thursday evening, management had claimed that it had had no contact from the Sunday Independent prior to publication of the details of Rutter's memo. But this newspaper had in fact spoken to the Aer Lingus press office two days before the story appeared, to confirm the content of the memo. The press office had followed up that initial phone call with an email on the matter a short time later confirming that Rutter had written the memo.

Sources told this newspaper that, in last Thursday's "heated" meeting, the divisional organiser of Siptu's aviation section, Greg Ennis, told chief executive Stephen Kavanagh that "you and your minions caused this debacle" by putting out "a generic notice that could be read into in 10 different ways".

Staff representatives were told that the only member of Aer Lingus management who did not speak during the meeting with unions was Rutter. Ennis told representatives that Rutter had sat at the meeting with his head down. "I believe he'd got the kicking he deserved," Ennis told the meeting, according to sources.

But the Siptu leadership also faced intense criticism itself from shop stewards and airport workers as to why it had responded so meekly when Rutter first issued the controversial memo in November, which had followed earlier accusations by management that some staff were interfering with company equipment at Dublin Airport.

When the Rutter memo was first released to staff, Siptu privately voiced concern to Aer Lingus over the CCTV and random search threat it contained. But shop stewards and staff told the union they were angry Siptu had not defended them publicly by challenging Rutter's theft claims when he first issued them.

Only after the Sunday Independent reported the contents of the memo issued by Rutter did Siptu put out a statement describing the claims as "outrageous" and a "blanket character assassination".

Despite since failing to outline any evidence for Rutter's original claims or its inability to point out any inaccurate details in the subsequent newspaper report, an airline spokesperson said it was unable to retract its claim that the article was "misleading" because it had agreed the wording of that company statement with its trade unions.

Sunday Independent

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