Monday 22 October 2018

How a week from hell has grounded an embattled Ryanair

Crises averted for now - but fresh battles loom in 2018

Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary Photo: Bloomberg
Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary Photo: Bloomberg
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

It was the week from hell for Ryanair.

The past number of days has been nothing short of a pre-Christmas downer for the airline.

Already engaged in a three-month struggle with pilots, and a high-profile defamation case, it was threatened with a strike in Ireland.

Earlier this year, chief executive Michael O’Leary had described pilot unions as a “busted f lush”, and airline union activity in Europe as a “load of b****x”.

But it was the pilots who eventually came up trumps, as Ryanair caved in and said it would not only recognise pilot unions across Europe, but also unions for cabin crew and other workers.

It seemed that things couldn’t get any worse for the embattled airline and Michael O’Leary.

But on Tuesday, the Irish Independent laid bare Ryanair executive Peter Bellew’s own damning assessment of the carrier and some of its work practices.

The chief operations officer – who just rejoined Ryanair this month from Malayisia Airlines, where he was chief executive – described Ryanair as an airline that had grown “too fast”, and whose culture was broken.

“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, speaking to pilots at London Stansted, Ryanair’s biggest base, last week.

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

The culture was one where pilots could not even get answers in many cases to simple requests, Mr Bellew conceded during the meeting that was held just the day before Ryanair said it would recognise trade unions.

“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, leave me alone; I don’t want to know about this’.”

He conceded that the airline hadn’t made efforts to retain pilots who were planning to leave. Instead they’d been told: “There’s the door. Foxtrot Oscar,” a euphemism for “f*** off”.

The same day that the Irish Independent first published Mr Bellew’s comments, Mr O’Leary broke his long media silence. He had stayed out

of the limelight since the airline’s September pilot rostering fiasco.

“This is not a ruse. This is serious,” Mr O‘Leary told news agency Reuters of the airline’s decision to recognise unions, which he added was

“in many respects my idea”.

“But if someone is being unreasonable and we are being completely messed around by a union, we will still move aircraft away from that base or country,” he warned.

Just hours before those comments were published on Tuesday evening, Mr Bellew and Ryanair’s chief people officer, Eddie Wilson, sat down with officials from trade union Impact at a hotel close to Dublin Airport.

Those scheduled talks had averted a planned 24-hour strike last Wednesday by some Ryanair pilots in Ireland. But only a couple of hours after the talks began, the first, and unprecedented, negotiations between the airline and the union shuddered to a halt.

Impact demanded written confirmation from Ryanair that the carrier recognised the union as the legitimate representative of its pilots for collective bargaining purposes. The union gave the airline’s executives a deadline of midday on Thursday to accede to the request.

If it didn’t, the union was prepared to call for strike action again.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, officials from the German pilot union Vereinigung Cockpit (VC) took their seats at the table. But it was a disastrous start to the talks with the airline.

Ryanair was unhappy with some of the members of the union negotiating team, which included pilots who are currently suing the airline.

The pilots are part of the Ryanair company council established under the VC’s union umbrella.

The union said it would not permit Ryanair to dictate who was an acceptable member of the union negotiating team. On Thursday it said its members who are staff members of Ryanair would strike for four hours on Friday, despite the union having agreed to meet Ryanair executives again in early January.

Just as the German union said on Thursday that it planned strike action, Impact said it had received written confirmation from Ryanair that it did in fact recognise the union for collective bargaining purposes.

And as evening rolled around, Ryanair suffered another body blow. It lost a long-running defamation case following an expensive High Court trial that had lasted seven weeks. Ryanair brought its case against three men who are members of the Ryanair Pilot Group (RPG) interim council, as publishers of a contentious email update which went to 2,289 Ryanair pilots back in 2013.

The case had heard evidence from Mr O’Leary and other Ryanair executives, as well as the three defendants, Evert Van Zwol, John Goss and Ted Murphy. Ryanair has insisted it intends to appeal the verdict in the case. It brought to an end a frenetic week for the airline.

But it continues to face huge challenges in 2018, negotiating with unions in countries including Ireland, Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal.

The next 12 months will test both sides’ mettle even further.

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