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Sunday 17 November 2019

A rare apology from O'Leary has done little to quell the groundswell of dissent

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

Michael O'Leary took to the company's airwaves. "I want to say personally, to each and every one of you who work in Ryanair, I'm sorry for the mess that we have created over the past week over the rosters," he pleaded.

But it's almost certainly too little, too late. The flights fiasco continues, and with pilots already up in arms over working conditions, it appears to be only a matter of days before the headache that has publicly plagued Ryanair for the past week intensifies.

Yesterday, many pilots at 55 of Ryanair's 86 bases across Europe had backed demands for local contracts, benchmarked pay and better working conditions. An ultimatum for a response to those demands by yesterday morning slid by, apparently without any response from the airline.

Behind the scenes, pilots are thought to be mustering a groundswell of support that threatens to overwhelm management. The flight cancellations seen over the past week could be nothing compared to what is to come.

O'Leary said staff had been working "particularly hard" to re-accommodate passengers and provide assistance and refunds.

"I'm sorry we visited this on you," he said. "We are working hard here to try and fix the rostering failure."

He added: "To our pilots, thank you for those of you who have been coming in on your days-off. We didn't understand our rostering numbers were low, and we certainly have mismanaged the allocation of blocks of four weeks' leave to pilots in September and October in particular." He said management was assured during the summer that it had enough pilots.

"It's clear that we didn't have. We don't have enough to be able to allocate leave to everybody during these couple of months."

But it seems that little the Ryanair boss has said over the past week has been able to quell growing unrest.

Pilots view this as the only chance they may ever have to get what they want.

The company was forced into a U-turn by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the UK yesterday. Ryanair confirmed that it would book stranded passengers on other airlines.

Coincidentally, one of Ireland's other global aviation leaders was speaking in Dublin yesterday.

Domhnal Slattery, the chief executive of Dublin-based and now China-owned aircraft leasing firm Avolon, addressed a gathering of corporate bigwigs for an Institute of Directors lunch.

"As Herb Kelleher said, if you treat your employees like kings and queens, imagine how they're going to treat your customer," said Mr Slattery, without referencing Ryanair at all. Herb Kelleher is the founder of Southwest Airlines, the US carrier founded in 1967 that brought low fares to America.

O'Leary visited Kelleher as Ryanair struggled in its early days, and it was still offering the typical services at the time - business class, free newspapers and all the rest.

He saw what Kelleher was doing - stripping out costs and focusing on getting fares as cheap as possible - and came back, as Ryanair chairman David Bonderman told me once, a "co-religionist".

Bonderman's investment firm, TPG, did a survey years ago when it first got involved in the airline business, added the chairman. "It had 25 questions about meal-cart service, being on time and so forth," he said. "Southwest came last in all categories except for fares, which they came in first, and they came in first overall. We took a lesson from that and Michael took a lesson from that. It wasn't that he disrespected his customers. It was that he thought..that what people really cared about... was the fares. Michael was relentlessly focused on that."

But having initiated major changes over the past four years in the way Ryanair interacts with customers, it appears it's O'Leary's own staff who could now be his biggest problem. He has flatly denied that pilots have any grievances, but there's clearly a level of discontent. And throwing money at the issue isn't going to solve it.

O'Leary pledged: "We are working hard here to try and fix the rostering failure, and more importantly to make sure it doesn't happen again."

But there may be worse problems lurking around the corner for the outspoken airline chief.

Irish Independent

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