Friday 23 August 2019

O'Leary holds court over pilots' email that landed them with defamation case

Ryanair boss claimed he was 'shocked' by email questioning airline's honesty and transparency, writes Tim Healy

Michael O’Leary at the Four Courts. Picture: Collins
Michael O’Leary at the Four Courts. Picture: Collins

Tim Healy

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary thought "a stunt" in which a pilots' trade union activist handed him a card outside a Brussels hotel where there had been a 30th birthday party for the airline "seemed totally pointless".

It was a birthday card on behalf of the Ryanair Pilot Group (RPG) given to him by KLM pilot Evert Van Zwol, one of three founders of the RPG, which was set up in 2011 to organise and represent the low-cost airline's pilots.

Captain Van Zwol is being sued for defamation by the airline, along with former Ryanair pilot John Goss and retired Aer Lingus pilot Ted Murphy, over a September 12, 2013 email to 2,289 pilots. The 'Pilot Update: what the markets are saying about Ryanair' email falsely inferred, among other things, that the airline misled investors and facilitated insider dealing by management, Ryanair says.

The three pilots deny defamation and say the words in the email do not mean what Ryanair says.

Mr O'Leary spent around four-and-a-half hours in the High Court witness box over two days, most of it being cross-examined by Paul O'Higgins SC, for the three men.

From the outset, Mr O'Higgins made it clear to the jury his clients were not, and had not in their email, suggested any impropriety on Ryanair's behalf.

He put it to Mr O'Leary that Ryanair itself was fond of issuing "punchy" public statements. There was "Ryanair-speak" and Mr O'Leary was well known for expressing himself in "colourful and trenchant terms against opponents on a regular basis", Mr O'Higgins suggested.

Mr O'Leary said he was not sure what counsel meant by "Ryanair-speak", but as far as he was concerned the company dealt with staff openly and fairly.

When Mr Van Zwol handed him the card it was a "fleeting" moment, he said. Mr Van Zwol "passed some comment that it was time for Ryanair to deal with the pilots' union". Mr Van Zwol subsequently tweeted about the incident, saying Mr O'Leary was "not overly happy" with the birthday wishes and it was time for Ryanair to "grow up".

So, you had no objection to the birthday card, Mr O'Higgins asked. "It seemed totally pointless," Mr O'Leary replied.

"But you are a stunt man yourself," counsel said and referred to Mr O'Leary turning up with a wreath and an undertaker's outfit to mark the opening of Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport. "Yes, when we are doing publicity, I am liable to do stunts but not when making stock exchange announcements," he said.

Mr O'Leary was puzzled by Mr O'Higgins's concentration on the system of representation for Ryanair pilots when the case was about an email published in 2013. Mr O'Leary expressed "shock and surprise" at it because it was saying his airline misled the market even though transparency and honesty with the market and investors was one of Ryanair's core values.

Mr O'Higgins reminded him that he was "a very intelligent man and one of Ireland's most successful businessman" and he must surely have known that the Ryanair staff system, called 'employee representative committees' (ERCs), did not actually represent most Ryanair pilots.

In order to vote for an ERC, pilots had to be directly employed by the company and some 70pc were on contracts in 2013 through agencies like Brookfield while today it was around 50/50, the court heard.

Mr O'Leary emphasised he had no problem with pilots being members of unions but Ryanair did not have to recognise them. The Supreme Court had backed it up in 2007 by saying that the ERCs fulfilled the role of collective bargaining within the company, he said.

The ERC system had worked for Ryanair pilots because they were among the best paid at €150,000 a year, had "fantastic" five day on/four day off rosters and average flying time of 18 hours a week, he said.

He denied he once described pilots as "overpaid, underworked peacocks" and stressed he had always complimented Ryanair's 4,200 pilots who "work hard and are well paid".

However, he did criticise pilots from other airlines who he described as "competitor pilots". Aer Lingus, in Ryanair's early days, had tried to put his airline out of business with the help of its pilots, he said. The Irish Air Line Pilots Association (IALPA) was actually the Aer Lingus pilots association, he said.

The European Cockpit Association - which Ryanair described in one public statement as the European Cockup Association - was an umbrella body for IALPA-type organisations which were in reality representative bodies for airlines like KLM and British Airways, he said.

As for the RPG, it was made up mostly of non-Ryanair pilots, he added.

Was it not the case that most Ryanair pilots believed it was "more than their jobs were worth" to be identified as being part of the RPG, counsel asked. That was not true either, Mr O'Leary said, and claims that Ryanair pilots "live in fear" were being made mainly by pilots in a union of competing airlines "masquerading as the RPG", he said.

John Goss had put his head above the parapet and the result was he was dismissed while Ryanair had brought separate legal proceedings against him over public comments he made about safety standards, Mr O'Higgins said.

He was dismissed for gross misconduct after making statements to the Channel 4 Dispatches programme on Ryanair safety even though a short time earlier he had confirmed to the company he had no problem with its safety regime, Mr O'Leary said.

"While they [RPG] are making birthday cards, Ryanair pilots were negotiating directly on pay and conditions," he said. The proof that the ERC system worked was seen in that Ryanair pilots were the envy of Europe in terms of pay, conditions and job security, he said.

He disagreed that Ryanair was "apt to bring out the big guns" against opponents in litigation and otherwise.

Did the airline not, for a long time, try to prevent pilots raising issues such as safety?

"Absolutely not, that could not be further from the truth," he said. Not only was there an extensive internal Ryanair system of safety reporting, there was the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) reporting system.

Mr O'Leary said safety was not an issue to raise through third parties when the legal obligation was to report through the IAA system which is anonymous.

The trial goes into its third week with evidence expected from the defendants.

Sunday Independent

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