Thursday 16 August 2018

Ryanair cancellations: The truth behind why 2,000 flights are due to be scrapped

Ryanair’s CEO Michael O Leary pictured during a press conference where he addressed the recent Ryanair flight cancellations at Ryanair’s HQ in Dublin.
Ryanair’s CEO Michael O Leary pictured during a press conference where he addressed the recent Ryanair flight cancellations at Ryanair’s HQ in Dublin.
Ryanair’s CEO Michael O Leary pictured during a press conference where he addressed the recent Ryanair flight cancellations at Ryanair’s HQ in Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Ryanair’s CEO Michael O Leary pictured during a press conference where he addressed the recent Ryanair flight cancellations at Ryanair’s HQ in Dublin.
Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary during a press conference in Dublin where he has admitted the cancellation of flights due to pilot holidays is "a mess". Niall Carson/PA Wire

Simon Calder

As passengers seethed about Ryanair’s industrial-scale cancellations, and social media sizzled with rumours about the airline’s staffing and financial health, getting answers from Europe’s biggest airline has proved unusually difficult.

But the picture emerging from a combination of leaked documents, insider accounts and aviation regulations suggests that the airline’s admission “we messed up in the planning of pilot holidays” is an understatement of the problem.

At the root of Europe’s worst-ever case of staff shortage are two factors: annual holidays and Flight Time Limitations (FTLs).

Short-haul aviation in Europe has very heavily pronounced peaks and troughs. Demand between Easter and the beginning of September is much stronger than the rest of the year – and this is also when airlines such as Ryanair make the vast majority of their profits.

Ryanair’s CEO Michael O Leary pictured during a press conference where he addressed the recent Ryanair flight cancellations at Ryanair’s HQ in Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Ryanair’s CEO Michael O Leary pictured during a press conference where he addressed the recent Ryanair flight cancellations at Ryanair’s HQ in Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath

As passengers seethed about Ryanair’s industrial-scale cancellations, and social media sizzled with rumours about the airline’s staffing and financial health, getting answers from Europe’s biggest airline has proved unusually difficult. But the picture emerging from a combination of leaked documents, insider accounts and aviation regulations suggests that the airline’s admission “we messed up in the planning of pilot holidays” is an understatement of the problem.

At the root of Europe’s worst-ever case of staff shortage are two factors: annual holidays and Flight Time Limitations (FTLs).

Short-haul aviation in Europe has very heavily pronounced peaks and troughs. Demand between Easter and the beginning of September is much stronger than the rest of the year – and this is also when airlines such as Ryanair make the vast majority of their profits.

The Independent has seen a letter sent to pilots last Wednesday by Ryanair’s chief operations officer, Michael Hickey. He indicates that the airline has a “healthy overall crewing ratio”, and indeed says that there was actually a surplus of pilots in the peak months of July and August.

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary during a press conference in Dublin where he has admitted the cancellation of flights due to pilot holidays is
Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary during a press conference in Dublin where he has admitted the cancellation of flights due to pilot holidays is "a mess". Niall Carson/PA Wire

The airline must now be wishing it had sent some of them away on holiday. Instead, Mr Hickey is asking pilots to sell back their annual leave. But this has two problems: it may not be legally possible for some of them to work any longer; and there is anger among pilots at the way Ryanair has chosen to implement the change, with far less time off in summer.

A combination of the pilots’ understandable wish to use their holiday rather than lose it; the unbreakable rules on Flight Time Limitations; and an ambitious schedule mean that all the holidays are now bunched into the next six weeks, and Ryanair simply does not have enough staff to operate all the planned 2,200 flights a day.

Whenever any airline runs into difficulties, there is always a surge of rumours about financial or operational problems – often both. Ryanair is so ferociously profitable and cash-rich that it can easily afford to lose up to £100m as a result of botched rostering. So instead the rumours centre on pilots (100? 300? 500?) moving in their droves to Norwegian and/or Jet2.

Both airlines are certainly expanding, and some flight crew have certainly moved on from Ryanair – which, by many young men and women, is seen as a good entry-level opportunity to build flying hours but not a long-term career.

Yet with the winter season just a few weeks away, it would not make sense for large-scale poaching to be happening – most other airlines will shortly be looking around the crew room and wondering why they are paying so many pilots.

Come spring, though, it is possible that rumours could begin to crystallise into reality.

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