Ryanair is confronted with an unprecedented mobilisation of its pilots exceeded by its management methods, just one month after the protests of its passengers upset by a wave of cancellations.
The sudden cancellation of thousands of flights by the low-cost airline announced in September caused an uproar. It is also a symptom of the less noisy but persistent malaise of the flight crews of the leading European carrier.
In a company that does not recognise any union, many pilots have stormed social networks in recent weeks to share their rancour towards a management accused of contempt and they call for dialogue. AFP has contacted several pilots, working at Ryanair or recently gone under other skies thanks to a surge in global demand for airmen. “There is clearly a haemorrhage of pilots, they are leaving because they are exhausted from being treated as numbers,” an anonymous Ryanair co-pilot told AFP recently for another company, denouncing “a regime of terror on the part of management“.
The CEO of the Irish company, the controversial Michael O’Leary, has put the flight cancellations on the account of a problem of holiday schedules. But according to this co-pilot, “the problem was brewing and a simple spark set fire to the powder“.
Asked by AFP, the management of the company denies “false accusations” and emphasizes that representatives are elected in the 86 Ryanair bases of its network, in order to be able to negotiate “without fear” of reprisals.
However, the use of these Staff Representation Committees (ERCs) as exclusive interlocutors of the management is strongly contested. The pilots active on the Aviation Professionals Unite website claim to have sent Ryanair’s boss a letter from 60 ERCs calling for the creation of a pan-European body representing all the pilots. The management denounces on this subject “an anonymous letter, sent by the unions of the pilots of our competitors“.
On the merits, Ryanair says it has put on the table an improvement in compensation of several thousand euros annually that will allow its pilots to earn “20% more than those of competitors” Jet2 and Norwegian.
But beyond the salary, the airmen insist on the difficult working conditions and the labour relations at Ryanair.
“The problem does not arise in financial terms, for most pilots, it is especially that the system generates fatigue and demotivation“, explains to AFP an experienced pilot of Ryanair, who earns 5,400 euros net per month. Two of the ERCs consulted on pay increases, including the large Stansted base in North London, have rejected management’s proposals.
Like others, this captain denounces a two-level system for the 4,000 pilots: on the one hand those directly hired by the company with contracts of the country where they are based, on the other hand, those working as self-employed entrepreneurs via a multitude of small ad-hoc legal structures under Irish law. Ryanair emphasises it is doing “exactly the same” as its low-cost competitors on this issue, but this captain sees this as a “social barbarity” that thrives “on the grey areas of the European system“. He notes that the second category of pilots is not entitled to the health and retirement protection offered to employees. “I saw tired, sick guys taking the controls of the plane,” he says, a charge strongly denied by the company: no one “ill in command“, no one “lost money in case of sick leave“.
Beyond that, the many pilots who have talked to AFP all say that management is hated by employees, whether they are pilots, hostesses, ground staff or administrative staff. “At Ryanair, you’re just a cost,” says a former captain, who recently flew to a competitor, saying he was “proud again” of the job he’s now doing elsewhere.
The pilots who testify use anonymity, but Imelda Comer, a Dublin-based flight captain who left Ryanair after ten years of service, was an exception in proposing to act as an interlocutor to unblock the situation. “The offers you have made (…) have not been negotiated with anyone, they do not respond to the concerns of pilots, they cause confusion and do not cover all Ryanair pilots,” she wrote to Michael O’Leary. Management said it would not respond to “letters from a departing pilot“.
Thursday the European Cockpit Association also launched a crowdfunding campaign to support pilots who speak up in airlines with no staff representation.
According to Christophe Tharot, president of the National Union of airline pilots in France, the use of anonymity proves that social relations remain particularly hard at Ryanair. “The pilots feel harassed, potentially worried,” he says, referring to a system based on “pressure and omerta“.
With the regular and “colossal” turnover of its workforce, the thirty-year-old company “is clearly at a turning point in its existence,” said the union leader. “All the pilots are free to leave Ryanair if they wish,” retorts the company. “We have recruited 910 drivers since the beginning of 2017 and we have 2,500 qualified pilots on the waiting list to join us,” says Ryanair, which assures it is ready for the future.
Ryanair has just rehired its former top manager Peter Bellew, who has been running Malaysia Airlines for a few years. As Director of Operations, he will “lead a significant transformation in the way we reward pilots and improve their work environment,” O’Leary said.
This is a way to recognise the existence of a problem, for this peremptory boss but who has not hesitated in the past to change course. This quality could, in any case, be useful to him for the good functioning and the future of his company.
Belgian Ryanair pilots are considering strike actions
Action plans are also circulating in Belgium. “We’re ready,” says a Ryanair pilot at Charleroi, which is considered as a rebel base in the Irish headquarters. “Actions are very realistic.” Others are more cautious. “We’ve been in Ryanair for two years now,” says an insider at Brussels Airport. “But it’s the last step that will never be taken.”
The 200 Ryanair pilots in Brussels and Charleroi are weak. “In Belgium, we have no weapons“, the pilot realises. “We can only report sick to us and that’s what everyone will do.”
Possibly, Belgian pilots may get help from abroad. The British Pilot Union has asked its members yesterday whether they want to take legal actions for better rights. Italian unions recently announced that the unionised cabin crews and pilots wanted to quit this afternoon between 14:00 and 18:00. The action may impact other Ryanair bases.
“If Ryanair hits the pilots in Italy, there will be consequences throughout Europe“. But Ryanair is not impressed. “It’s been for the fifth time that Italian unions announce a strike and then cancel.”
A collective action would be a first for Ryanair. The flamboyant topman Michael O’Leary does not hide his hate for trade unions. The company proposes a Staff Representation Committees (ERC) with little power in every base. But this summer, Ryanair’s success model was rocked on its foundations due to a pilot shortage with experienced pilots fleeing to better-paying competitors, even though the Irish budget flyer denies that. That’s why Ryanair was forced to delete thousands of flights. The measure struck hundreds of thousands of travellers.
Because of the sudden holiday chaos, the pilots smoke their chance. The staff have been complaining about the bad working conditions for years. Especially the situation of freelancers, who make up more than half of the Ryanair pilots in Belgium, is downright. They often work on a zero-hour basis, not being paid when they are on the ground. Drinks and snacks on the plane must be paid by themselves.
To protest against this situation, pilots recently set up the European Employee Representative Council (EERC). Ryanair, who refuses any conversation with that collective, hoped to damp the revolt by providing a wage increase to pilots on the largest bases of Dublin and London Stansted, which together deliver more than half of all pilots. But a majority of London pilots voted against the proposal last week.
Source: AFP, RTBF, De Tijd