Ryanair pilots are apoplectic with the airline's chief executive Michael O'Leary.
How can he say they are “very well paid for doing what is a very easy job” or question how “anybody who by law cannot fly more than 18 hours a week could possibly be suffering from fatigue”, they ask.
Do the sums, they suggest; look at the actual hours they work, not the “block hours” that cover the time from when the plane leaves a terminal at one airport and arrives at the terminal at another.
“It frustrates us so much that the CEO is dragging us through the dirt,” said one pilot. “We have refused all the money deals they have offered us,” he said, referring to bonuses of up to €12,000 O’Leary is offering to buy back annual leave or the €10,000 a year to stop them joining rival airlines.
“It is not about the money. We just want decent working conditions. We just want normal contracts . . . He is making us out to be money wolves.”
No pilot who spoke to The Irish Times was willing to be identified, fearing retribution from the airline for speaking out.
Pilots see the holiday problem at Ryanair – which has led to the cancellation of about 50 flights a day for the next six weeks and the disruption to more than 350,000 passengers – as a red herring.
In their view, the airline knew well in advance of the regulatory change in the April 1st-March 31st rostering year to the January 1st-December 31st calendar that squeezed available pilot leave into a short period, leading to pilot shortages and the flight cancellations.
The abundance of pilots kept this problem at bay in the past, but Ryanair has been losing pilots to rivals. And the airline’s treatment of its pilots is at the core of this crisis, the pilots argue.
The majority of Ryanair's pilots are on contracts, meaning that they have to pay their own social insurance which, in countries such as Belgium and Germany, can be very expensive.
Pilots must also pay for other expenses, such as hotels, car parking and uniforms, that most other airlines cover. In addition, pilots are deducted €4.50 from every block hour they are paid to cover the cost of their annual training with Ryanair. In one of the few perks, Ryanair pilots who are employees of the company receive six discounted flights a year.
For employees, captains receive a basic salary of between €55,000 and €65,000 plus €38 per flying hour, according to figures provided by a pilot. First officers receive €25,000-€27,000 plus about €32 per flying hour.
It is different for contractors. Captains earn €125-€165 for every block hour, while first officers earn between €35 and €90 for every block hour.
So a captain on, say, €145 per block hour – minus the €4.50 per hour for training – would earn a gross salary of €126,450 if they flew the limit of 900 hours a year before all their costs and taxes. The upper limit for a captain – €165 per hour – would provide a gross payment of €144,450 a year before all of these expenses.
For trainee pilots covering debts from past pilot training and the cost of further training from Ryanair, their financial position can be extremely tight.
Pilots also take issue with O'Leary's "fatigue" claim. They work much longer hours than 18 a week, they say. O'Leary, they argue, is taking account of only block hours – the hours when the aircraft is in motion. They are limited to 900 a year so it's roughly 18 a week when divided by 52. He is not counting the hours pilots spend completing paperwork, working through weather delays or commuting across Europe to Ryanair hubs.
“The use of contractors serves to facilitate the divide-and-conquer tactics that are used to manipulate employees’ working practices and suppress unity and the potential for unionisation or an effective representation system,” said one pilot.
“Historically, people have been divided on any number of criteria: rank, base, country of base, contractor versus employee.”
The stress on pilots can be a strain. “The company are very shrewd and media savvy,” said the pilot. “They would not overall state anything that could be construed as having a safety impact. But the insidious pressure is there.”
The existence of Ryanair's "divide-and-conquer" strategy was backed up by Jim Atkinson, a Ryanair captain who worked at the airline from 2006 to 2014, in an article he wrote for the Guardian this week.
The underlying problem at Ryanair, he said, was “the company cannot replace pilots as fast as they quit”. It is, unsurprisingly, a view that O’Leary does not share.
Angry pilots fired off another letter on Friday making various demands, but top of their list was permanent local contracts that follow national laws and rights. They were particularly furious at O’Leary’s comments to the media about them at the previous day’s agm.
“We do not understand why Ryanair management sees us as the enemy when we are actually colleagues,” they said. “Management should be ashamed of themselves . . . What you say at press conferences is a disgrace to all employees and contractors.”
Ryanair responded to questions from The Irish Times about the treatment of its pilots with one line: "Our position regarding pilots was fully outlined at the agm and the media briefing yesterday."
So, with both sides still at loggerheads, will this be a crisis that pilots will capitalise on where they have failed in the past, making O’Leary’s nightmare of a unionised Ryanair a reality? The Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association thinks so.
“This week we have seen from Ryanair’s pilots that they are together in their call for changes in the way Ryanair employs and treats them,” said a spokesman. “They have given Ryanair a solution to a problem and for once it is not monetary. They are just looking for direct employment and right of representation.”
UK-based aviation expert Julian Bray, who has worked for several airlines, is not so sure.
“To be unionised everyone has to be on staff contracts. Very few of their pilots are on staff contracts. Also, Ryanair is based across 70 or 80 hubs. How on earth do you unionise that?
“Much as the unions would like to see a unionised shop, I cannot really see it.”