Court told pilots see Ryanair as ‘stepping stone’ to next job

Italy-based captain says much cockpit chat is about ‘where we are going next’

A pilot has told the High Court a lot of cockpit chat among colleagues working for Ryanair was about their job not being the one "they would like to retire in" and was about "where we are going next".

"Most people's view was that Ryanair was a stepping stone to something else," captain Paolo Cova said.

Captain Cova, who worked for Ryanair for 11 years until joining Easyjet in 2016, was giving evidence in Ryanair's action against three founders of the Ryanair Pilot Group (RPG) over a 2013 email which the airline says falsely inferred the company misled investors. Captains Evert Van Zwol, John Goss and Ted Murphy deny they defamed Ryanair.

Captain Cova worked for most of his time at Ryanair’s Milan Bergamo airport base in Italy. Pay and conditions negotiations were carried out at each base under under the airline’s representation system, called “employee representative councils” (ERCs), he said.

He told his counsel David Whelan he took part in some of the meetings which led up to the 2015 agreement that was first presented to pilots earlier that year by Ryanair's director of flight operations, Peter Bellew.

Captain Cova had been concerned about a number of provisions in the previous agreement including one which said a favourable five-day-on, four-day-off rostering system would revert to a less favourable five-day-on three-day-off roster if a new agreement was not made. If that happened, it would mean that many people who spent a lot of time commuting would get to see their families less, he said.

850 hours

He said the 850 hours maximum flying time limit provided for in Ryanair contracts was very close to the legal limit of 900 hours and did not include time spent preparing for take off, turnaround time and post-flight duties of reporting into the office.

When negotiations for a new agreement came up in 2015, he and others assisted the Bergamo ERC representative who dealt with management but they did not get involved in any official capacity because they first wanted to be sure the negotiations were meaningful. Captain Cova said for most of his 11 years with Ryanair he was a member of the Irish pilots’ union, Ialpa.

He said two drafts of an agreement were produced by the company and very little of what pilots had asked for initially was in the final agreement. In March 2015, it was presented as “a take it or leave it” agreement and they were told the company’s budgets had been decided.

He looked at some draft agreements for other bases in Italy and there was almost no difference between them. It was a “quite frustrating experience” and they felt powerless.

“It showed us that it did not make any difference what we brought to the company”.

Right to vote

Between 50 and 60 pilots had a right to vote in Bergamo and although 75 per cent voted in favour of the 2015 agreement, Captain Cova believed the vote was constrained by the fact that they were told they would go back to a less favourable roster if they did not back the agreement.

Ryanair had advised the less favourable five-day/three-day roster was already planned in the event of a no vote, he said. A majority of the pilots at Bergamo, some 150 he estimated, had no vote at all because they were contracted rather than directly employed pilots like him.

When the Bergamo pilots asked if they could discuss the new deal with pilots at other bases, they were told by Ryanair this was not possible.

Under cross examination by Thomas Hogan SC, for Ryanair, Captain Cova said he did not directly state flying safety was an issue when he wrote letters to management about the stress on Italy-based pilots like him as a result of changes in pilots’ tax status following changes in Italian law.

The tax status change issue was very stressful and since he joined Easyjet it has been removed because he was now regarded as an Italian employee.

Captain Evert Van Zwol, under continuing cross examination on Friday, denied his purpose in referring the sell-off of shares by Ryanair management in June 2013 in the RPG email was to “outcast management” in the eyes of pilots.

The trial before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury goes into its fourth week next Tuesday.