Ryanair denies trying to punish pilots in defamation case

Airline HR executive denies ‘bullying and abusive’ style of management

RYANAIR is not trying to punish three pilots – whom it is suing at the High Court – for speaking out, the airlines’s human resources boss has told the court.

If Ryanair wins its defamation case against the trio, it will donate any damages awarded to charity, Darrell Hughes said.

The case was not about money and was brought because the three pilots could not “go around saying we misled investors”, he said.

Mr Hughes was being cross-examined on the seventh day of the airline's action against Ryanair Pilot Group (RPG) founders Evert Van Zwol, John Goss and Ted Murphy, over a 2013 email to 2,289 pilots.

Ryanair claims the email was defamatory because it inferred the company, among other things, misled the market. The defendants deny defamation and also deny the email meant what Ryanair alleges.

On Tuesday, Paul O’Higgins SC, for the men, put to Mr Hughes that Ryanair was not the kind of place where “live meetings” of staff took place because pilots would not want to be identified as having been part of a formal trade union.

Mr Hughes said Ryanair was “not a union company”, does not have union meetings and could not stop people having meetings. “What people do outside work is none of our business”.

Mr O’Higgins said his clients would say the Ryanair style of management was bullying and abusive.

Mr Hughes disagreed and rejected suggestions there was no parity between the tone of communications put out by Ryanair and that of the RPG. Use of European "Cockup" Association for the European Cockpit Association was simply part of two-way criticism between the groups, he said.

He believed some of those communications, accusing Ryanair of bullying, were abusive of management because, he said, there was no basis for saying there was bullying in Ryanair.

He said an employee facing disciplinary proceedings in Ryanair could have a colleague or a lawyer accompany them to a meeting but the company would not accept any trade union official accompanying them.

“They are entitled to be represented but there is no entitlement to bring a third party trade union official in”, he said. He disagreed that policy in itself was bullying. “When you join Ryanair, you know we don’t recognise trade unions and that is what you sign up for”.

Mr Hughes said the Ryanair representative system, known as employee representative committees (ERCs), was working and the proof of that was high pay and a favourable rostering system. It was collective but did not operate on a national or European-wide basis because circumstances differed at Ryanair's individual bases.

Mr Hughes disagreed with Mr O’Higgins’ this was a “meaningless mantra” because the reality was the ERCs are split into 87 different bases around Europe, are weak, and designed to be so by dividing them into “penny packets”.

Mr O’Higgins compared this to the French strategy in the second World War of organising their tanks in groups of five or six at different locations only to be bulldozed by German tank divisions. “I don’t think it worked out well for the Germans in the end”, Mr Hughes said.

Counsel said it was also a “mantra” that all pilots earned €150,000 a year.

Mr Hughes said while €150,000 is a captain’s salary, a starting salary for a first officer was between €70,000 to €80,000 and differs again for the 50 per cent on contracts.

Ryanair pilots have to pay for their own company identity cards and proof of the strength of the ERC system was, when that became an issue, a €5,000 payment for that was agreed as part of negotiations, he said.

When Mr O’Higgins put to him that, when 10 pilots on contracts raised it as an issue, arguing paying for ID cards was not in their contracts, the agency dismissed all 10. Mr Hughes said that was a matter between the pilots and the agency.

He disagreed pilots were told that, unless they sign up straight away to a new ERC negotiated agreement, their favourable five day-on four day-off roster would go. What was said was the roster would stay in force for the duration of the agreement, he said.

The hearing continues before a judge and jury.