Ryanair makes a mockery of crisis communications

Airline chose to leave passengers sweating on cancellations

There might be a bigger crowd than normal at this year's annual conference of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland in Dublin Castle next month.

The keynote speaker is Robin Kiely, head of communications at Ryanair, which has experienced severe turbulence in the past week over its decision to cancel up to 50 flights a day for the next six weeks because of issues with its pilot rostering.

The theme of the conference is “Crisis and Creativity: PR’s Response to a World in Chassis” and delegates have been promised that Kiely will “detail how Europe’s largest airline manages its communications and PR in the highly competitive airline industry”.

He will also to share “insights into how Ryanair approaches issues and crisis communications management”.

It promises to be a riveting speech, with plenty of rich material available to Kiely in the wake of Ryanair’s botched communication of its flight cancellations since last Friday.

The costs to Ryanair of this debacle have been many. Some €1.4 billion was wiped off its market value, the airline has estimated the direct expense of compensation and lost profits at €25 million, and then there’s the intangible cost of forward bookings lost because people are afraid of being stranded on their holidays, and the wider reputational damage.


It has made a mockery of the “always getting better” marketing slogan used to promote the customer enhancements programme that it launched amid much fanfare in 2014.

Some of these problems will be repaired over time. The share price rose by 1.2 per cent in Dublin on Tuesday, regaining some of the ground lost in the previous few days.

The controversy over the cancelled flights will pass, probably helped by a seat sale or two before Christmas. The direct costs are high but manageable in the context of an airline that made a pre-tax profit of more than €1.3 billion last year.

The bigger question, which Ryanair hasn’t answered convincingly, is how this came about in the first place.

Ryanair has established a reputation over the past two decades as a brilliant operator, setting standards of efficiency that rivals have long tried to ape but have usually struggled to match.

Who else can consistently turn around planes in 25 minutes? Day in, day out, at multiple airports right across Europe while carrying more than 120 million passengers a year.

It has had a laser-like focus on the small stuff and it’s just hard to imagine something like a pilot roster would trip it up.

Another possible explanation is that it has suffered a high level of pilot defections to rival Norwegian, which has launched long-haul flights from Ireland across the Atlantic. Around 100 pilots are thought to have moved, including a large number of senior pilots, although Ryanair has dismissed this as a reason, noting that it has 4,200 pilots on its roster.


Another possible explanation is that Ryanair thought it could somehow manage its way out of the problem. Instead, it has blown up in its face.

There has been lots of spin around this story. Ryanair initially tried to justify the cancellations as a move to improve its punctuality, which was ridiculous.

Reports of strike action by Ryanair pilots also seem far fetched given that they finally have Ryanair over a barrel. So much so that the airline is willing to pay a €10,000 signing-up bonus to certain new pilots between October and April 2018, and €12,000 to buy back leave.

Regardless of the issues around pilot rostering, Ryanair could have ensured that no flights were cancelled by simply wet leasing aircraft and crew from other carriers. It’s a common enough practice in the industry.

It's a service that Ryanair has happily provided for rivals over the years. In 2011, for example, it provided five aircraft and crew to Aer Lingus during a cabin crew dispute. It has also previously provided aircraft and crew on wet lease to British Airways during times of industrial action.

Ryanair has told The Irish Times that it didn't wet lease aircraft because the problem was spread across 86 bases, and it wouldn't have addressed the issue.

Instead, it was easier to stiff its customers, and to leave more than 300,000 passengers sweating as to whether their flights over the next six weeks would be affected by the cancellations.

Twitter: @CiaranHancock1