Ryanair treated pilots like robots, court told in defamation case

‘They forgot about us as human beings,’ former captain claims

A former Ryanair pilot has told the High Court the company treated pilots "like robots" and was not interested in any issues they had, including about safety. "They forgot about us as human beings," Jean-François Claes claimed. "It was 'Go to work. We don't want to hear from you. Whether it is personal or safety issues, we don't want to hear about it.' "

He was giving evidence on the 13th day of the airline's defamation action against the founders of Ryanair Pilot Group, Evert Van Zwol, John Goss and Ted Murphy. They deny that an email the group sent to pilots in September 2013 defamed the company.

Flying time

Capt Claes, who now works for Transavia, said Ryanair warned that it could dismiss him over three incidents in which he said he acted because he had safety concerns.

The first related to his refusal to fly for more than the normal 11-hour daily limit because he and his crew were tired after they landed at Santiago airport in Spain. He said he had been required to pilot six flights that day, and because delays had built up throughout the day he had been concerned that he and his crew would be unable to complete all the flights within the permitted time. He asked Ryanair to have a standby crew in place for a Madrid-Santiago run but was told he would have to keep going to Santiago.

When he got to Santiago he decided that, because of fatigue, he was exercising his captain’s discretion not to return that night to Madrid because, once in the air, they would be outside the daily flying-time limit. The flight, with 182 passengers, was cancelled.

As a result he faced an investigation that led to a letter telling him that his fatigue was his fault for having commuted to Madrid from Charleroi, in Belgium, two days earlier and that he would would face disciplinary action, possibly including dismissal, if it happened again.

He said that he had had two days’ rest before the Santiago incident and that the fatigue was the result of a difficult day and difficult landing conditions in Madrid.

Angry passengers

In the second incident, at Charleroi airport, confusion about a disembarking wheelchair passenger led to anger among passengers who were told while they were standing in rain at the bottom of the aircraft steps that they could not yet board the flight.

Capt Claes said it was against procedure to allow a plane to be boarded if any previous passengers had not yet disembarked and a security check carried out. He said that up to 20 passengers became angry, with some starting to shout and gesture, and that he decided for his own safety to leave the plane. Another pilot was found for the flight. Capt Claes believed the situation could not be dealt with by calling airport police because Charleroi was a small airport and this was a large group of angry people.

He said he was again warned he would face disciplinary action despite explaining that he believed his decision was the safest one.

Capt Claes said he was threatened with disciplinary action on a third occasion, and with being sued, after he sent a letter through Ryanair’s internal-communications system to raise a number of safety-related questions, including about the airline’s refuelling policy. He said he felt harassed and intimidated by the reaction and had withdrawn some of his questions as a result.

Benefit of the doubt

Darrell Hughes, Ryanair's human-resources director, who was recalled to deal with some of Capt Claes's evidence, said no disciplinary action was taken against the pilot and he was given the benefit of the doubt in the Santiago incident. The company believed he should have been able to complete his duty for the day, as it meant going only eight minutes into the discretionary allowance by which captains are allowed to extend their flying time.

Mr Hughes said that, in the second incident, he believed Capt Claes should not have walked off the flight and, as a professional, should have been able to defuse the situation with passengers.

The case continues.