Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary was strongly criticised at an Oireachtas transport committee hearing on Wednesday for failing to attend the meeting, which examined the airline's cancellation of thousands of flights and about 700,000 bookings in the period up to March.
Mr O'Leary had been invited to attend the hearing, along with representatives from the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), the Commission for Aviation Regulation (CAR) and the Irish Airline Pilots' Association (IALPA), to discuss the impact of the cancelled flights on passengers.
The committee chairman, Fine Gael’s Fergus O’Dowd, said at the outset of the meeting Mr O’Leary had declined the invitation, and the TD described the move as “disappointing”.
People Before Profit TD Mick Barry then interjected before the formal presentations got under way to say it was "an insult they [Ryanair] haven't come".
The meeting addressed the events which followed the cancellation on September 15th of 2,100 Ryanair flights and the cancellation in the following fortnight of 18,000 further flights over the period between now and March of next year.
Maurice O’Connor of the IAA told the committee that the cancellation of the flights was a “completely commercial decision at the discretion of Ryanair” and was “done with very limited knowledge to any agency. It was spur of the moment”.
The Commissioner for Aviation Regulation, Cathy Mannion, said she first became aware of the cancellations through social media. She said that in the early days of the cancellation crisis there had been "no clear" information provided by the airline to affected customers about their rights.
Ms Mannion said Ryanair had sent out two incorrect emails to affected passengers which failed to address all of their rights in the situation, and it was only after a meeting with CAR last Friday that the airline sent out a third clarifying mail covering the complete rights of passengers.
She said she could not understand why the airline had been telling affected passengers before the Friday meeting that they could only reroute on Ryanair flights and did not have the right to travel on alternate carriers if no acceptable Ryanair flight was available, “because we knew that in the background they were more flexible than that”.
Ms Mannion also addressed the different approaches taken on the issue by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the UK, which was fiercely critical of Ryanair's behaviour and issued a deadline for the airline to accurately detail passenger rights, and the regulator here, which adopted a more "softly, softly" stance.
“I did not want to get involved in a debate over who is strong and who is weak. We are both equally strong. It is just that there are different ways of doing things. I knew the information was there, it was just a matter of getting it out, it was a matter of judgment and the CAA made a different judgment to us.”
She said she did not “want to take the risk of going on the legal route”, for fear Ryanair would then not engage with CAR.
She said she was of the view that “the best course of action was to engage with Ryanair” and that it was “a company that needed help”. She also said that if she “had my time again I would do the same thing”.
She said the airline had been too focused on internal problems and “took their eye off the ball on passenger rights”, and that it would have been better advised to have given the regulator a heads-up that the cancellations were coming.
“There’s no legal obligation for Ryanair to tell us in advance but it is definitely in their advantage,” she said. “It would have stopped confusion and given passengers the correct message.”
Under questioning from People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith, Mr O’Connor refuted suggestions that Ryanair had benefited financially from having for roster purposes a calendar year that ran from April to March.
He said the only reason the authority had made Irish airlines move from that rostering schedule to a January to December one was to align the schedules with those of other countries in the EU.
He repeatedly said that when it came to all safety issues the airline was entirely compliant.
The committee had also been duty hear from IALPA but the meeting was adjourned before that presentation to allow the committee time to consider documentation provided to it by the organisation.