Unclear why Ryanair flights issue was not better planned for

Level of passenger disruption left cancellations announcement looking like a crisis one

2 per cent of Ryanair flights are being cancelled across its vast pan-European network affecting almost 350,000 journeys. Conor Pope reports.

 

The bizarre announcement by Ryanair that it is going to cancel approximately 50 flights a day over the coming six weeks appears to have its roots in the interpretation of an EU safety directive.

For the past decade or more, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has been interpreting the EU regulation differently to authorities in other member states - something which came to an end last year when the European body issued a new version of the rule which left no room for ambiguity. Or so say pilot sources.

Pilots are not allowed to fly for more than 900 hours a year, or 100 hours in any one month, under the regulation. While all other EU jurisdictions started the clock on January 1st, Ryanair did so on April 1st. This meant it entered the busy summer season with zero hours on the clock.

Commercial efficiency

Pilots say the net result was that rosters could be arranged with greater commercial efficiency.

The IAA, following on from the issuing of a new iteration of the regulation last year by the EU, is now enforcing a calendar year-type regime on Ryanair. This appears to have led to the cancellation announcements.

A September 13th, 2017 note to Ryanair pilots written by chief operations officer Michael Hickey, which has been seen by The Irish Times, says the process of changing to a calendar year began in April last.

In the note, Hickey said Ryanair has a healthy overall crewing situation, but referred to the pressures the shift to the new regime is creating in the context of a summer of bad weather and air traffic control difficulties.

He flagged that the situation was going to be difficult during the last quarter of 2017 and referred to the transition to the calendar year as being a “unique one-off issue”.

It is not clear why something that was known to the airline to be coming down the tracks was not planned for so that passengers would not be disrupted.

Friday’s announcement looked like a crisis one. Perhaps, as Ryanair says, it was the combination of the regime shift with the bad weather and the air traffic controllers.

Some industry sources, however, are of the view that the cancellation programme comes at a favourable time of the year for Ryanair, being between the end of the summer season and the beginning of the winter/Christmas schedule.

A request for comment from Ryanair in relation to the above met with no response other than one that referred to the cancellations being due to bad weather, air traffic controller difficulties, and the impact of changing crews’ “annual leave” rosters to a calendar year from an April-to-March year.

Tighter availability

It appears the transition to the calendar year regime involved changes to pilots’ annual leave arrangements, and this has again tightened crew resource availability.

The IAA, when asked whether it was the case that it had, up until recently, interpreted the EU rules in a way that was different to other EU member states, did not directly answer the question.

Ryanair is in the process of transitioning to the calendar year for “flight time limitations” (FTL) regulations, it said.

“Ryanair have always been fully compliant with the European FTL scheme. However, they are now changing their FTL system to align with the European calendar year of January to December.”

The cancellation announcement by Ryanair came just a day after a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) concerning the rights of Ryanair crew that caused a share price drop and speculation that its cost base might increase by as much as €100 million a year.

Not directly employed

Many of Ryanair’s pilots and crew are not directly employed by the airline but rather are hired on a contract basis from Irish-registered companies. The contracts are nominally governed by Irish law, even though the crews may be based at Ryanair hubs around Europe, and rarely if ever fly to Ireland.

In the case before the ECJ, which rules on EU law, former Ryanair crew members based in Belgium said the provisions of Irish employment law were not as good as the provisions of Belgian law, which they wanted to avail of. Their contracts said their “home base” was Charleroi, in Belgium, they pointed out.

Ryanair argued that the workers carried out much of their work on Irish territory, on the basis that the aircraft they worked on were Irish-registered. The court did not agree, and the court’s ruling was interpreted by some as likely to add to Ryanair’s cost base.

Arguably, the ruling and the EU flight time regulations issue are related in that they show that the determined efforts by Ryanair to keep down costs sometimes comes up against EU law and regulation in such a way as to frustrate those efforts.

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