Ryanair buffeted by turbulence in a year of cancellations chaos

‘Cock-ups’ and staff revolt put Michael O’Leary under unprecedented pressure

Ryanair flew through sustained turbulence in 2017, with thousands of cancelled flights, a seat-allocation system that many passengers believed to be underhand, and worsening union difficulties putting the airline's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, and his management team under pressure like never before.

At the beginning of the summer The Irish Times started documenting the experiences of Ryanair passengers who complained about suddenly being seated apart from their travelling companions.

Ryanair flatly denied anything had changed about the way it allocated its seats, but the story grew wings, and a handful of complaints turned into a flood as thousands of people said they too had been split up regardless of when they checked in and how many seats were available on their aircraft.

Speculation mounted that the airline had changed its policy to deliberately split travelling companions up unless they had paid for allocated seats. The airline maintained its denials and insisted its policy had not changed, much to the disbelief of affected passengers.


Ryanair admitted to having messed up pilots' rosters as it went on to axe more than 2,000 flights before the end of October

But that was only the start of the airline’s trying times. On a Friday morning in September it quietly started cancelling hundreds of flights, giving some passengers just hours’ notice that their plans were suddenly up in the air. As the day progressed, and the scale of the cancellations became clear, Ryanair admitted to having “messed up” pilots’ rosters as it went on to axe more than 2,000 flights before the end of October.

The roster issues arose because of a change in the way the airline records flight hours. Under European Union rules pilots can fly for only 900 hours a year, and 100 in any month. For the past decade the Irish Aviation Authority had recorded flight hours from April each year while other EU countries recorded them from January. Ryanair had to fall into step with the EU, so many Ryanair pilots had reached their annual limit in September.

The amateurish way it released information about the cancellations in the first 72 hours forced as many as 20 million customers who had bought tickets for flights scheduled to depart over the next six weeks to become unwilling participants in a game of Ryanair roulette. None of them knew what was happening or if their flights would take off. The way Ryanair’s internal and external public-relations teams allowed the story to unfold unnecessarily panicked many passengers – a fact O’Leary acknowledged when he tried to take control of the story, days after it broke, at a press conference at which he admitted to having cocked up.

One flight attendant who contacted The Irish Times as the controversy grew more serious said: "Passengers see us in our Ryanair uniforms and think we are Ryanair and are out to screw them. Sometimes the planes are delayed and we have to explain why, and they're angry. They are right to be angry, but they are angry at the wrong people."

This employee painted an extraordinarily bleak picture of life with Ryanair. “I have no base salary, and I am only paid for flying time,” he said. “Today I clocked in at 5am and finished at 3pm, and in that time we had flights lasting a total of five hours. Those five hours are all I will get paid for even though I was at work for a total of 10 hours.”

The attendant highlighted the pressure staff were under to sell almost as soon as planes took off, as well as their fears that they would be dismissed if they took sick days or failed to meet sales targets. In response the airline insisted that staff "enjoy great terms and conditions".

MEPS were not buying it, and they eviscerated Ryanair at the European Parliament in October, describing working conditions as "problematic" and like "slavery".

Ryanair also came in for flak at the Oireachtas committee on transport, although O'Leary, having declined an invitation to appear before it, didn't hear its criticisms directly.

Pilots revolted – and sought to press home an advantage by demanding better terms and conditions and more collective bargaining

When, at a press conference, The Irish Times asked him if the cancellations mess was the biggest cock-up of his time at Ryanair he said absolutely not, as a lot more cock-ups had been worse.

Ryanair ended up in even deeper trouble in mid-October, when it cancelled about 400,000 further bookings between November and March, to “eliminate all risk of further flight cancellations”. It pulled 25 aircraft from its winter schedule and will fly 10 fewer aircraft in its fleet from April 2018.

“We sincerely apologise to those customers who have been affected by last week’s flight cancellations, or these sensible schedule changes,” O’Leary said. “While over 99 per cent of our 129 million customers will not have been affected by any cancellations or disruptions, we deeply regret any doubt we caused existing customers last week about Ryanair’s reliability, or the risk of further cancellations.”

Although the airline continued to insist that it had no staffing issues, pilots revolted – and sought to press home an advantage by demanding better terms and conditions and more collective bargaining.

Ryanair dramatically reversed a long standing policy and agreed to recognise trade unions.  Pilots then unions lifted strike threats across Europe as Christmas approached.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast