Michael O’Leary needs to cut the soundbites and get back to basics

Ryanair faces a crucial few months as it fights to sort its pilot problems

Ryanair is to offer pilots in Dublin and other bases an extra €10,000 a-year to deter them from joining rival airlines, chief executive Michael O’Leary has said at a press briefing following the company's agm.

 

‘POW – over one million seats on sale.” So started a Ryanair email which landed in my inbox on Friday, and quite probably in yours, too. Its tone will get up the nose of those scrambling from flight cancellations, but the airline is betting that the old low-cost formula can get it back on track. And it just might. But Michael O’Leary will know that for this to happen, the latest cancellation of 18,000 flights over the winter, affecting 400,00 passengers, has to be the end of it. The promise of no more blanket cancellations simply has to be delivered on.

O’Leary has a few months – but no longer – to sort out the extraordinary mess that has hit Ryanair. After a cack-handed initial response to a rostering mess, Ryanair is now struggling to try to get a grip of the situation. It hasn’t got there yet. And if the messing is still going on heading into next year, when people are starting to book for the spring and summer, then the airline really will be in trouble. By then, any doubt that the Ryanair aircraft you are booking will actually fly needs to have been removed from the minds of consumers.

The rostering mess that caused the crisis may have been small in scale compared with Ryanair’s overall operations, but having to suddenly cancel services and leave people stranded turned it into something a lot bigger. Obviously caught unawares, Ryanair management’s initial response fanned the flames. There is no painless way to deal with leaving your customers stranded, but the airline could not have made a much worse job of it.

Misjudgment

Its first statement – on September 15th – dressed up plans to cancel 40 to 50 flights a day amid some nonsense about trying to improve punctuality. The small number of customers affected would be dealt with, the statement said, in a clear “nothing to see here” tone. An apology to those affected was put in the last line.

Even from an airline which has thrived on the back of seeming indifference to its consumers, it was a big misjudgment. Because details of flights to be cancelled were not included, Ryanair immediately scared all of its passengers. It was three days later, on September 18th, before the full list of cancellations was published and O’Leary came out with the fulsome “We have messed up” apology. In the meantime, the door was open to Ryanair’s many opponents and enemies and they all happily walked in.

Incredibly, further confusion followed. The airline said it would take back one week of four weeks’ leave due to pilots in the coming months and O’Leary told the media after the company’s annual general meeting that pilots were “very well paid for doing a very easy job”. It was a nice soundbite – and pilots certainly are well paid – but at a time when you need your pilots to fix a big problem it was not a clever thing to do.

O’Leary’s relentless publicity generation has been a key factor in building Ryanair’s brand. But if he can’t resist the lure of the microphone then he might be better locking himself in Ryanair HQ for the next few months. Because the only thing Ryanair can do to rebuild its reputation is to go back to the basics of getting people from A to B reliably and cheaply. It needs to forget about its “Always getting better” marketing message – introduced three years ago to try to soften its rough edges – and go back to simply “Always getting there”.

We must assume that the latest round of flight cancellations – introduced because the plan to cut pilots’ holidays was ditched – is an attempt to get all the bad news out now. The airline must realise that having to come back in another month or two with another big wave of cancellations would be a disaster – and it has said this will not happen. To guarantee this, it needs the pilots on board.

Two jobs

Ryanair management now has two jobs. One is the clean-up, where the British regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, is pushing it hard, leading to a detailed statement from Ryanair on Friday on passengers’ rights. Ryanair should not have had to be pushed by the regulator to give people what they were due, or provide them with full information. It suggests that the old company ethic of disregard for customers remains. The clean up may yet cause more lasting reputational damage than the original mess.

The other key task is the complex job of making sure it has enough pilots and crew as it moves into 2018, particularly heading into the key spring and summer period. With pilots now on the warpath, the airline needs to find a way forward and may need to agree new employment models and practices. Over the years it has boasted about its cheap cost base, but for the future it may just have to spend a bit more.

The combination of the clean-up from ongoing flight cancellations and turbulent employee relations will keep the “crisis” headlines going for a good while yet. Ryanair can combat this only by getting on with the business, keeping its flights rolling out on schedule and demonstrating to consumers and investors that it is getting back on track.

We need some perspective here. Ryanair is now carrying close to 130 million passengers a year and earning some €1.4 billion in profit. The vast majority of its flights continue on schedule. The low-cost formula is not broken. We could all do without pushy cabin crew trying to sell us scratch cards and the cheesy trumpets when an aircraft lands on time. However most of us will keep flying Ryanair –but only if the airline can persuade us it will get us there.

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