Ryanair pilot crisis a symptom of a wider problem

IALPA: Airline’s precarious employment model is no longer sustainable

Dark clouds over Ryanair: “It is IALPA’s opinion that Ryanair’s pilots have been shown...  disrespect for many years and it is reflected in the low average service length of Ryanair pilots.” File photograph: Phil Noble/File Photo

Dark clouds over Ryanair: “It is IALPA’s opinion that Ryanair’s pilots have been shown... disrespect for many years and it is reflected in the low average service length of Ryanair pilots.” File photograph: Phil Noble/File Photo

 

The crisis that has enveloped Ryanair over the last 10 days has certainly surprised its passengers and, perhaps, many unsuspecting investors as well.

I would like to give the perspective of the Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association (IALPA) on some of the causal factors that have contributed to the current calamity, the seeds of which were planted over many years in the way Ryanair management has treated its pilot body.

For years, Ryanair passengers have experienced a culture of disrespect, often dressed up as fake humour at the expense of frustrated passengers. This laughter only lasted until passengers voted with their feet, and the bottom line became a casualty of their stampede. Investors clipped the wings of an out-of-touch management, and things appeared to change, but clearly not enough.

The handling of the current disaster shows the ongoing depth of disregard for passengers’ most basic interests – to receive the service they paid for and to be treated with respect and consideration.

It is IALPA’s opinion that Ryanair’s pilots have been shown the same level of disrespect for many years and it is reflected in the low average service length of Ryanair pilots.

Unsound company culture

An aggressive expansionist strategy cannot be built on an unsound company culture that repeatedly drives experienced and committed pilots away to other airlines.

Our IALPA members in Ryanair are frontline staff, yet they consistently report an underlying culture of fear, reinforced by a precarious (contractor) employment model for large numbers of pilots. This culture might generate short-term conformity, but hides negative long term effects, of which the current difficulties are a symptom.

Ryanair’s US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) filings show an average length of service for pilots of 4.6 years between 2011 and 2017. Further analysis shows an average of 385 pilots have left the company each year since 2012, with the numbers increasing year-on-year.

Investors, the general public and even the regulator ought to question the implications of such a high rate of turnover. It suggests pilots are a short-term, expendable commodity, rather than a long-term company asset. The current crisis is one consequence of this.

A survey of 1,000 Ryanair pilots carried out by the Ryanair Pilot Group in March 2014 indicated that 85 per cent of them preferred to be on an employee contract.

A study carried out by Ghent University and financed by the European Social Dialogue Committee published in April 2015 identified that up to 70 per cent of pilots in Ryanair were engaged on atypical contracts, defined as “every form of employment other than an open-ended employment contract”.

Precarious status

Pilots’ concerns about their precarious employment status were reinforced when tax authorities in France, Italy and Spain questioned their compliance with national laws. Most recently, German authorities instigated criminal prosecutions against more than 100 Ryanair pilots, arising from employment arrangements over which the pilots have no effective control.

Even pilots on employee contracts have voiced concerns over their contracts. A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), reported in The (Irish Times, on September 14th, clarifies that employees are entitled to the protection of the laws of the country in which they are habitually based.

For many years, Ryanair has denied this basic right. The Ryanair model seems to alienate and drive pilots away, rather than encourage them to remain with the company.

Pilots, like any other employees, should be entitled to decide their own form of representation, free from interference by the company. Yet for many years pilots have protested against the imposition of a company-dictated representation system that falls far short of any industry norms.

The ECJ ruling ensures that Ryanair can no longer force employment disputes into the Irish courts.

IALPA has represented pilots with Ryanair since the company was founded. We see the current crisis as a symptom of a wider problem. IALPA is committed to supporting the continued development of every company that our members operate with, but we cannot condone or support employment policies that deny members basic rights and protections to which they are entitled.

As Einstein mused, it will require a different mindset to recover from the current crisis than the mindset that created it.

Ryanair pilots have taken the only form of industrial action they can without fear of retribution – they have withdrawn their labour and gone to work for someone else. The Ryanair board has a choice: to gloss over these problems, or to strategically change to an employment model that creates a sustainable working environment for Ryanair staff, and a predictable service for its customers.

Evan Cullen is the President of IALPA

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