Pilots? Who needs pilots?

In mid-September, rumours began to circulate that Europe’s largest airline was having to cancel flights due to a lack of flight crew. Just a few days later, Ryanair announced the cancellation of thousands of flights over a six-week week period, in order, the airline said, to Improve its system-wide punctuality which has fallen below 80 per cent in the first two weeks of September”. The airline largely blamed a combination of European ATC air traffic control strikes and weather disruption for the poor punctuality. Just a few days later, the flight cancellations increased by 18,000 flights and extended into March of next year. Now the primary culprit was, according the airline, a changed holiday roster for pilots. However, many in the aviation training industry believe that the real cause of the airline’s problems is a simple shortage of pilots, and are asking whether it is Ryanair’s own training and recruitment policies that have bought this situation upon itself.

According to the Irish Airline Pilots Association (IALPA), Ryanair has lost upwards of 700 pilots in the last 12 months, representing around 15% of the airline’s 4,200 pilot workforce. The low-cost carrier has refuted this, stating that the true figure is less than 260. However, a Ryanair employee who spoke with FTN has suggested that the conflicting figures may be a result of who is classed as an employee and who is classed as a contractor. According to a European Commission survey, undertaken by the University of Ghent in 2015, 70% of Ryanair pilots were self-employed or employed through contract agencies and so, presumably, not counted as ‘employees’ by Ryanair. Indeed, Norwegian Airlines claim to have recruited more than 140 former Ryanair pilots this year alone, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Ryanair pilots frequently make up the majority of attendees at airline recruitment seminars.

Ryanair were innovators of the practice of requiring new pilots to pay for their own aircraft type-rating at a Ryanair-approved training organisation (the current type-rating charge for a new Ryanair pilot is €29,500) in addition to other money-making practices such as charging a non-refundable assessment fee of €350 for new cadet pilots applying to the airline. On the other hand, Ryanair was one of the few airlines to recruit throughout the last recession and has historically not selected new pilots depending on which school they have attended or what training route they have followed, but rather on whether they can meet Ryanair’s required standards (at least 50% of applicants fail Ryanair’s simulator assessment).

Ryanair Norwegian

Social media has been poking fun at Ryanair’s problems

Five Ryanair 737-800 Nose to Tail at Boeing Field K64174

Five Ryanair 737-800 Nose to Tail at Boeing Field

Ryanair were also pioneers of paring pilot’s terms, conditions and allowances to the bone, despite which Ryanair apparently has little trouble in recruiting new cadet pilots. The airline’s promotional literature describing its B737NG Type-Rating Self Sponsored Cadet Program has a section listing the reasons to become a Ryanair pilot. This is a telling statement as only one reason is listed: “Fastest Time to Command – 3 or 4 years after Cadet Course!” and FTN understands that the programme, which costs a total of €29,850 when adding in assessment fees, continues to attract high numbers of applicants. One recent graduate from an integrated ‘white tail’ training programme told FTN that he had submitted his CV to the airline as he believes it offers the fastest route to airliner command. With the potential to become a captain in just three years, he could realistically achieve his ultimate goal of holding a command with a major airline before the age of thirty. A current Ryanair First Officer FTN spoke with joined the airline just over two years ago from a ‘modular’ training background. He now has over 1500 hours on the B737 and expects to gain his command next year, while still in his twenties. Such rapid progression to Command would have been almost unthinkable before the advent of the low cost carrier (LCC) phenomenon.

It does seem that Ryanair is happy to act as a ‘feeder’ airline, recognising that many of its pilots will progress to other carriers and positions with better terms and conditions rather tha becoming long-term employees. Having been given absolutely nothing in way of financial support from their employer when they were training, it is understandable if those pilots hold no particular loyalty towards the airline once they have attained the requisite experience in order to move on. BALPA’s General Secretary, Brian Strutton, has suggested that the only way Ryanair can hope to retain its pilots beyond the minimum period required to make them attractive to other airlines is to improve it’s working conditions: “It seems Ryanair has been just about scraping through the summer schedule and having no flexibility in the system, coupled with a miscalculation of pilot annual leave, has led to this disastrous situation. We believe these working conditions are leading to pilots leaving the airline after a few years to go work for other airlines. The company needs to be a career airline, where pilots feel valued, not over-stretched. We would be happy to work with Ryanair on this issue to ensure it is an airline where pilots are proud to work.”

If the airline doesn’t have an issue with recruiting new ‘cadet’ pilots as First Officers, perhaps its vulnerability lies in retaining experienced crew, and this is where Ryanair and other low-cost carriers are at greatest risk. After-all, recruiting a new cadet pilot for their first job is one thing, attracting experienced captains who have a range of employment options is another. Ryanair is believed to be due to take delivery of at least another 50 aircraft over the next 12 months – will these join the 25 fleet aircraft that Ryanair says it will park-up over the winter? It doesn’t seem to be the favoured course of action for an airline that prides itself on its financial efficiency. There again, Ryanair is currently offering a ‘signing on’ bonus of €10,000 for experienced Captains joining the airline – a strangely generous offer from an airline that claims not to have a pilot shortage.

Ryanair’s problems come against the background of the first pilot’s strikes in the UK for over 40 years. Following a failure to agree a pay and conditions deal, pilots flying for Thomas Cook Airlines have taken strike action due to frustration with the airline’s stance during negotiations. Commenting on the walk-out, BALPA’s Brian Strutton, said: “Tortuous negotiations at ACAS have failed to resolve the pay dispute between Thomas Cook and BALPA pilots. We need Thomas Cook to understand just how resolute pilots are and how frustrated they are with the company. We urge the company to come back to the negotiating table with a better offer so this situation can come to an end.”

The European Cockpit Association (ECA) has its own views on the Ryanair situation: “Ryanair pilots from numerous European bases sent joint letters to their management. These letters are crystal clear. Ryanair’s pilots are taking a firm and unified stance: they want decent working conditions and direct employment contracts”, says ECA Vice-President Jon Horne. “They offered a helping hand to their company, to sort out this self-inflicted chaos that has left thousands of passengers stranded. In return, Ryanair pilots haven’t asked for a crude bonus. They want something much simpler – a direct and stable employment contract: governed by the laws of the country where they live and work; in conditions similar to other European pilots; and a meaningful, genuine social dialogue“.

The ECA say that Ryanair makes systematic use of contractors and self-employed pilots providing services through temporary agencies, and often subject to zero hours (ie no flying = no pay). According to the ECA, such working arrangements have a negative impact on the airline as whilst they provide flexibility and a lower cost base, they also lead to a highly unstable pilot work-force – as demonstrated by the short time many pilots stay at Ryanair.

The contractor model is now under pressure from investigations into potential tax and/or social security issues, highlighted by a recent judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union. This court ruled that Ryanair’s crews can seek their labour rights in Courts other than Ireland, thereby refuting Ryanair’s long-standing claim that Irish employment conditions apply. Instead, the Court has stated that the ‘home base’ of crews is the most ‘significant indicator’ to determine the employee’s habitual place of work and which labour laws and jurisdiction apply to them. The ECA say that this ruling will empower aircrew to pursue their employment rights in local courts and allow them to challenge questionable employment conditions under the laws of their own country.

This European Court judgment cannot be ignored by Ryanair management, nor by institutional investors”, says Philip von Schöppenthau, ECA Secretary General. “As Ryanair’s management is busy finding quick-fix solutions, we call on investors to take a moment and think about the long-term sustainability of the company and one of its most valuable assets: the employees. We see today that planes – still – need crews to fly them and to bring their passengers safely to their destination”.

Whatever the root cause of Ryanair’s current problems, there is no threat to the short-term viability of the highly profitable airline. However, it remains to be seen whether in the longer term the airline can continue its policy of taking no interest in the initial training of pilots and relying on picking up self-sponsored First Officers from flight schools and experienced captains from other airlines whenever they want them. That market appears to be thinning out as competition for pilots increases and Ryanair may need to re-think its training and recruitment policies if it is not to be faced with having to ground more aircraft and cancel additional flights. The airline itself has put a cost of €50 million on the flight cancellations. The true cost, once factors such as a loss of ancillary revenue, tussles with regulators, loss of reputation and the fees involved in parking-up airliners that would otherwise be earning revenue, is believed to be much higher. Three years ago Ryanair completely changed its customer service policies when it recognised that they had become counter-productive. Time will tell whether its pilot training and recruitment practices are about to undergo a similar seismic shift.

Author: Adrian Mahovics

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