THIS has been a tricky column to write because the Ryanair news cycle has been moving faster than many of its planes!
You know how they say that if you are having a meal in a restaurant you should never sit where you can see into the kitchen? They also say you don’t ever want to know how they make sausages. The same sort of thing might be said about not wanting to see how, or know how, airlines operate, but trusting instead that at least the flight crew know what they are doing.
It was only last week that Ryanair announced a major review of its baggage handling policy. Apparently all of the staff that were required to carry out that review must have been borrowed from the department that normally schedules staff holidays, because just this week they discovered there were 140 fewer pilots available to fly its planes than they thought there were.
A “backlog of annual leave” and “over-allocation of holidays” were the excuses offered at a press conference by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary. Changes imposed by Irish regulators, in line with European law, had made it necessary for staff to take their allocation of holidays before the end of the year.
That said, it is perhaps worth noting that the Irish Independent put the problem down not to holidays, but to the poaching of Ryanair pilots by its low cost rival Norwegian Air.
Either excuse is difficult to swallow.
Did 140 pilots suddenly get up one morning and decide they were all going to jump ship? Surely they are required to give a period of notice before they can walk out. Did that happen and did no one at Ryanair stop to wonder how they were going to keep their planes airborne unless they hired replacements?
Or, if it really was a problem with the scheduling of holidays, does Ryanair not have a big notice board on the wall which lists employees down one side, and the months of the year across the top, and then you mark down who has their holidays and when, precisely to avoid such a problem?
Can you imagine a packed football stadium being told that the game will have to be cancelled because only the goalkeeper and two strikers showed up – everyone else being unexpectedly away on holiday!
At his news conference, Michael O’Leary was attempting – as he saw it – to be open and honest and magnanimous, promising that inconvenienced passengers would be rescheduled, reimbursed, or compensated without question.
“We will not be trying to claim exceptional circumstances” – that was nice of him – “This is our mess-up. When we make a mess in Ryanair we come out with our hands up.”
How many “mess ups” do they have on a regular basis, and are they restricted only to their ground-based staff we might wonder?
However, you needed to have watched his eyes – as you need to also with politicians when they are put on the spot. As he offered his excuses and his attempts to mollify his understandably angry customers, he couldn’t look the camera straight in the lens – a sure sign that the real story may not have been quite the way he was telling it.
“We will pay compensation to those passengers who are entitled to compensation - which will be those flights that are cancelled over the next two weeks.” Already covering his ‘tail section’ – not everyone is going to be entitled to compensation.
However entitled as people may be, and even if they received their entitlement, simply throwing money at them (and it’s only likely to be about £220) doesn’t in fact compensate for ruined holidays (while Ryanair’s pilots go off on theirs).
People work hard and save hard for a little time away from the daily grind, a little time in the sun, and the last thing they want to hear is that Ryanair can’t fulfil its obligations to its paying customers by flying them to wherever they bought tickets for. “Sorry but our pilots [delete where appropriate] are unexpectedly on holiday / are now working for a rival airline.”
Someone responding to my previous column about the policy decisions of budget airlines, and Ryanair’s revised baggage handling policy in particular, pointed out the truism that you get what you pay for, to which we should perhaps also add those other words of warning: “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware.
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.