It’s been six years since I’ve spent a couple of days with Ryanair. The airline has changed. Not out of all recognition, but it’s different.
Back then – in 2007 – I was researching a feature about the stresses modern pilots face, especially those in the low cost carriers.
I spent a day at Dublin, starting with interviewing Michael O’Leary, then learning about how Ryanair manages its ops and engineering.
The next day I spent at their East Midlands (UK) training based, sitting in (with candidates’ permission) on pilot selection interviews and simulator check rides.
After that, I watched recurrent training in the simulators.
Standards required were high. It wasn’t enough just to have a current pilot licence and type rating; candidates had to demonstrate they had plenty to spare. A pilot has still to be sharp at the end of a hard day, and Ryanair pilots handle multiple sectors, 25min turnarounds and high hours. But they work a normal schedule of five days on, four days off, which is pretty good.
Now Ryanair has a fleet more than three times the size it was then, and six times as many bases.
This time I did a day in Dublin with much the same routine. Click here for my report of the O’Leary interview.
The ops department still runs a very tight ship, but has more sophisticated IT systems to do it. Likewise the pilots’ ops interface, CrewDock – it’s far more capable now than then, and easier to navigate.
Right now Ryanair is trialling Lufthansa’s Lido operations management and planning system in parallel with their traditional one. When all the ops team and the pilots are completely up to speed with Lido they’ll go fully live with it. Chief Pilot Ray Conway says they’re also looking at using a tablet computers to go paperless on the flight deck, but it’s early days yet and today they’re still using paper for everything from manuals to load sheets and Jeppy charts.
Then Ray and I flew to Faro, because I’d asked to see one of the bases. For Ray and me it was a jump-seat ride. Our skipper was Klaus Wegner, the Base Captain at Faro, in charge of 60 pilots and 17 Boeing 737-800s that fly 28 departures and arrivals a day. It’s like a mini airline, but the crewroom with its banks of CrewDock terminals looks just the same as at Dublin and all the other bases. But ops control is centralised in Dublin. Klaus is a line pilot and instructor, but he stays on the ground at Faro every Wednesday so any of the crew can bring their triumphs and troubles to him.
Before departure for Faro the copilot, the PF, gave a comprehensive taxi and departure brief. Klaus only picked him up on one point: he had entered and crosschecked the initial cleared flight level on the panel, but hadn’t added it to the FMS as an additional anti-level-bust precaution. Ryanair cockpits are sterile from pushback to top of climb. The arrival brief, 100nm before TOD, was more thorough than I remember doing. Of course they’re working immaculately because Ray and I are there, but who’s to say that was the only reason?
The entire arrival from TOD was a perfect continuous descent approach (CDA) at idle, with no interruption to the descent during ILS intercept. The crew had set 10nm range rings on Faro and periodically checked their descent profile using simple maths, rather than trusting implicitly what the FMS was giving them. None of the slam-dunk Ryanair was famous for. In fact Ryanair, Stansted’s biggest user by far, has the best CDA score there, rating more than 99%.
On a similar subject, it consistently achieves northern Europe’s lowest altitude-bust score. Add that to consistently being top of the on-time arrival league and they are getting annoyingly goody-goody.
So have they changed?
Well, they’ve got seriously big. When you are little you are nimble, and you can duck and dive. When you are big you have more inertia, and it’s more important to get things right. Ryanair is so big now that, while O’Leary swears the airline has not become part of the establishment, one could argue that it has actually become the new European establishment, along with EasyJet.
Some of the following is gut feeling, some is pure stats. All the pilots I met, from Ray down to junior first officers, had a quiet confidence, even a pride, about them I had not sensed last time.
Ryanair demands a lot of its pilots. They work hard and are expected to show a professional discipline at all times. Ray makes clear what the SOPs are, including fuel (much in the news last year). I’ve been through the fuel guidelines with a finetooth comb and there’s nothing wrong with them. Captains are expected to take standard reserves, allowances for winds and weather, plus about 100kg (see details next para). If they want to take even more they can, but they have to justify, afterwards, why it was needed. That’s plain good discipline.
Since posting this blog I have been told independently by several Ryanair pilots that the 300kg optional fuel contingency that used to be available has been withdrawn, and I asked Ray to clarify this, which he has done. The 300kg was available at the time of the controversial Madrid diversions, but since then the automatic discretionary contingency has been replaced, as the chief pilot explains: ”We have a new fuel policy doc that has been approved by the IAA [Irish Aviation Authority] to take account of the introduction of Lido [which increases the accuracy of flight planning]. The document was issued to all crews via CrewDock and is currently available for reference only. The new policy retains the requirement to report on fuel carried in excess of ‘block fuel rounded up to the next 100kg plus 100kg on non-tankering sectors.” In addition, Ray comments that actual fuel consumption under the new rules has been checked, and the checks have validated the practice.
The strange thing about Ryanair’s relationship with its pilots is that it does not employ its Effos and some of its captains. It requires them to be self-employed, but exclusively contracted to Ryanair. Their employment contracts and human resources issues are dealt with by agencies like Brookfield, but Brookfield doesn’t employ them either. Ryanair’s interface with its pilots after selection is CrewDock, training, and Base Captains, so it’s only ops practices that are held in common.
Recently a London judge, ruling in favour of a Ryanair pilot against Brookfield over employment issues, observed that the employment contract was “bizarre”. It is. The reason for it, according to O’Leary, is that under this model the pilots cannot form a bargaining unit. There has to be a better way.
If you want to read more about the upsides and downsides of working on contract for Ryanair or anybody else, try this.