In the crewroom at Ryanair

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%.

Chief Pilot Capt Ray Conway on my left, and Faro Base Captain Klaus Wegner on my right

Chief Pilot Capt Ray Conway on my left, and Faro Base Captain Klaus Wegner on my right

In the main gear wheelwell during walk-around checks at Faro. With Capt Klaus Wegner

In the main gear wheelwell during walk-around checks at Faro. With Capt Klaus Wegner

 

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.

 

 

 

23 Responses to In the crewroom at Ryanair

  1. Adam 10 August, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    Sounds like you were ‘white-washed’ to me Ian…no mention in your report of the bullying, undue commercial pressure and plain nastiness that I experienced.
    But yes, the SOP’s are very good.

  2. Steve 11 August, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    This is a very disappointing article. Did you have a nice layover in Faro? Well the employees won’t be – they have to pay for their own hotels when sent on a little holiday out of base by the Company.
    Seriously, there are some massive issues at Ryanair, affecting the entire industry. I’m fully expecting this comment not to be posted as they are engaged in a war on freedom of speech. I think you should be brave and publish an article on the Ryanair Pilot Group and their hard work to achieve some dignity for Ryanair employees.

  3. Michael 11 August, 2013 at 10:44 am #

    David,
    Had you done any research into the company before you went on this “jaunt” and tried to see the real way this company operate you may not have been so duped. Who decided what route you flew on, which crew, what day etc? The problem with this article is some people will actually believe it.

  4. Peter 11 August, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    Very disappointing article David.
    Sounds like you had a lovely day out. Fuel policy of additional 300kg was removed months ago.

  5. Richard 11 August, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    Nice David,

    How much did Ryanair give you to post this propaganda?

    Go to Madrid, worlds worst airport and try a full day of 6 sectors! with a brand new Cpt and a brand new FO.
    Or maybe sit in on the negotiation that the company has with its pilots about T&C, oh right, doesn’t exist.

    Or maybe go onto a sim session where the instructor is ordered by management to pass a failed base captain.

    Or maybe interview a FO that has been offered the choice of being “let go” or do a captain course with less pay then he is currently on!

    What a load of polished donkey shit.

  6. Adam 11 August, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

    Polished donkey shit!!! I’m almost crying (rofl)!!! Thanks for making my day Richard.

    David, sorry for calling you Ian in my first post but I was confused after reading your article – I thought YOU had got the name wrong!

    Anyway, this article has absolutely zero credibility from a journalistic point of view and should probably have bee published in the ‘classifieds’ section.

  7. David Learmount 12 August, 2013 at 8:42 am #

    Anybody who thinks I don’t do my homework, or that I don’t listen to the RPG or IALPA, or the IAA, or EASA, read this: http://www.flightglobal.com/fg-club/in-focus/pilot-recruiting/ . I know it might be difficult for some of you to stomach descriptions of what Ryanair does well, but that’s just as much a part of the Ryanair story as the parts you don’t like.

  8. Michael 12 August, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    Rubbish

  9. Michael 12 August, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    Saatchi and Saatchi couldn’t have done a better PR job for Ryanair. Your good friend Ray must have smiled with glee after reading your article. What pilots did you talk to? 300kgs is no more.

  10. David Learmount 12 August, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Michael, I have taken your feedback and updated the fuel rules by clarifying with Ray. Thanks for the heads up. It appears there is still a contingency, but it’s somewhere between 100 and 150kg. What would you actually like to see?

    Now, what else justifies your blanket comment “rubbish”?

  11. Niall 12 August, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    “Rubbish” is a bit like “Shut up, he explained”.

  12. Stefano 12 August, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    I think that the article is good but it would require to have also the other side of Ryanair, the pilots and the cabin crew. I know is difficult they can speak free of concern from the consequences, but I think it will complete the article to have a wide a complete view of the improvments and issues inside this airlines.

  13. Adam.. 12 August, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

    As a current serving Ryanair FO, I think this article is great!

    You choose to apply to Ryanair knowing you have to pay for accom, living etc,

    I personally think the fuel policies are by far safe and do not see what all the moaning is about! remember you are on the aircraft too, I your not happy about the fuel situation take more or don’t fly!

    Ryanair’s ops manual part A, FCOMS and indeed all manuals are all focused on safety and I believe we ultimately are in a very safe culture!

    Hope this culture of blame Ryanair dies down!

    • Adam 16 August, 2013 at 12:47 am #

      You’ll learn.

  14. Michael 12 August, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    David, I would like to have seen the article written after you had asked to fly jump seat without Ray beside you. Pick any crew, but not a base Captain or junior First Officer who are both on day five of earlies. I would like you to have asked for the first wave on a Monday morning at Stansted on a four sector. See what can be done in 45 minutes with half the computers not working and maybe the same with the printers and the usual carnage that results. Add to this attempting to ring Ops in Dublin who will probably have the telephones off the hook. Then maybe a walk to the Bravoes where the aircraft hopefully won’t have technical issues. See how the “quiet confidence, even a pride” would exude then.
    100kgs of fuel gives you very little thinking time when you need it most especially when the “plogs” don’t properly indicate the early descent that invariably is request before crossing the French coast.
    Ryanair pilots are “expected to show professionalism”?! this coming from the Chief pilot who threatened with dismissal any pilot who signed a petition on safety concerns within the company or a CEO that calls Ryanair pilots, “glorified taxi drivers”
    I’m not saying your article wasn’t penned in good faith David but Ray made sure you had a nice uneventful day out.

    • David Learmount 13 August, 2013 at 8:43 am #

      Michael – so would I like all those things, but in the end it’s a bit like a reporter embedding with the army in Afghanistan: you get a flavour of what it’s like, but you can only ever do what they permit you to do. All you can do is keep your eyes and ears open and your scepticism honed. Getting a jumpseat ride is not easy, and the UK CAA will not permit it in their airspace under any circumstances. Ray didn’t have to arrange one at all, but he did. And of course I knew they’d wheel out the best and behave as if they were doing a check ride in the simulator. But it is still worth it. When Ryanair is in the news I understand the context that little bit better from having been close to them.

      I saw Dispatches last night, and didn’t learn anything new. But it did confirm in my mind the fact that, at the base of all the discontent is the pilot contracting system itself and the management mindset that created a system like it.

      • Adam 16 August, 2013 at 12:56 am #

        And there you hit the point exactly “but you can only ever do what they permit you to do.”
        Perhaps an acknowledgement of this within the article (even if it seems self evident) would have been useful. Your experience if you had flown with Ryanair under the circumstances described by Michael would have been quite different from this carefully stage-managed jolly!

        (THIS Adam 7 years RYR Capt. Now Ex.!!)

  15. Michael 12 August, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    Adam! How long have you been in the company and what position of management do you hold

  16. Adam 13 August, 2013 at 10:09 am #

    1 year Michael!

  17. Michael 13 August, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    Adam,
    Give it another year or two and then come back to me.

  18. Michael 13 August, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    David!
    Thanks for the reply. I understand your position and after several reads and re reads I appreciate the subtle nuances but unfortunately not everybody does. Also, some good points in your most recent article.

  19. Charles 12 May, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

    Dear David
    I found this article when trying to contact Ray Conway. I am trying to organise a medical safety conference, with the objective of learning from the aviation industry. the event is to be held at Stansted airport next month. I have been am unable to find an way into contacting either him or Ryanair to discuss this project with them.

    A contact number or email would be much appreciated.

    Many thanks for your help

    Charles Ranaboldo BM FRCS MS
    Group Medical Director
    Ramsay Healthcare UK

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