Like many others I watched Channel 4′s “Dispatches” programme on Ryanair’s safety culture last night.
It didn’t reveal anything new. And because the reporters didn’t fully understand what they learned, it over-emphasized the importance of some of the safety risks – particularly fuel policy – and entirely missed others.
But it did confirm in me my belief that Ryanair will face troublesome coverage like this as long as it persists with its present pilot employment model.
And not just the coverage: the Ryanair employment model represents a risk in its own right.
That self-employed contractor model predisposes to a culture of mistrust and discontent, and no matter how hard the airline tries to instill high operational standards via SOPs and high quality training, this culture will always undermine its efforts.
Following a recent London court ruling in favour of a Ryanair pilot and against the airline’s crew contract agency Brookfield Aviation, our weekly journal Flight International ran this Comment piece, headlined The Dublin Prizefighter.
This sets out, briefly, what I think the reality of the situation is:
Pronouncing a verdict in favour of a Ryanair pilot against his employer, a London judge described the airline’s pilot employment contract arrangements as “bizarre”, but notably did not say they were illegal. The issue was the way Ryanair’s crew agency Brookfield Aviation International interpreted specific contract details.
This verdict, on its own, will not make any difference to the big picture, although it will encourage Ryanair pilots to challenge other Brookfield interpretations of their contracts. Ryanair’s leader, Michael O’Leary, has an adversarial style with his pilots, cabin crew and even passengers. He squares up to them like a prizefighter, challenging them to get the better of him and his system. They very rarely do. Ryanair’s recent results show its impressive profits come mainly from the “extras” passengers find themselves compelled to buy, which feel like a series of teasing left-hooks from O’Leary. But his pilots get paid, and he gets the passengers to their destinations cheaply and on time, so they resign themselves to the system.
The long-term question is whether the “bizarre” pilot employment model is sustainable. O’Leary admits the purpose of it is, above all, to prevent the pilots being able to form a negotiating unit. Meanwhile, the Ryanair Pilots Group – which O’Leary does not recognise – is a more canny manifestation of its predecessor. If it delivers enough left-hooks of its own it may wear him down, but this court case result is no knockout blow.