Spotlight shines on Ryanair operations

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Ryanair is about to lock horns again with Europe's media on the issue of safety.

There is no doubt that the Irish budget carrier has an adversarial relationship with the fourth estate, which acts as if it has a default suspicion that fares cannot be low without corner-cutting on safety procedures. So whenever there is an incident involving Ryanair, reporters look for evidence that its policies have led to safety compromises.

For example, in May 2010 the media throughout Europe was reporting on Ryanair's allegedly miserly approach to allowable fuel reserves after three aircraft crews declared fuel emergencies when they had to make diversions to other Spanish airports because storms prevented them landing at their destination, Madrid. The newspapers in all languages were full of the fuel shortage stories for months, but the Spanish investigators found that Ryanair had not breached any rules or guidelines on the carriage of fuel reserves. Nevertheless, more than a year ago the BBC documentary programme Panorama investigated Ryanair's operational practices, but it fielded no conclusive verdict. Tonight, UK television company Channel 4's Dispatches programme is to explore some of Ryanair's operating practices again, having spoken to several pilots.

As Flightglobal's operations and safety editor, I have just spent a couple of days with Ryanair looking over operations systems and practices, which I last did in 2007, when I was researching a feature about the stresses modern pilots face, especially those in the low-cost carriers.

Now, Ryanair has a fleet more than three times the size it was then, and six times as many bases. The operations department still runs a very tight ship, reviewing every delay, even those of three minutes or less. But it now has more sophisticated operations computer systems to do it. Likewise the pilots' ops interface, CrewDock, is 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 its traditional one. When all the operations team and the pilots are completely up to speed with Lido they will go fully live with it. Chief pilot Ray Conway says they are also looking at using a tablet computers to go paperless on the flightdeck, but it is early days yet, and today they are still using paper for everything from manuals to load sheets and Jeppesen charts.

Flightglobal was security-cleared to occupy a jump-seat in the flight deck on a Dublin-Faro, Portugal route. The captain 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. Ryanair's 57 European bases are home to something 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. Operations control, however, is centralised in Dublin. Wegner 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 tragedies to him.

Before departure for Faro the copilot, the pilot flying on that leg, gave a comprehensive taxi and departure brief. Wegner only picked him up on one point: he had entered and crosschecked the initial cleared flight level on the flight-control panel, but had not added it to the flight-management system (FMS) as an additional anti-level-bust precaution. Ryanair cockpits are sterile from pushback to top of climb. The arrival brief, 100nm before top of descent (TOD), was thorough.

The entire arrival from TOD was a perfect continuous descent approach (CDA) at idle, with no interruption to the descent during instrument landing system intercept. The crew had set 10nm range rings on Faro and periodically checked their descent profile using simple mathematics, rather than trusting implicitly what the FMS was giving them. None of the slam-dunk (steep and fast) approaches for which Ryanair was once notorious. In fact, Ryanair - Stansted's biggest user by far - has the best CDA score there, rating more than 99%.

On a similar subject, Ryanair consistently achieves northern Europe's lowest altitude-bust score. Add that to consistently being top of the on-time arrival league, and they are looking suspiciously competent at their operations.

So has Ryanair changed?

The airline is so big now that, while O'Leary swears it has not become part of the establishment, one could argue that it has actually become the new European airline establishment, along with EasyJet.

All the Ryanair pilots Flightglobal met, from Conway down to junior first officers, had a quiet confidence, even a pride, about them that was not so apparent back in 2007. Ryanair demands a lot of its pilots. Conway makes clear what the standard operating procedures are, including the fuel rules. Captains are expected to take standard reserves, add allowances for winds and weather if necessary, then add about 100kg. If they want to take even more they can, but they have to justify, afterwards, why it was needed.

At the time of the controversial diversions in 2010, there was a 300kg optional fuel contingency, but since then the automatic discretionary contingency has been replaced with a lower margin for error, as the chief pilot explains: "We have a new fuel policy document 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 another 100kg on non-tankering sectors." Conway says that actual fuel consumption under the new rules has been checked, and the checks have validated the practice.

But Ryanair does have an unusual relationship with its pilots. It does not employ its co-pilots, and only directly employs about half of its captains. Those not directly on the payroll are required to be self-employed, but exclusively contracted to Ryanair, and they get paid by block duty hours. Their employment contracts and human resources issues are dealt with by agencies like UK-based Brookfield, but Brookfield does not employ them either. They are self-employed.

Ryanair's only direct interface with its pilots after selection is operational, via CrewDock, training, and its base captains. Recently a London judge, ruling in favour of a Ryanair pilot against Brookfield over employment issues, observed that the employment contract was "bizarre". The reason for it, says O'Leary, is that under this model the pilots cannot form a bargaining unit.