As it seeks to rebuild its reputation following the barrage of public criticism it received for cancelling thousands of flights this winter, Ryanair is facing another challenge: winning over the hearts and minds of its pilots.
The budget carrier has sought to lay the blame for the 18,000 flight cancellations on a one-off "rostering failure" – a crisis which, it admits, was "a mess of our own making". It is much less willing to accept any suggestion that pilot discontent played a part in the disruption.
Ryanair has sought to ignore pilot unions such as BALPA and IALPA – which it does not officially recognise in staff negotiations, and which have urged it to improve working conditions.
Nevertheless, the airline has tabled an improved pay and conditions package for pilots. These include "base supplements" of €10,000 ($11,800) for captains and €5,000 for first officers stationed at Ryanair bases.
A 12-month "loyalty/productivity" bonus of up to €12,000 for captains and €6,000 for first officers is also proposed, payable monthly from November 2017 to October 2018 based on targets being met, as revealed in a letter seen by FlightGlobal which chief executive Michael O'Leary sent to all 4,200 of Ryanair's pilots last month.
Speaking to FlightGlobal in London on 14 November, Ryanair's chief people officer Eddie Wilson said the new pay and conditions on offer to pilots were designed to show the airline's Boeing 737-operating competitors a "clean pair of heels".
He denies any link between the new offer and the rostering issue, and is dismissive of the suggestion that the airline is already haemorrhaging staff to rivals and lacking pilots as a result.
"First of all, there is no pilot shortage, and there was no pilot shortage," he says, adding that Ryanair got into its present difficulties because "they [the pilots] were all on holidays", the airline having granted "too much leave" during September, October and November.
"It was a big shock what happened here as a management team, especially not seeing it [coming], which was sobering for everybody because we always prided ourselves on operational excellence," Wilson says.
To compound the problem, he recalls, a large number of pilots were "in the wrong place, because the way they were organising standby cover at that point was from a number of larger bases, rather than having standby cover spread evenly, the way we always did it".
In September, for example, Ryanair was "robbing Peter to pay Paul" by moving people around as each shortage occurred, rather than ensuring each base was adequately staffed.
Wilson adds that Ryanair had no "early warning" of the looming crisis because the cabin-crew roster "did not fall over during the summer", despite there being a similar days-on/days-off pattern.
The budget carrier has, he says, taken "decisive" action to prevent any further disruption than that already announced, by reintroducing a four-week roster as standard for its flightcrew and by "beefing up" the rostering team at its central office.
All new pilots joining Ryanair will automatically be given its new set of pay and conditions, and the carrier is in negotiations with the employee representative committees (ERC) at each of its 86 bases to convince them to accept the new terms. Twenty have already signed up, says Wilson.
However, Ryanair pilots at its biggest base, London Stansted, have rejected the new offer. As a result, the ERC has resigned and a new one has been formed. Wilson says the new ERC is on a "fact-finding mission at the moment" to decide "how they are going to continue negotiations, what they are going to do".
He says the Stansted base's existing contract does not expire until 2020, and defends the negotiating system the airline has put in place.
"We have had collective bargaining for the last 25 years. We have collective bargaining with our pilots locally in all of the bases," he says. "Deals expire at different times. It serves the pilots well."
Attempts to link the disruption to this improved offer is an example of people "jumping to conclusions", Wilson argues. He brands interventions by unions as an "opportunistic push" by them to gain recognition.
The carrier remains committed to negotiating solely and directly with pilots and has no intention of recognising unions.
"Ryanair doesn't have an issue with people being in a union or being members of a union [but] what they have done in other parts of the industry is destroy it – look at the people out on their ear at Monarch," says Wilson.
"What unions have done time and time again, because that's how they are made, is to take the dusty terms and conditions booklet that works for one airline and stuff it into another airline whether it's going to work or not, and it doesn’t work."
He adds: "Unions should actually welcome this, because ourselves and Norwegian and EasyJet and Wizz and all these operators have created thousands of jobs, and it's changed, and you have the bizarre situation of unions on the outside telling people not to take a €22,000 increase. It's like the world has gone mad."
His comments are refuted by BALPA general secretary Brian Strutton.
"It fits Ryanair's narrative to paint unions as 'outsiders' threatening the company's future," says Strutton. "This is nonsense, and any of the problems Ryanair is having with pilots are, in our opinion, entirely as a result of management failures.
"BALPA's goal is to ensure that airlines treat pilots fairly, whilst also remaining profitable. We work with companies across the country, including many low-cost airlines, holiday airlines, regional carriers, cargo, long-haul, the helicopter sector, and everything in between. The idea that we have a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with these employers shows that Mr Wilson really doesn't know what he's talking about.
"The pilots are knocking at BALPA's door, not the other way around. Perhaps if he spent more time listening to his pilots' concerns, and less throwing mud at unions, maybe his pilots wouldn't be in revolt."
Wilson expects that, with Ryanair having "fixed" its rostering issues, there will be no more disruptions after March. He says punctuality levels are in the 90% region, and argues that the healthy profit reported in the carrier's last quarterly financial results indicate a return to "business as usual".
He adds: "When all the media and comment has died down, people now realise: 'Well, how can their results still be no change in guidance for the year?'"
Ryanair is now seeking to recruit an additional 1,000 pilots as it seeks to crew new aircraft being delivered over the coming years, bringing the total above 5,000.
Recruitment efforts are being stepped up not because pilots have been enticed away by rivals such as Jet2 and Norwegian but because a drop in Ryanair's aircraft deliveries in 2013 meant that "we didn't need as many first officers then, who would now be the people coming out of the training machine ready for command upgrade", says Wilson.
But changes can be perceived in the way Ryanair plans to hire pilots in the future.
Wilson says Ryanair will be seeking to employ more pilots directly than previously, as opposed to hiring them through recruitment agencies such as Crewlink. It also plans to upgrade 250 first officers to captains.
He asserts that the "overwhelming majority" of Ryanair captains are already "directly employed" by the airline.
All Ryanair pilots are hired under an Irish contract, apart from those employed in the UK who work under local employment law. The carrier also defines its aircraft as being Irish territory and therefore subject to that country's employment laws.
Over the years, Ryanair has fought a number of legal cases arising from this arrangement, with staff and ex-staff seeking to force the airline to adhere to local employment and benefit levels.
Wilson says the airline intends to continue with its contractual model. However, in the wake of labour disputes such as the Mons case currently being heard in Belgium, the airline will in future look at local conditions and "if there are differences in local employment law, we will look at those".
He adds: "The employment laws are largely the same [in Europe]. They are all driven by the same directives and where there are differences – if that's a big thing for our people – we will look at encompassing some of those differences under Irish employment law."
Overall, he contends, most employees are happy with the current contracting system because they can access Irish employment tribunals free of charge.
Wilson says that the airline is already compliant with local jurisdictions, and that 85% of its staff in Germany pay German social insurance fees.
With its new pay, terms and conditions, Ryanair is, Wilson argues, an attractive place to work, especially given the breadth of its presence in Europe.
"If you're a 737 captain in Catania, there ain't anybody else opening [a base] in Catania, there ain't anyone opening in Cagliari, or Santiago de Compostela, so if you're from there, it's the best job in the world."
Interest from pilots formerly with defunct carriers such as Air Berlin and Monarch has been "swelled" by Ryanair's 20% rise in pay, he says.
It remains to be seen whether Ryanair has done enough to fight off pressure to recognise the unions and make its offer too good for pilots to go elsewhere.
Source: Cirium Dashboard