Author Mark Richards

Irish airline Ryanair has just announced that it will cancel flights for the next six weeks – leading to travel misery for thousands of passengers. Why has Michael O’Leary and the company done this? And what does it mean for their future – and yours if you had a flight booked with them?

Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, walks into a bar.

“A pint of Guinness, barman,” he says.

“Certainly, Mr O’Leary. That’ll be one euro.”

“That’s very cheap,” says, O’Leary.

“Sure it is,” says the barman, Then he pauses, just as he’s about to pour the pint. “Would you be wanting a glass with that, Mr O’ Leary?”

Jokes about Ryanair have been flying thick and fast over the past few days – which is rather more than you can say for the company’s planes.

Ryanair is going to cancel between 40 and 55 flights a day for the next six weeks – industry estimates suggest that leave will up to 400,000 passengers with their holiday and/or travel plans in ruins.

Always Getting Better?

If you go on the Ryanair website there is a nice little strapline at the bottom: ‘Always Getting Better.’ Right now, you could hardly come up with three less suitable words to describe the company’s actions. It is a textbook example of how to damage a company’s reputation and, unsurprisingly, when news of the problem broke, £500m was wiped off the company’s stock market valuation.

There is something we used to say to our children when they were little: ‘Tell us the truth: if you tell us the truth we can fix it. If you lie to us – or don’t tell us everything – there is nothing we can do.’ Initially, that seemed to be the case with Ryanair: passengers very understandably wanted the full list of cancelled flights to be published and the company refused to do it. I suspect the problem was that Ryanair did not know which flights they would have to cancel. They have now published the list, but still manage to give a passable impression of the boy at school saying, ‘Sorry, not sorry.’

Ryanair and Michael O’Leary

Ryanair was founded in 1984 and is headquartered in Dublin. By any standards it is a successful business: in 2016 it was the largest European airline by scheduled passengers flown and had a net operating income of €1.6bn. But the company has always courted controversy, not least in the shape of its outspoken CEO Michael O’Leary, one of Ireland’s wealthiest businessmen.

Michael O’Leary is a billionaire, his racehorses have twice won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Rule the World won the Grand National for him in 2016. He famously registered his car as a taxi so he could get to work more quickly by driving in Dublin’s bus lanes and his views and quotes have become legendary. Replying to a customer asking for a refund he reputedly said,

“You’re not getting a refund so go away. [I paraphrase.] We don’t want to hear your sob stories. What part of ‘no refund’ do you not understand?”

…And on customer service, Michael O’Leary said,

“People say the customer is always right. But you know what? They’re not, and they need to be told.”

It is rumoured that he turned down the lead role in The Apprentice before it was offered to Alan Sugar and he is also an attendee at the secretive Bilderberg Group meetings – which conspiracy theorists will tell you secretly rule the world.

In 2014 Michael O’Leary was highly critical of a 24-hour strike by Aer Lingus cabin crew. The strike caused the cancellation of 200 flights and disrupted 200,000 passengers – so around 50% of the number that will be hit by the Ryanair cancellations. O’Leary accused Aer Lingus of mismanagement and called for the sacking of the board. He is probably not drafting his own resignation letter as you read this, but many people might say that Ryanair and Mr O’Leary had this coming.

So why are Ryanair cancelling flights?

Michael O’Leary

By World Travel & Tourism Council (Michael O’Leary, CEO, Ryanair) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, it is fairly simple. They do not have enough pilots. Ryanair admits to “messing up” the planning of pilots’ holidays. Rather more worryingly – which they seem less keen to comment on – they have lost 140 pilots to rival airline Norwegian. I will be honest and say that I had never heard of Norwegian until this debacle broke out: well, I have now and I suspect that a good few passengers will be following the 140 pilots to the new airline.

Does Ryanair really have a pilot shortage?

Absolutely not, say the company. “This is not true,” said a spokesman.

“These cancellations are not a result of pilot shortages.”

But anecdotal evidence – reported yesterday in a BBC story – might suggest otherwise. The 140 pilots who have already defected to Norwegian are a matter of fact: but other companies, such as Jet2, are also expanding and recruiting pilots. The BBC story cites one unnamed airline as recently recruiting 40 new pilots, of whom 32 came from Ryanair. If it is the case that the company has a shortage of pilots then the problem cannot be fixed overnight: it takes three months for a pilot to work his or her notice at another airline, and another three months to train them. So even if a pilot wakes up this morning and decides to join Ryanair, he will only be ready to fly by the middle of March 2018 – barely a couple of weeks before Easter.

What compensation am I entitled to?

The vast majority of Ryanair’s flights are within the EU, meaning that passengers’ compensation will be governed by some very specific rules. On its website, Ryanair says that it will ‘accommodate [passengers’] option of choice wherever possible while complying with EU regulation 261/2004.’ So what exactly are your rights if your flight is cancelled?

Number one, you can apply for a refund. Even if it is only the outward leg of a flight that is cancelled you can still get a refund for the return leg, assuming you do not now want to use it. And to be honest, it is hard to imagine something thinking, ‘Hmmm… Why don’t I get the bus to Barcelona so I can fly back with Ryanair?’

Or you can choose an alternative flight, perhaps on an earlier or later date: Ryanair will certainly offer you another flight with them. Of course, you still have the irritation of arriving on Tuesday for the hotel room you booked for Sunday… Fortunately, the Civil Aviation Authority says that if a different airline is flying there ‘significantly sooner’ then you have the right to book onto a flight with that airline. However, Michael O’Leary has said that Ryanair will not book passengers onto flights with other airlines.

There are other, varying degrees of compensation depending on the length of your flight and when you were told of the cancellation, but these are all based on strict arithmetical formulae. There is no compensation for telling your children that the family holiday has been cancelled, or for the hours you might need to spend online re-arranging hotel bookings for different dates. Perhaps you could have a chat with that nice Mr Michael O’Leary and see what he has to say?

That’s enough from me for today. Besides – I am needed at the Ryanair check-in. A woman has burst into tears. Says she is being charged extra for emotional baggage…