Does Ryanair have a pilot recruitment problem or not? Well, it’s an interesting question as publicly the airline says it definitely doesn’t. The evidence to the contrary would suggest otherwise. To remind you, the reason we’re even discussing this is because Ryanair suddenly cancelled thousands of flights at short notice a few weeks ago – 315,000 bookings were impacted with customers given conflicting and often wrong information in the wake of the decision.
The problem, the airline claimed, was a mix up with the way annual leave was calculated for its pilots, as well as a change to the rules by the Irish aviation authorities. That seemed bad enough but Ryanair initially did it’s best to try and downplay the problem.
It wasn’t long, however, before pilots started to speak out – saying the annual leave cock-up was just the tip of the iceberg. Informal workers groups started to spring up across Ryanair’s European pilot’s bases, demanding better pay, conditions and the right to union representation – something Ryanair currently prohibits under Irish law.
Then, if things weren’t bad enough, a further 400,000 bookings across 18,000 flights between November 2017 and March 2018 were wiped from Ryanair’s schedules. The airline said the dramatic move was necessary to once and for fall clear the backlog or pilot annual leave and keep ‘on-time’ performance in the high 90th percentile.
How many pilots did rival Norwegian poach?
But commentators speculated that Ryanair was actually in the midst of a pilot recruitment crisis – the airline simply couldn’t recruit enough staff to fill all the positions it needed to fly a full schedule (as well as keep up with its massive expansion programme).
It wasn’t helped that rival carrier, Norwegian publicly said it had poached over 100 Ryanair pilots this year. Norwegian operates the same type of aircraft as Ryanair – the Boeing 737 – and has a similar European route network. The big difference between the two airline’s is Norwegian’s generous salary and benefits package.
Ryanair rubbished Norwegian’s claims, saying the number of its pilots who had defected were far lower than what they had been speculated. And in any case, Ryanair says it has no problem finding new pilots to fill the shoes of anyone who might leave (or threaten to do so).
Ryanair has hired 867 pilots in 2017 alone
In fact, Friday saw the 867th pilot to join Ryanair in 2017 get their wings. The moment was celebrated at an event at the company’s headquarters in Dublin which saw 45 new recruit pilots join the airline. Ryanair says similar numbers start working for the carrier every week.
“The ladies and gentlemen that fly for Ryanair are the best in the business and it’s no surprise that we continue to attract hundreds of pilot applicants from other airlines,” claimed Ray Conway, Ryanair’s chief pilot.
Conway said flight crew were attracted to the Irish budget carrier for the “industry leading pay, excellent working conditions, unrivalled career progression and brand new aircraft.”
Recruiters have been sent to Brazil and the UAE on the hunt for new pilots
But just like many other airlines, Ryanair is also being forced to look further afield for suitably trained pilots. According to Bloomberg, recruiters have been dispatched to the UAE and Brazil to drum up interest in the airline. As part of its campaign to woo both existing staff and potential new recruits, Ryanair has promised to boost pay and adjust its management style.
The wage offer, however, is a limited one time offer. Pilots have until the end of next month to accept the new conditions or have them permanently withdrawn. The plan is to encourage pilots to give up on the idea or getting union representation.
“We will not enter into writing, or meetings, with competitor airline pilots/unions, or whatever they call themselves this week . . . whose sole aim is to prevent you from accessing a big pay increase next month,” said Eddie Wilson, Ryanair’s head of HR in a letter to flight crew.
Pilots are now joining local unions – but Ryanair doesn’t recognise them
The airline is acting swiftly to head off the potential threat of an emboldened workforce. Ryanair clearly doesn’t want costs to be driven up and revenues slashed by staff calling the shots when it comes to their remuneration packages. Many pilots at the airline’s European bases are said to have joined local unions in the last few weeks. Those unions may not be so accepting of Ryanair’s latest offer to end the dispute.
In the meantime, even without any official union representation for the pilots, Ryanair has taken a hit. The mass cancellations (and resulting compensation claims) are only the start of Ryanair’s woes – the airline says its passenger’s numbers have bounced back but Ryanair has been forced to slash prices to encourage sales. That will hurt future revenues.
Expansion plans curtailed and profits still looking good
Then there’s the fact that Ryanair has applied the brakes on its aggressive expansion plan – Michael O’Leary, the airline’s chief executive has said this will allow Ryanair to get back on track. Ryanair has also been forced to give up on its bid to buy the Italian airline, Alitalia so it can concentrate on clearing up the mess.
Ryanair’s plans for Alitalia had been seen as the carriers break into low-cost, long-haul travel. For now, it looks like Norwegian will continue to have free reign in the European market. Not that it should affect Ryanair’s bottom line too much – for now at least.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.