The Ryanair Shambles and the Lack of Pilots

I am no fan of the low budget “no-frills” airline Ryanair. I am no fan of that side of the airline business in general but of course like all of you I have used them a lot. So, naturally I was very interested to hear how Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary would explain the shambolic events that led to the company cancelling over 2000 flights over a six-week period.

Ryanair’s boss and founder is not someone most people instantly like. I admire him as a business man – of that there is no doubt – but if you are like me then you will have enjoyed seeing him squirm during his recent press conference. The real question is; who’s head is going to roll? If O’Leary is to be believed (for once) then someone is ‘for the high jump’. It is inconceivable that the person(s) responsible for this chaos will survive the wrath of a such a ruthlessly operated business.

Business models and problems…

These days O’Leary is only a minor shareholder (apparently only 4%) but his PR and marketing stories are the stuff of legend. The tales of having to pay for using the toilets and standing up (seat-less flights) are two that spring to mind. Complete nonsense and totally fabricated for the benefit of the press but evidence that O’Leary is from the old school of business promotion where the motto is; “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. They are consistently good at digging their way out of such seeming disasters. Write them off at your peril. But maybe, just maybe, this time, Ryanair has overstepped the mark…

We are told that the problem was too many pilots needing holidays over the same (few months) period. Yet paradoxically in the same speech Mr. O’Leary assured us that Ryanair does have enough pilots. But could there be more to it? Is there something else they are not telling us and do they really have enough pilots?

I fly a lot more than most. I have had to fly regularly for quite some time due to work commitments and now family ties. I remember the first “no-frills” flights well and even took one of the earliest EasyJet flights from Luton to Barcelona way back in the day. Since then I have often marvelled at the exponential rise in the numbers of such flights. One burning question never went away: Where do they get all the pilots from?

Time for some research…

Traditionally flying was a minority occupation for a tiny amount of people. Way back in the day when TWA was the biggest airline in the world and Pan-Am had a skyscraper in New York City becoming an airline pilot was a job almost exclusively for ex-servicemen. Leave the US Airforce and fly passengers. Retire from the RAF and join British Airways. You know the sort of thing right?

In more recent “no frills” flying times the numbers in the RAF in particular have been dropping. We now infamously have a Navy with only one new aircraft carrier and no aircraft to land on it. Reports suggest that by the end of the decade the RAF could be left with only 127 combat aircraft. That would be the lowest since 1918. That would also mean that the RAF would then have its lowest number of pilots. Why would they need so many with so few aircraft?

While the no-frills flights numbers have shot up at an incredible rate, the traditional source of pilots has been (and still is) decreasing. The problem is there for all to see.

Lack of Pilots…

So; I ask again: Where the hell are all the pilots coming from? Companies like Ryanair are certainly not training them. It is not in their business model and never could be. The one thing that does seem to attract newly qualified pilots to Ryanair is the chance to get in lots of flying hours soon after qualifying. Then, I believe, they tend to move on after only a few years. So Mr. O’Leary may not be correct when he insists that they have plenty of pilots.

A friend of mine did everything he could to help his son through flight training. He and his family would have had to make great sacrifices but it has paid off. His son consistently came top of the class and now flies for EasyJet. Stories like that are few and far between however and it is normally only wealthy families who are able to fund such sky-high career choices for the children. While the rewards may be there when you finally make the grade the training is generally not free.

In the case of Ryanair the pilots are also coming from lots of other European countries – which makes sense considering the number of flights made to and from most of those countries. But do they really have enough?

If Michael O’Leary had been around in Geronimo’s time I am sure the old Apache chief would say something like “man with iron birds speak with forked tongue”.

Choice of airlines…

To use the airline industry’s own phrase “we appreciate that you do have a choice of airlines”; and I do. In my case Ryanair would almost always be the last choice. Personally, if I had to choose between a cheaper Ryanair flight and a slightly more expensive alternative I would always choose the alternative. The difference between Ryanair and EasyJet (arguably its main competitor) is definitely worth paying the extra for.

When I fly with my son we fly EasyJet. If it is too expensive – and don’t ask me to define that exactly – we pick a different date. Ryanair is always the last resort. But let’s not forget that Ryanair are not the only company to cause such chaos. British Airways (formerly known as “the world’s favourite airline”) had similar problems when a computer system failed spectacularly last spring. Bizarrely, British Airways are now a Spanish run airline. Work that one out….

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