Ryanair and its pilots hit turbulence



Ryanair is coming under heavy fire from pilots uneasy with its management style and working conditions, just as complaints from passengers incensed by its mass cancellations last month start to ease off.

In a company which does not recognise any official union, pilots have been taking to social media over the last week to call for dialogue, and to share their anger at a management class they accuse of disdain.

"There's an obvious haemorrhaging of pilots," said one former Ryanair co-pilot who recently left for another airline and agreed to speak to AFP on the condition of anonymity.

"They leave because they're fed up with being treated like numbers", he said, condemning "the management's terror regime."

"The problem was brewing and it just took a spark to set the whole thing alight," he said of the thousands of cancelled flights, which the company's brash director general Michael O'Leary blamed on glitches in holiday leave planning.

Ryanair management, approached by AFP, denied these "hearsay claims" and pointed out that all 86 of Ryanair's air bases have elected pilot representatives, who are able to enter into negotiations without "fear or terror."

Internally, the exclusive reliance on employee representation committees (ERC) for dialogue is heavily questioned.

Pilots active on the Aviation Professionals Unite website say they have sent their boss a letter from 60 ERCs to ask for the creation of a pan-European body to represent all pilots.

Ryanair management has dismissed the move as an "anonymous letter" sent by competitor pilot unions.

Amid a global surge in demand for pilots, Europe's largest carrier advertised that its pilots will earn "22 percent more than Jet2, 20 percent more than Norwegian" through its suggested annual pay increase of thousands of euros.

- 'Sick and tired' -

Pilots told AFP that employees including flight attendants, ground crew and administrative staff had issues with management.

"For most pilots, the problem is not financial," said a Ryanair pilot earning 5,400 euros (£4,800) a month. "It's more that the system makes us tired and demotivated."

The pilot is one of many to condemn the two-tier system in which the company's 4,000 pilots operate.

While some are directly employed by Ryanair, with contracts signed in the countries where they are based, others are self-employed through a multitude of Irish structures and therefore lose out on healthcare and pension benefits.

This is straight-forward "social barbarism", according to the pilot, though Ryanair says it employs pilots in "exactly the same way" as its low-cost rivals.

"Ryanair makes the most of this to keep its system standing on fear and I've seen tired, sick guys fly a plane", the pilot added, something the company firmly denies.

Though the vast majority of Ryanair pilots who come forward do so anonymously, Imelda Comer, a Dublin-based pilot preparing to leave the company after a decade of service, went on the record in a public letter to the company's boss in an attempt to prompt action.

She said the offers made by Ryanair "do not reflect any of the concerns or requirements set out by the pilots; are confusing and in some places potentially misleading."

Management said it would not respond to letters "from a pilot who has resigned."

- A change of trajectory? -

The European Cockpit Association launched a campaign on Thursday to support pilots who speak out about working conditions, as well as a crowd sourced fund designed to act as a "safety net" for those who lose their jobs as a consequence.

Simultaneously, the British Airline Pilots' Association has launched a survey among Ryanair pilots asking whether they would be prepared to support industrial action.

A 32-year-old company experiencing such regular and "colossal" staff turnover is "obviously at a pivotal moment of its existence", said Christophe Tharot, head of France's SNPL pilots union, adding that Ryanair's employment system was based on "pressure and omerta (a code of silence)".

"Any pilot is free to leave Ryanair if he/she so wishes," responded the company.

"In 2017 we have to date recruited over 910 pilots and have a waiting list of over 2,500 qualified pilots who wish to join," said the carrier, which insists it has resolved its holiday leave plans.

It has just welcomed back a former employee and head of Malaysia Airlines as director of operations, who will be in charge of "enacting an important transformation in the way in which we reward out pilots and improve their working environments", said O'Leary.

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