Is Ryanair short of pilots? It’s a critical question.
It could help explain why 400,000 Ryanair passengers are having flights cancelled over the next few weeks.
But it’s hard to give a straight answer.
The company’s boss, Michael O’Leary, is adamant that they don’t have a pilot shortage. He says the cancellations are down to a cock-up with the holiday rotas, combined with bad weather and air traffic control delays and strikes.
But I got a completely different message from several former and current Ryanair pilots, who are equally as strident that a lack of pilots is also to blame.
Some of these people told me that they are risking their jobs by talking to the media.
At least two used the word “droves” to describe the numbers leaving right now. There is a buoyant market for pilots, as airlines such as Norwegian and Jet2 are expanding. We know 140 Ryanair pilots have gone to Norwegian this year. Jet2 wouldn’t give us a number.
‘Used as scapegoats’
One pilot told me that on a recent recruitment drive for another airline, 32 of the 40 people they took on were from Ryanair.
I heard: “Pilots are really annoyed at being blamed for taking holidays.” They feel they were being used as scapegoats for these cancellations.
They were all sure that the problems were “self-induced”, because people are leaving “quicker than they can replace them”. And the training programmes for pilots are “weeks, even months” in arrears, so “cadets aren’t getting trained”.
Many instructors “have quit, causing extreme disruption”.
I asked Ryanair if their training department was understaffed and they said it was “untrue”.
This comment from one pilot sums up what most were telling me.
“The issue is one of crewing, and crewing only. No company plans to implement a leave system that leaves them woefully undermanned during a peak period. Had Ryanair had enough pilots, this would not have been an issue. However, the lack of pilots has been laid bare for all to see.”
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Another said: “Bizarrely, people that work here are laughing, because it’s finally all coming out.”
Several talked about a “toxic” atmosphere and how they felt “undervalued”.
The company is offering a £12,000 bonus to captains who stay from now until the end of October 2018. But there is anger at the strings attached.
You must fly 800 hours over the year, work extra days, you can’t take more than four days’ sick leave and so on. They tell me it’s a high bar to qualify.
The people I spoke to said Ryanair was a good company to join as a young pilot, because they make you a captain quickly.
But once you’ve gained experience, you can get a much better and more secure job elsewhere, especially now. And that’s exactly what they are doing.
To me, talking to these pilots, it felt like payback.
Axe to grind
This all came from more than a dozen staff, but that is out of 4,200 pilots. They all contacted me because they wanted a voice for their frustrations and they’d had enough of their employer.
So they had an axe to grind. And they all admitted that they’d got good, well-paid jobs compared to many. No-one is forcing them to work at Ryanair.
The company could not have been clearer yesterday. When I asked if a lack of pilots was exacerbating the problem, they told me: “This is not true. These cancellations are not a result of pilot shortages.”
But the staff that I spoke to universally disagreed. In fact, the company’s denial riled them so much that they decided to get in touch.
One warned that this problem could rear up again next summer, because it takes three months for a pilot to work their notice at another airline and another three months to train them. So you can’t just employ a load of pilots at short notice.
“The only way to stop this happening again is for the company to get better at keeping its staff,” said one.