When Ryanair first announced it was cancelling flights back in September, the headlines and my inbox were filled with complaints from angry passengers. The European Parliament even held an emergency debate on the situation.
However despite Ryanair suffering a £22 million blow in the wake of its flight cancellation fiasco, the company’s half-year profits are up by 11 per cent and its pre-tax profits climbed to £1.139 billion for the six months ending in September.
More importantly, I fear that the calculation Ryanair bosses made has paid off. Public anger has dissipated quickly and the news agenda has moved on.
Today I spoke again in the European Parliament about Ryanair because while the headlines may no longer be about them, the misery for their pilots continues.
I recently met Ryanair pilots at Stansted Airport in my constituency. They spoke to me on the understanding I wouldn’t use their names but would tell their stories.
The pilots told me of a climate of fear. If you have a house near Stansted and children in local schools, the threat of being moved to a far flung base if you speak out can be paralysing.
Despite wearing the airline’s uniform, abiding by their rules and only flying for Ryanair, many Ryanair pilots are self employed. They are told to set up a limited company with accountants recommended by the airline. That company then supplies pilots to one of several agencies who in turn supply them to Ryanair. The system cuts Ryanair’s costs but is bad news for the pilots, limiting, for example, Ryanair’s obligations on sick pay. I was told of cases where pilots turn up to work ill because they won’t get sick pay. This of course has a knock on effect on passenger safety. Who would knowingly board an aircraft being flown by a pilot who is not one hundred per cent fit.
If pilots don’t fly, it doesn’t cost Ryanair a penny. However pilots literally only get paid for time flying in the air. Taxiing on the tarmac with a plane load of passengers does not count nor are they paid if delayed by weather or security concerns. I heard of a pilot who was at work for fourteen hours but only paid for 0.7 hours.
Due to large staff turnover, another pilot explained that pilots are pushed to become captains too soon, resulting in an experience lag behind more established carriers.
It is even worse for cabin crew. Targets for selling food, drink and gifts must be met. If they are on a flight to return an empty plane back to base they don’t get paid a penny. I heard first-hand how some crew members are paid so poorly on routes they sleep on hotel floors to cut costs. Considering these people are responsible for getting people off a plane in an emergency and being alert throughout a flight, to say this is beyond ideal would be a major understatement. A good night’s sleep is clearly imperative.
Of course for many passengers, the opportunities offered by cheap flights - a weekend break to Copenhagen or Prague, being able to see friends and family in Ireland more often, or meeting up with work colleagues face to face in Frankfurt - have been enormous.
As a regular traveller I’m not against a “no frills” approach for the passenger. I’m perfectly capable of either taking my own sandwiches on board or buying a meal mid-air. I don’t need the latest in-flight entertainment. I can accept or decline scratch cards.
It is fair enough for passengers to choose no frills for themselves but those staffing the plane deserve better than this.
Relying on unsustainable employment practices: zero hours contracts, bogus self-employment and making staff pay for their own training, has become the norm. Wages are going down and there is a race to the bottom. It is time for some real action in this area.
As I said in Parliament today, we cannot allow Ryanair to fly out of the news agenda so quickly, they need a turbulent ride until they end these employment practices which are unfair, wrong and ultimately costly to all.