* Michael O’Leary says pilots do not have a ‘difficult job’ but admits he cannot rule out further flight cancellations into November
The Ryanair chief executive, Michael O’Leary, has escalated the airline’s dispute with pilots, saying they do not have a “difficult job” and claiming he can force them to defer their time off.
O’Leary is scrambling to prevent more disruption to Ryanair’s schedule after cancelling up to 50 flights a day due to a rota “mess-up” that left it short of pilots.
Speaking at the airline’s AGM in Dublin on Thursday, he dismissed suggestions of industrial action from disgruntled pilots seeking improved employment terms.
“I don’t even know how there would be industrial action in Ryanair,” O’Leary said. “There isn’t a union.”
He said the airline had “some goodies” to discuss with pilots, but warned: “If pilots misbehave, that will be the end of the goodies.”
On Wednesday, a group of pilots turned down an offer of up to £12,000 to keep flying during their scheduled leave, many of them putting their names to a letter demanding full employment contracts instead.
Ryanair said in an email to pilots earlier this week that it needs them to fly more hours to avoid more flights being scrapped.
But it now says that any new cancellations would be due to unforeseen reasons such as bad weather and would not be related to its staffing issues.
O’Leary appeared unwilling to give any ground in the standoff, instead threatening to cancel pilots’ time off and questioning the extent of their talents.
He said any that were due a four-week break in the next few months could be forced under the terms of their contract to delay one of those weeks until January, in exchange for double pay during that week.
He also accused some pilots of being “precious about themselves” and “full of their own self-importance”.
“Once you are trained and skilled at doing it … I would challenge any pilot to explain how this is a difficult job or how it is they are overworked, or how anybody who by law can’t fly more than 18 hours a week could possibly be suffering from fatigue,” he said.
Two pilots told the Guardian that they and many of their colleagues were angered by O’Leary’s claims about their employment conditions.
One said the figure of 18 hours quoted by O’Leary appeared to have been calculated by dividing the maximum permitted 900 hours flight time per year by 52 weeks.
He said this did not reflect the number of flight hours in a normal working week and also omitted many hours of time before and after flights.
“During my time working at Ryanair I worked on more than a few occasions over 50 hours per week,” said the pilot, who asked not to be named in case it affected his job.
“It frustrates many of my colleagues and myself to see such incorrect statements being made,” he added.
Another pilot who left Ryanair recently after more than five years said: “It’s very much in character for [O’Leary] to denigrate the job of what is traditionally a highly respected profession.”
A letter from pilots to Ryanair had signatories from bases across Europeturning down the airline’s offer of a tax-free cash bonus and warning that they are prepared to “work to rule”.
If pilots make good on the threat, they will refuse to do anything outside their contractual obligations, such as turning up early to avoid delays or answering phone calls on days off.
O’Leary said: “There isn’t a bad relationship between Ryanair and our pilots. We asked on Monday for volunteers to work days off ... We have had huge cooperation and support from pilots.”
Referring to pilots’ pay, he said: “Maybe we have got it a bit on the low side,” adding that increases might be needed in areas where recruitment is harder, such as London Stansted, Dublin, Frankfurt and Berlin. He said the airline has hired 125 new pilots in the past fortnight to help solve its rota problem.
The outspoken chief executive repeated apologies to about 315,000 passengers and admitted the airline had made a “major boo boo”.
But his contrition did not appear to have appease all investors, some of whom voted against the company’s remuneration report and the re-election of board members.
While nearly 89% of the votes cast were in favour of its pay deal for directors, US pension funds Calstrs and Calpers voted against, while Calstrs also voted against the re-election of nearly the entire board, including O’Leary.
Their fellow shareholder NN Investment Partners said in a recent report that it had “growing concern about how the airline pays its staff and interacts with unions”.