Ryanair Flight Crisis Unabated as Executive Heads for Exit

  • Hickey to step down at the end of October, spokesman says
  • Dublin-based discount carrier begins search for successor

Ryanair Holdings Plc’s flight-cancellation crisis enters its fourth week with no sign of abating after the public furor over 20,000 scrapped services claimed the first senior manager at the Irish discount carrier and pilots stepped up moves toward unionization.

Chief Operating Officer Michael Hickey is leaving at the end of this month after almost three decades at the airline, Ryanair said late Friday, without naming a successor. Calling him a “hard act to replace,” Hickey will remain in an advisory role while Ryanair searches for a suitable successor.

Michael O’Leary at the company’s annual general meeting.

Photographer: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

The botched response to a pilot shortage, the result of sloppy vacation planning and defections to other carriers, has engulfed Ryanair for several weeks and enraged customers, regulators and politicians alike. Michael O’Leary, the hard-talking chief executive officer, took the unusual step of making a personal pledge to pilots last week, offering improved pay and career prospects to avert an open rebellion among employees.

O’Leary, who said previously that “villainizing” him or someone else down the company food chain wasn’t a priority, praised Hickey for his “enormous contribution” to Ryanair, which has turned itself into Europe’s largest discount carrier with its rock-bottom fares and fast aircraft turnarounds.

The exit of the executive and the CEO’s direct appeal to flight crew appears not to have headed off employee moves toward seeking collective bargaining.

The Irish Independent reported that some pilots are seeking to create an unofficial union in the form of a pan-European employee representative committee -- the name Ryanair uses for its own in-house negotiating councils. The newspaper cited a letter circulated over the weekend which it said laid out an action plan for establishing a central structured body, estimating that the move has the backing of pilots from at least 15 Ryanair bases.

O’Leary has made a name for himself with his hard-charging approach that long prioritized cheap tickets and low costs. In recent years, he’s worked to redefine the public perception of his airline by improving in-flight service and the check-in experience to widen the appeal to business travelers as competition for low-cost travel intensifies.

Disrupted Customers

The cancellations, first announced last month, have affected flights for about 700,000 customers and reduced the company’s growth plans by 6 million passengers this year and next. In order to focus all management attention to the response, Ryanair also scrapped plans to bid for insolvent carrier Alitalia SpA, which would have given it access to long-distance routes, among O’Leary’s long-term expansion aspirations.

Ryanair’s renowned efficiency, built on cheap seats and punctuality, helped turn the company into Europe’s largest airline by market value, but left it little room for maneuver when circumstances changed. The cancellation crisis erupted after mismanagement of Ryanair’s pilots’ annual leave requirements that had left it without enough cockpit crew to operate its full schedules. Hundreds of pilots have also left the carrier in the past year, drawn by higher pay and better career prospects at other airlines.

Hickey will conclude “a number of large projects” before leaving, such as arranging an engine maintenance contract and new hangars in Madrid and Seville, Spain, O’Leary said. The operating chief, who assumed the post in 2014, has been at the airline since 1988, joining as an engineer and rising to run the department.

Shares of Ryanair were trading 0.5 percent higher at 16.57 euros as of 8:28 a.m. in Dublin.

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