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

Michael O'Leary, chief executive officer of Ryanair Holdings Plc, attends the company's annual general meeting in front of a group of photographers and members of the media in Dublin, Ireland, on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017.

Ryanair Holdings Plc’s flight-cancellation crisis enters its fourth week 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.

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.

Even with ongoing fallout, Ryanair has stabilized operational issues, with 98 percent of passengers refunded or re-accommodated on alternative flights, according to the company. While the carrier “deeply regretted” scrapping flights through the winter flying schedule, the move has lifted punctuality, with 97 percent of flights leaving on time last week after dropping to under 70 percent in the weeks leading up to the crisis, Chief Marketing Officer Kenny Jacobs said in a statement Monday.

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. That communication also appeared on the Pilots Unite website, which claims to represent the carrier’s pilots, though no names for its backers were given.

Ryanair has previously said it “will not respond or accede to” anonymous demands made via unsigned communications, cautioning that prior emails have been drafted by pilots and unions at rivals who are pursuing “an industrial relations agenda at the expense” of Ryanair.

A separate note published on the Pilots Unite site Monday said flight crew won’t consider pay offers for staff at 60 of Ryanair’s bases before the carrier appoints a third party to handle disciplinary action and provides paid leave for people engaged in representative activities.

Disrupted Customers

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.

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 little changed at 16.51 euros as of 12:59 p.m. in Dublin.

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