AIR TRAVEL

Ryanair: Low cost, low safety?

The government has accused the Irish airline of breaching regulations But CEO Michael O'Leary says the company is the victim of a smear campaign

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary, during a press conference held in Madrid last month.
Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary, during a press conference held in Madrid last month.Dani Pozo (AFP)

The Spanish government has ratcheted up its long-running row with Ryanair over alleged repeated safety breaches by the Irish low-cost airline. Public Works Minister Ana Pastor said last week she would be meeting Irish government officials at the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to discuss changes to EU legislation that would allow Spain to fine the airline itself, rather than pursuing complaints through the Irish authorities.

When speaking to the media, Pastor has avoided mentioning Ryanair by name, instead saying: "Low-cost, low-price airlines are a good thing, but we cannot have low safety." She cited incidents ranging from the loss of cabin pressure (which occurred on a flight from Madrid to Gran Canaria earlier this month) to problems such as the identification of flights.

Her ministry is also investigating three emergency landings involving Ryanair planes in Valencia at the end of July, due to the flights running low on fuel.

Pastor, who has already talked to the Irish authorities, said she wants Spain - and any other EU member state - to have the power to withdraw an airline's license. Currently it is just the company's home country that can do that. But that would be, she added, an "extreme" measure, when "serious sanctions are continuously being levied."

Many Ryanair passengers say the airline is the world's most-hated

The minister has also been working with the International Civil Aviation Organization and the European Commission to change the type and amount of sanctions, which will result in a toughening up of fines for companies that don't comply with regulations.

Ryanair calls itself the world's most successful airline, while many former passengers insist it is the world's most hated. Within the industry, its profitability is envied, and flag carriers such as Iberia have copied aspects of its no-frills approach in an effort to cut operating costs. But is its reputation for safety breaches justified, or, as Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary claims, is Ana Pastor merely trying to protect Iberia's market share by squeezing the competition out of the market?

Ryanair landed in Spain in 2004, and its business model proved an immediate success with short-haul passengers who are not interested in business class, a free meal or a complimentary newspaper. It has reduced turnarounds to 25 minutes, sells its tickets via the internet, and outsources pilots, who are paid by the flight. O'Leary made no bones that his objective was to have as many planes as possible in the air at any given time, and to offer passengers the cheapest prices in the market.

Eight years on, Ryanair now carries more passengers than Iberia, making it Spain's leading airline. Between January and August it flew 24.7 million people, giving it a market share of 20.4 percent. In a distant second place comes Vueling, with 14.1 million passengers; while Iberia trails in third place with 13.9 million.

Flag carriers such as Iberia have copied aspects of its no-frills approach

The competition says that Ryanair owes its success to taking risks that other airlines do not. Among these is its policy of saving fuel. Ryanair pilots' instructions are clear on this. In an internal memo dated February 1, 2010, the company reminded its pilots that the minimum legal amount of fuel as specified in each flight plan is sufficient and that they do not need to follow the practice of other companies in requesting extra fuel during turnarounds to cover any delays that might be caused by weather conditions or other problems during a flight. Ryanair pilots are allowed to take on just 15 minutes worth of extra fuel. The theory behind the practice is to keep the weight of the aircraft down, which burns less fuel. But the company now wants pilots to reduce that amount yet further, which it says is costing Ryanair around five million dollars a year. Pilots who do not follow the policy must "explain their actions face to face," the memo concludes.

"The pilots are under pressure, and this is clearly compromising safety," says José María Íscar, the Secretary of SEPLA, the Spanish pilots' union. "The pilot is responsible for safety and should take the necessary decision without having to think about the possible impact on his or her job."

"No Ryanair pilot has ever been sanctioned or criticized for taking on more fuel than the legal minimum," counters O'Leary in a telephone interview with EL PAÍS. "Our policy in recent years has been that the pilot should decide how much fuel is needed for a flight," he adds.

Ryanair's efforts to save fuel are at the center of the latest flare up with the Spanish government. On July 26, between 4pm and 11pm, the weather forecast for Barajas airport was for thunderstorms with heavy rain, along with strong winds. At 9pm the airport closed for 90 minutes. According to those working in the control tower and on the ground that day, the situation was chaotic, with heavy traffic, and as a result some flights were redirected to Valencia airport. Air traffic controllers there suddenly found themselves having to deal with three Ryanair planes announcing Mayday calls for lack of fuel. A Lan Chile flight also had engine problems - all in the space of 15 minutes.

Ryanair pilots are allowed to take on just 15 minutes' extra fuel

"I don't want to think what that must have been like," says David Guillamón, the press officer for USCA, the labor union that represents air traffic controllers. "A Mayday warning is not something that happens very often, contrary to what Ryanair would have us believe. Without a doubt it is one of the most difficult situations that pilots and air traffic controllers ever have to deal with. What happened in Valencia was potentially very dangerous."

AENA, the Spanish airports authority, must take its share of the blame for what happened that day. The morning shift at Barajas knew what was coming later, and had issued warnings that the airport would most likely be able to handle just 40 percent of traffic coming in as a result of the bad weather. In response, AENA should have warned Eurocontrol, the EU's flight control body, which in turn would have rescheduled flights heading into Barajas. By the time that AENA took action, it was 10.10pm, the airport was closed, and air traffic controllers were struggling to deal with incoming flights.

AENA subsequently issued a press statement saying: "On July 26, the usual measures were taken to deal with storms as laid out in the regulations, thereby reducing the airport's capacity. Nevertheless, that day there were added exceptional circumstances given the magnitude of the storm, which led to some planes being redirected."

AESA, the Spanish Air Safety Agency, has also come under fire. Pilots and air traffic controllers accuse the organization of a lack of transparency for failing to publish its findings over the events of July 26. In the United States or the United Kingdom, information about such incidents is made available on the websites of the bodies responsible for air safety. Spain, despite have recently passed legislation supposedly requiring greater transparency by government agencies, is still reluctant to release information, which in this case could help prevent accidents.

O'Leary says that Ryanair's safety matches that of other airlines

Regarding allegations in the Spanish media that Ryanair planes were involved in 1,200 safety breaches in the first quarter of this year, Michael O'Leary told EL PAÍS that the accusations are false, and have been leaked by the Public Works Ministry.

In turn, the Public Works Ministry denies that AESA leaked any information to the media, and agreed that the figure of 1,200 safety breaches was incorrect. EL PAÍS asked the Public Works Ministry for its figures regarding safety breaches by Ryanair and other airlines of a similar size, and was told: "The information is confidential."

O'Leary says that Ryanair's safety record matches that of other airlines. "The Public Works Ministry is lying. We have been flying for 20 years and have not been involved in a single accident; the number of safety incidents involving Ryanair planes is no greater than that of other companies. What sort of ministry spends its time running a smear campaign against a company that is growing, and is creating jobs in the process?"

AENA and AESA have also been criticized by ICAO, notably over their handling of the investigation into a Spanair plane that crashed at Barajas Airport in 2008, killing 154 passengers and crew. In 2010, ICAO published a report slamming the investigation, saying that it found some 40 problems related to Spain's air traffic control system. "Some reports of incidents in Spain do not reach the ICAO, and are not passed on systematically." It also questioned whether the investigators looking into the causes of the accident were sufficiently qualified, and that the government was not bound by the outcome of the report. The Socialist Party government of the time accepted most of the findings. But earlier this summer, the Public Works Ministry insisted that most of the problems had been corrected and that the ICAO had approved an action plan to address those still remaining.

Luis Lacasa, the head of COPAC, the Spanish College of Pilots, says that Ana Pastor is going to take personal charge of addressing safety issues in the Spanish airline industry. "We think this is a good thing, and hope to see action taken soon, and that this will mean real changes being implemented, unlike on previous occasions," he explains. "We have proposed setting up a multi-disciplinary working group to look at what happened in Valencia, and if mistakes have been made, to take the necessary measures to make sure that they do not happen again."

An airline is an expensive business to run, and delays can increase costs substantially, with the final responsibility for deciding when and if a plane should take off falling on the shoulders of pilots and air traffic controllers. In recent years the airline business has been subject to intense competition, particularly since Ryanair changed the rules of the game.

"Twenty years ago the costs of running an airline were astronomical," says a senior executive at one of Ryanair's competitors. "The business model created by Southwest Airlines in the United States in the 1980s, and then further developed by Ryanair, has changed everything. Shorter turnarounds mean savings of up to four million euros a year. Everything has been cut back to the legal minimum and this has changed the aviation industry, but flying still remains safe," he adds.

So is Ryanair safe? There is no evidence to suggest that the company is breaking the rules, although many experts say that it is often very close to doing so. In which case, why is Spain now so set against Ryanair? For years regional governments have paid the company huge subsidies, as they saw the company as a way of bringing in more tourists.

Industry sources say that Ryanair's competitors, who are now following the company's lead, are engaged in a life-and-death struggle. For its part, Ryanair projects itself as a company that is not only making it cheaper for people to travel, but is also creating much-needed jobs in Spain.

In July, in response to the government's plan to double airport taxes, Ryanair said it would be cutting routes and reducing the number of flights to Spain.

"Ryanair objects to the Spanish government's decision to double airport taxes at both Madrid and Barcelona airports," O'Leary said. "Sadly, this will lead to severe traffic, tourism and job cuts at both airports this winter.

"Ryanair's cuts alone will cause a combined loss of 2.3m passengers and more than 2,000 jobs at Madrid and Barcelona airports," he added. "These will go to other, lower-cost airports elsewhere in Europe, where Ryanair continues to grow."

In its mounting war of words with Ryanair, the Spanish government knows that it will find a sympathetic ear among disgruntled passengers whose stories of being overcharged for baggage, getting stung for not having a ready-printed boarding pass, finding bugs on planes, suffering delays and cancellations, and not being able to take small children aboard without passports regularly make the headlines.

Consumer rights groups say that they have received thousands of complaints from Spanish air travelers about Ryanair. Take Jorge Cívico, for example, who was prevented from boarding a flight from Seville to Palma de Mallorca last summer because his four-year-old son did not have an identity card. "They told me it was the law in Ireland," Cívico told the media. In which case, why did he travel with a company that is sometimes so problematic? "Because the company is cheaper than any other, that's why," came the answer.

In the end, that is the secret of Ryanair's success, as Michael O'Leary points out: "Have we lost any money since we started operating? No. the fact is that we have sold more tickets than anybody else."