ATC strikes, bad weather exacerbated Irish carrier Ryanair’s rostering woes

Irish low cost carrier Ryanair’s pilot rostering system looks largely to blame for its decision to cancel a huge number of its scheduled services although the impact of ATC strike action and bad weather could have played a significant role, according to new official airspace statistics for the period.

Ryanair has written to 400,000 passengers to tell them that their flight has been cancelled after it admitted to a ‘mess-up’ on pilot rostering. It said that punctuality had already fallen below 80 per cent over preceding weeks and that the move to cut two per cent of its scheduled capacity would help speed a return to better performance.

New figures from the Network Manager which oversees air traffic over Europe suggests that the impact of industrial action by French air traffic controllers and bad weather during the first half of September did have an effect on the region.

Eurocontrol which operates as the region’s traffic manager tells Air Traffic Management that the industrial action caused 129,595 minutes of air traffic flow management (ATFM) delay, mostly on 12 September.

“We estimate that approximately 2,500 flights that day were delayed by regulations attributed to the strike,” a Eurocontrol spokesman tells Air Traffic Management. “Approximately 500 expected movements did not take place and some flights had significantly longer routes than usual in order to avoid the affected area,” he added, noting that there were a total of 33,352 flights on that day.

By way of comparison, in the first half of September 2016, while there was a ATC strike, also by French controllers, it only generated 27,412 minutes of delay.

That meant during the first half of this month there were 102,183 additional minutes of delay caused by industrial action.

During that period – 1-15 September 2017 – there were also 319,505 minutes of ATFM delay associated with bad weather while for the same period the previous year, bad weather generated only 120,567 minutes of delay.

So, for the first half of September 2017, ATFM delays generated by a combination of industrial action and bad weather amounted to 449,000 minutes, more than three times the level of delays a year previously.

Eurocontrol said it could not break down Ryanair performance specifically because the Network Manager has two sources for delay information.

“In the short term, we can see the primary delay to flights that is specifically associated with flow management restrictions. Rather later, we receive from many airlines fuller information which also covers delays associated with the airline and reactionary delays.

“So if a flight is delayed as a result of a strike, we record the initial delay but not the delays on the subsequent flights. That information comes from the airlines.

“Our policy is that we publish summaries of the ATFCM delays and we break these down by cause in our monthly summaries of the network performance. We do not, however, provide information broken down by individual airline.”

There have been claims that Ryanair has been losing significant numbers of pilots to rival airlines such as Norwegian which confirmed it had recruited 140 pilots from Ryanair this year. “Pilot recruitment is also under way for more pilots for our new Dublin base opening later this year,” it said. The Irish Airline Pilots’ Association estimated that the airline has lost 700 pilots in the last financial year.

Rejecting allegations that the real reason for the cancellations is a shortage of pilots, Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary blamed the situation on a ‘one-off’ holiday pilot rostering issue, which if not tackled immediately would send the airline’s on-time punctuality below 50 per cent, adding that it will cost Ryanair about €25 million in compensation payouts and other costs.

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) meanwhile today said it has offered to help Ryanair make the airline a more attractive place for people to build their career. The association says it recognises Ryanair has an issue in retaining pilots past the early stages of their career, where, once they’ve gained enough hours, many pilots move on to other airlines.

“It seems Ryanair has been just about scraping through the summer schedule and having no flexibility in the system, coupled with a miscalculation of pilot annual leave, has led to this disastrous situation,” said BALPA general secretary Brian Strutton.

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