Last week’s widely circulated news that Ryanair is to cancel more than 2,000 flights has created quite a “mess”; not only for customers but also between senior management staff and the airline’s pilots. The cancellations come after a change in annual leave policies triggered a transition from an April-to-March holiday year to a calendar holiday year. Consequently, increased numbers of staff scheduled time off in September and October in order to benefit from their full annual quota. The airline has estimated that the cancellations and associated costs are likely to be as much as £44 million.

In an effort to limit the damage the airline has offered pilots a bonus of up to £12,000 to keep flying during their scheduled leave. However, the offer has been refused by many pilots and instead they are using the situation as leverage to try and negotiate better working conditions.

Since then relations have deteriorated further, in part due to comments reportedly made by the CEO Michael O’Leary that the pilots are “glorified taxi drivers” and that “no permission is needed for the airline to reclaim one week of pilots’ annual leave” in order to reduce cancellations. Such animosity coupled with the fact that many pilots are employed via temporary agency contracts, may be factors contributing to the reported exodus of pilots from Ryanair to competitors; Norwegian Air claims to have recruited more than 140 Ryanair pilots so far this year.

The PR disaster facing Ryanair is an example of the negative business impact which can arise when the law of unintended consequences comes to visit on what appears to be an innocuous change to working arrangements (like a change in holiday year), coupled with the mismanagement of staff expectations. This matter is a salutary reminder that the impact of any change to working conditions needs to be managed and thought through carefully to ensure that businesses can continue uninterrupted if there is a change in staff behaviours as a result of that change. Employment lawyers are uniquely placed to help with that thinking process at the time of any change, not least because they are ready and able to visualise the worst case scenario!

If you’re thinking of changes to working conditions, think Ryanair and then reach for the Edwin Coe Employment team!

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