Horror Story: How The Ryanair Pilot Nightmare Could Have Been Avoided

Horror Story: How The Ryanair Pilot Nightmare Could Have Been Avoided

Ryanair is an enormously successful company having grown from a small Irish airline in the 1980’s to the global player it is today.  The management’s ability to control the detail and complexity of day-to-day operations has been a major contributor to this success.

But Halloween is a time for a good horror story. For any business, finding itself experiencing a shortage of staff is perhaps the most horrifying tale it can face, but that is what effectively happened to Ryanair in September. The tragedy is that the Ryanair pilot nightmare may have been avoided.

In all, Ryanair decided to cancel between 40 and 50 flights per day (2,000 in total) after learning that up to 500 of its pilots were set to take annual holidays at the same time – even worse, each were taking a set block of 4 weeks. It meant that there were not enough pilots on hand to man scheduled flights.

It all seemed so unlikely during the summer, when Ryanair enjoyed a boost in passenger numbers (an estimated 12.7 million in August alone, an increase of 10% on August 2016), But the ’scheduling gaffe’, as it has been referred, has now impacted as many as 315,000 passengers already, and looks set to continue to do so.

In late September, Ryanair announced it would be operating 25 fewer aircraft over the winter period (November to March) than they had first anticipated, which is set to affect around 400,000 more passengers.

But how exactly could this nightmarish position have been avoided?

The Problem

At the heart of the problem is a change in the period over which employee leave was calculated. Previously, it had been set in line with the financial year (April to March), but an agreement to switch to a schedule in line with general European practice means it will change in 2018 to the calendar year (January – December).

This change, in turn, meant that Ryanair had to provide a year’s employee leave over just nine months (April to December 2017).

European flight time limitations, which dictate the maximum number of hours pilots are permitted to fly per year are set by the EU at 900 hours. Because Ryanair stuck with their normal practice while they prepared for the switch, they overlooked the impact the changes would have in September and October, the time usually used by pilots for taking leave.

Ryanair has two separate groups involved in planning manning issues. The first prepares pilots’ rosters in advance; the second, known as Crew Control, deals with manning issues like absenteeism or sickness. According to media reports, the groups were happy with the situation until 2 days before the first set of cancellations, when critical staffing problems “crept up on them”. The combination of due employee leave and the switch to the new system left them severely short-handed.

Avoiding The Nightmare

As anyone who works in HR can tell you, managing employee leave is far from a simple task. This is especially true when the company has a large number of personnel. But when logistical pressures like those synonymous with the travel and transport industries are involved, the pressures can be even greater.

The benefit of employee leave management software (such as our own AnnualLeave) is that it can handle the complexities of the task, and could have guided Ryanair away from the pilot nightmare it experienced.

    1. Compliance Assured – It is important that a company has its own employee leave policy, one that suits their specific operational needs. However, such policies must also synchronize with existing employee rights legislation. An efficient employee leave management tool is able to take into account the specific requirements, limitations and entitlements that affect leave calculations, and automatically apply them, ensuring time saved and considerable peace of mind.


    1. Instant Employee Availability – Ryanair will agree they should never have allowed their pilot crisis to develop at all. But with employee leave software, it becomes relatively simple to see ahead. That’s because the potential impact of future leave periods can be foreseen by the programme almost instantly, with such key details as individual employee (pilot) periods and overall team numbers remaining.


    1. Advanced Warning – When booking their time off, employees will generally prefer the summer period. The problem for any business is when too many want to take the same period off. When booking in April of May, it can be difficult to see the impact 5 or 6 months later without some time-consuming examination. But with all requests inputted, an employee leave management tool can not only confirm availability of holiday dates, it can also confirmed support staff availability for those periods too. AnnualLeave uses an easy-to-view calendar interface, so the process is made simple through a clearly presented picture.


  1. Instant Confirmation – Perhaps most importantly, all of the information that these employee leave management software provides can be accessed almost instantly. This is a crucial factor when the specific industry has fine-line deadlines. So, any problem with a proposed pilot roster could have been spotted as soon as the details were entered, allowing Ryanair ample time to decide an alternative roster and avoid a crisis.

There are, of course, many other aspects addressed by leave management software, such as absenteeism, sick leave, maternity leave and disability leave.

But from Ryanair’s point of view, their staffing nightmare could certainly have been avoided, with the crisis red-flagged far in advance, giving ample time to correct it and a chance to save the expected €20 million passenger compensation bill.

About the Author

AnnualLeave is a leading employee leave management tool on the market, lifting the HR headache by cutting request processing times, monitoring leave trends, and maintaining company compliance all with one user-friendly, affordable self-service app. For more information you can get in touch with one of our team via our online form or email at sales@annualleave.com.

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