The Ryanair non-apology for messing up and cancelling 2,100 flights

Photo: EPA/ULRICH PERREY

Ryanair made a mistake and had to cancel 40 to 50 flights a day for the next six weeks, for a total of 2,100 flights. The legendary no-frills airline has always treated passengers like freight, and with its non-apology, has proven that accounting for customers’ feelings is a luxury that doesn’t come on Ryanair.

This past weekend, Ryanair cancelled 315,000 passenger reservations. The reason: the company miscalculated pilot vacation rules and won’t have enough pilots to fly all the routes it usually flies. Management describes the cancellations as minor, affecting no more than 2% of flights. Here’s the statement from the company:

Ryanair, today announced that it would cancel 40-50 flights daily for the next six weeks, to the end of October, to improve its system-wide punctuality which has fallen below 80 per cent in the first two weeks of September.

This has happened through a combination of ATC [Air Traffic Control] capacity delays and strikes, weather disruptions and the impact of increased holiday allocations to pilots and cabin crew as the airline moves to allocate annual leave during a 9 month transition period (April to December 2017) to move the airline’s holiday year (currently April to March) to a calendar year (Jan to Dec) from 1st January 2018 onwards.

Ryanair apologises sincerely for the inconvenience caused to customers by these cancellations.

Customers will be contacted directly about this small number of cancellations and offered alternative flights or full refunds.

This is a no-frills apology. The statement “This has happened . . . ” makes it sound like the airline is the victim here. The company’s CEO admitted to “messing up,” but apparently one sentence about a sincere apology is all you get as a victim of a Ryanair mistake.

The instructions on Ryanair.com are clear

These statements from management are not anywhere on Ryanair.com, the company’s site. Visit there, and all you’ll find is this:

Up to 50 flights per day (less than 2% of flights) have been cancelled for the next six weeks.

Your flight is operating as usual unless you receive an email.

List of all cancelled flights:

[flights listed by date]

What are my options?

If your flight is cancelled we offer you two options to choose from:

1. Apply for a refund

If you wish to cancel your reservation and claim a full refund of the unused flight(s) click on the link below and enter your booking details.

Click Here to Apply for Refund

Refunds will be processed within 7 working days back to the form of payment used for the original booking.

2. Change your Cancelled Flight (for free)

The easiest way to change your cancelled flight for free (subject to seat availability) is by retrieving your booking online:

Click Here To Change Flight

If you require rerouting options, departing / arriving from another airport served by Ryanair or changing an unaffected return flight, please contact one of our advisors using our Free Online Chat or calling one of our customer service Contacts Numbers

We understand that flight cancellations may cause distress and we will accommodate your option of choice wherever possible, while complying with EU Regulation 261/2004.

There’s also an FAQ page that is similarly direct.

Surprisingly, these messages obey all my rules for writing without bullshit. They are short, clear, direct, and lack jargon and weasel words. There’s only one passive voice sentence (“Refunds will be processed . . . “). This is a no-bullshit page about what to do.

Companies must balance between empathy and directness

These statements by Ryanair are still terrible, even if they’re no bullshit. Cancelling 2,100 flights due to an admitted error by management and then offering nothing more than a sentence of “sincere apology” and “we understand that flight cancellations may cause distress” is heartless. (It’s also consistent with Ryanair’s reputation, where the price, not the customer, comes first.)

On the other hand, Ryanair deserves credit for the simplicity and clarity of its instructions on what to do. At least if you got screwed, there’s no confusion on what to do next.

I’m not recommending that other companies that have to apologize should be this heartless. If you’ve wronged somebody, especially due to your own mistakes, own up to it and give us a little more empathy. It’s incumbent upon the company executives not to minimize the breadth of the damage (“less than 2% of flights”).

But once you’ve gotten that out of the way, by all means, make it as easy as Ryanair does for the customer to do whatever they must to get out from under the damage you caused.

7 responses to “The Ryanair non-apology for messing up and cancelling 2,100 flights

  1. This reminds me of a recent incident when British Airways’ system collapsed world-wide. A media release claimed the fiasco was caused by an unexpected power outage. This created the impression that perhaps a maintenance person had unplugged the main power supply to connect up his floor polisher. The claim was so ludicrous, it simply added insult to injury to the thousands of passengers who were stranded.
    The airlines have form, of course. Ever since the ‘United Broke My Guitar video’ there have been several several instances of poor or non-existent communication with customers.
    Do we really believe that, after all these years as a successful carrier, Ryan Air has suddenly forgotten a) how to schedule their air crew and b) how to employ temporary pilots from agencies specializing in providing them? Indications point to toxic labour relations at both airlines. Perhaps things have become so bad that the union activists have arranged acts of sabotage to keep management’s focus on he negotiating table.
    Not too many years ago, BA was voted World’s Favourite Airline. Its current position is 40th.

  2. Ryanair knows how to schedule its pilots for flight duty. What Ryanair doesn’t seem to be able to do is schedule pilots for vacation. Ryanair goofed by allowing such a short time frame for the cutover to the new holiday calendar. The calendar may say nine months, but Ryanair effectively had fewer than six months to do this. Airlines typically add flights for the busy summer holiday season, increasing their need for active pilots. Ironically, that means an airline may also discourage its pilots from going on holiday themselves during that time.

    As for employing third-party pilots, it may not be easy for Ryanair to do that. “Freelance” pilots would have to be trained in Ryanair’s flight procedures, a process that could possibly take a few weeks, even if the pilot is type-rated on the 737. There may also be provisions in its pilot contracts/work agreements that prohibit Ryanair from using “freelance” crew.

  3. I am curious what was in the email they sent to those effected?
    Do they need to apologize to the world or only those effected?

  4. Notwithstanding Henry’s comments, all of which are relevant, the airline has had many years’ experience in crew scheduling. When have you ever heard of any other carrier screwing up their schedules due to inadequate crew time management? It simply doesn’t happen and, in fact, I doubt it ever did.
    As far as freelance pilots are concerned, most that I know get repeat assignments, so I would expect that the ones who are UK-based would have plenty of experience at Ryaniar, Monarch, Easyjet and all the other budget/holiday carriers who, more than the national airlines, experience significant variance of pax numbers during peak/off-peak seasons. If they needed extra training or refreshers, they could manage that before they were needed on call.
    We’ll probably never know what actually happened. I’m doubling up my bet on internal staff running a disruption campaign.
    Flight crew work load is controlled by fairly tight regulations, which are well known to everyone in the industry, so I cannot conceive that the strategic use of freelance crew can be precluded by an employment contract. Except, perhaps, during industrial action.

    1. This seems to be the result of a colossal screw-up by Ryanair on implementing its new holiday accrual policy/calendar. No doubt organizational silos — flight ops, pilot scheduling, HR/Benefits – never met to discuss the implications of the new policy and how to best implement it to minimize impact to the operation.

      Very short-sighted IMO.

      Can’t wait to hear how Ryanair explains this whenever it holds its next earnings call.

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