Ryanair threaten legal action after documentary on fuel policy, safety

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Irish budget airline Ryanair have stated intent to sue the UK's Channel 4 over a documentary broadcast Monday night which discussed safety at the airline. Secrets of the Cockpit focused strongly on fuel policy and featured interviews with pilots.

A Ryanair Boeing 737 pictured in 2006.
Image: WikiABG.

Part of the Dispatches series, the show reported on an incident in Spain last year where three Ryanair jets declared fuel emergencies after being diverted to Valencia. Pilots interviewed for the programme said they felt pressured to save fuel, the cost of which has hit Ryanair's profits. The Spanish Air Authority described Ryanair flights usually landing with a bare minimum of fuel, in a report the airline dismissed as "manifestly inaccurate and factually untrue".

Ryanair say their planes carry more fuel than European Union legislation requires and point out the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) monitor their safety record, including fuel policy. Ryanair has never had a fatal accident and the IAA called Secrets of the Cockpit a "misguided attack" which was "based upon false and misleading information".

The IAA itself was accused of failing to respond to concerns from Ryanair pilots and one interviewee said his "personal belief is that the majority of Ryanair pilots do not have confidence in the safety agencies and that is a pretty critical issue". An IAA statement yesterday morning read "The IAA has responded to personal letters and reports from Ryanair pilots, this included several meetings and face-to-face interviews with pilots and their legal and professional representatives." The statement added "Ryanair Plc fully complies with all European and international regulations in all areas of its operations".

We stand by our journalism, and will robustly defend proceedings if they are initiated

—Channel 4

Channel 4 promised to see Ryanair in court, saying "We stand by our journalism, and will robustly defend proceedings if they are initiated." Ryanair called the documentary "false and defamatory". Other claims in the documentary included that twelve cockpit voice recorders had been wiped after serious incidents, which Ryanair blamed on pilot error and said is a common occcurence in aviation, and that a survey by Ryanair Pilots Group (RPG) found widespread safety concerns at the airline.

RPG is not recognised by the airline which calls the group "[lacking] any independence, objectivity or reliability". The airline says they conducted their survey, which polled 1,000 flight crew, as part of a long campaign to unionise Ryanair pilots. The airline makes heavy use of zero-hour contracts, which do not guarantee work and which the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association describe as offering some of aviation's worst employment conditions.

According to the RPG survey almost 90% of respondents said the safety culture was nontransparent. Two-thirds said they felt uncomfortable raising safety issues. Ryanair had told pilots anybody signing a "so-called safety petition" might be dismissed.

One anonymous pilot interviewed by Channel 4 accused the airline of "threats and bullying". Over 90% of those surveyed wanted a regulatory inquiry, with RPG saying the survey results were passed to the airline and the IAA.

RPG chairman Evert van Zwol, also a recent Dutch Airline Pilots Association president, said zero-hour contracts tended to make pilots choose to fly when unwell and keep quiet if they had safety concerns. In 2005 a Polish Ryanair pilot became lost near Rome a few days after attending his son's funeral, while his Dutch co-pilot was seeing his first experience of navigating severe weather.

In the 2005 incident air traffic control intervened to keep the flight safe from midair collisions. The Polish pilot told Italian investigators he feared losing his job if he took extra time off work. The investigation concluded in 2009 he had been unfit to fly. Ryanair denied he would have been fired for taking time off to recover.