Ryanair to tell 400,000 passengers of cancelled flights after roster 'mess-up'

Patrick Collinson
Chief executive Michael O’Leary apologised ‘unreservedly’ for the fiasco. Photograph: csfotoimages/Getty Images

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 that left 18 million ticket holders wondering if their holiday plans would be ruined.

In a hastily arranged press conference in Dublin on Monday afternoon amid a passenger revolt and a slump in the company’s share price, the normally combative chief executive Michael O’Leary apologised “unreservedly” for “a mess of our own making”.

O’Leary blamed a one-off holiday pilot rostering issue, which if not tackled immediately would send the airline’s on-time punctuality below 50%, adding that it will cost Ryanair about €25m (£22m) in compensation payouts and other costs.

But in a flash of the arrogance for which he is better known, O’Leary said that travellers vowing never to fly Ryanair again will almost certainly return to the airline because its prices are lower. “Our booking engine is full of passengers who have sworn they will never fly with us again,” he said.

Ryanair will cancel 40 to 50 flights every day until 31 October, with the airline promising to focus the cuts on routes where alternative flights are more easily available. For example, it will cancel one flight a day on its Stansted to Dublin route, which operates 12 a day.

O’Leary said customers whose flights have been cancelled would receive an email by Monday evening.

He said that 75% to 80% of passengers will be re-routed free of charge within a day of their expected departure date, and that compensation of €240 to €400 (£212 to £354) will be paid, depending on the length of the journey. But that will leave as many as 100,000 ticket holders seriously delayed, with possible weekend getaways wrecked.

O’Leary said consequential losses, caused when travellers cancel hire cars or hotels, will not be covered by Ryanair. He added that the airline will not book passengers on to rival airlines to get them to their destination on time.

“We will not pay for flights on other airlines,” he said. “We cannot afford to pay the high costs of our competitors.”

But he admitted the way Ryanair issued its first cancellation warning on Friday had unnecessarily left millions of travellers in the dark. “We did not focus on the concern we were causing to the 18 million passengers flying with us over the next six weeks,” O’Leary said. “I say sorry to them.”

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary described the error as ‘a mess of our own making’. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Many Ryanair customers took to Twitter to express their disgust over how Ryanair was handling passengers who could not know if they were to be cancelled.

One user said she feared for her wedding, with 30 Ryanair flights booked for her party, while others said that even if their outbound flight was not cancelled they could not be sure if their inbound flight would be.

Initially, Ryanair was making available only lists of cancelled flights up to Wednesday 20 September.

Ryanair rejected allegations that the real reason for the cancellations is a shortage of pilots.

There have been claims that Ryanair has been haemorrhaging pilots to rival airlines. Norwegian, which is building a new hub in Ryanair’s home airport, Dublin, said: “We can confirm that 140 pilots have joined Norwegian from Ryanair this year. Pilot recruitment is also under way for more pilots for our new Dublin base opening later this year.”

O’Leary disputed Norwegian’s figures - but admitted that Ryanair has begun offering pilots at captain level a €10,000 “signing-on bonus” to join.

He also struggled to explain why Ryanair was not aware earlier of rostering problems ahead. “There were some overoptimistic briefings coming from rostering,” he said.

He rejected any suggestion he should resign. “This is clearly a mess-up,” he admitted. “But it is my mess-up, and a mess I have to clear up.”

Shares in the airline fell by 3% in early trading, knocking more than £500m off its £18bn stock market valuation, although losses were pared back later in the day.

O’Leary said he expected to face a compensation bill of €20m plus €5m in operational costs. Analysts at Dublin-based Goodbody Stockbrokers said the final bill was likely to be €34.5m as they marked down Ryanair’s full-year profit forecast by 2.3%.

Investor groups said that while Ryanair usually brushes off poor publicity, in this case it could seriously hit the airline.

“Ryanair is notorious for not caring about what sort of headlines they get, working on the basis that all publicity is good publicity – but not this time,” said Rebecca O’Keefe of Interactive Investor.

“Previously, the carrier was happy to suggest that you get what you pay for and despite negative press lots of flyers embraced the fact that they knew the score and were happy to fly without the frills.

“However, the current situation is truly damaging, with flyers left high and dry with last-minute cancellations or apprehensive that they might be affected.”

O’Keefe said it was unclear whether the delays were caused by poor planning or a shortage of pilots. “If the former, then it suggests some truly poor processes. If the latter, then we may see wages rise to fill the gaps. Either way, it’s not good news for Ryanair.”