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Monday, 24 September 2012

Is this what it takes to become a successful airliner: flying on kerosene fumes and skipping as much maintenance as possible? When so, it is just waiting for a deadly accident to happen.

If an unprejudiced reader would have read European newspapers during the last six months and he would have looked for news concerning aviation incidents, the name Ryanair would have been etched in his memory.

Ryanair, that was founded in 1984 by Tony Ryan and two companions, started as a small Irish low-cost carrier with a few planes and a few routes. In spite of the growing number of passengers that the airliner transported in the eighties, it was not sufficiently profitable to have a prosperous future ahead. That changed in 1991 when Michael O’Leary entered the company as a turnaround manager.

O’Leary indeed proved himself to be ‘the man with the plan’ and especially since 1997, when a deregulation of the aviation industry was carried through in Europe, the low-cost carrier prospered and grew strongly. In the meantime, Ryanair set a new standard to the word ‘pricefighter’.

Ryanair started with ticket-prices that almost seemed to good to be true, using a system that can be explained as ‘being early with buying your ticket is cheap, being late is more expensive’. If you were early, you could indeed fly 800 miles for the price of a midrange train-ticket.

The company achieved this by flying from very small airports in the middle of nowhere  that were ‘within close range of an important city’ (i.e. within 100 km or 60 miles). Ryanair neither serves free drinks nor food and also seems to put more chairs in a Boeing 737 than any other airliner, making a flight only comfortable for people below 165 cm or 5ft 5’’. It tries to exchange passengers at lightning speed in order to be airborne again within 45 minutes after landing.

Besides that, it uses a system of surcharges for everything: for extra heavy people, for all luggage except small handbags, for making a reservation, for paying by creditcard, for not paying by creditcard. A ticket that seems extremely cheap initially is often not so cheap anymore in the end, due to the surcharges. Still, the ticket-prices are lower than those of most other airliners and if you don’t mind the lacking comfort, Ryanair brings you from A to somewhere in the neighborhood of B.

Anyway, I have flown with Ryanair twice and it was a slightly uncomfortable, but  amusing experience that was finished with the famous sentence: ‘and yet another flight has been finished on time by Ryanair, the airliner with the least delays…’. Therefore I don’t have anything against Ryanair personally.

Nevertheless, although Ryanair has grown into one of the most successful airliners when it comes to passenger numbers and autonomous growth, it suffers from what you could call ‘the airliners disease’: a lack of structural profitability that enables operating an airliner profitably, in spite of the current high kerosene prices, increasing environmental costs and increasing safety and security regulation.

That this lack of structural profitability among airliners has a grim and dangerous side to it, became perfectly clear during the last six months, when we look at Ryanair.

My attention was drawn to Ryanair when on the 26th of July three aircrafts of this company had to make an emergency landing in Valencia, caused by fuel shortage, after the planes had to divert from Madrid due to bad weather.

Although Ryanair did its best to downplay the situation and emphasize that ‘it not had been true emergency landings’, while accusing Spain of a witch hunt against Ryanair, the truth seems not to speak in favor of Ryanair.

On August 16, the Belgian (online) newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws ( writes:

The Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts ‘heavy pressure’ on its pilots to save fuel. This is stated by the German Aviatior Union ‘Cockpit’ after three aircrafts of Ryanair had to make an emergency landing in Valencia at the end of last month, due to fuel shortage. ‘Ryanair puts heavy pressure on its pilots by making lists of their fuel consumption during flights’, according to Jörg Handwerg, spokesman of Cockpit.

The amount of kerosene that an airplane should have loaded, is set in aviation regulations. However, a pilot can always decide to take an extra amount on top of the minimum quantity, for ‘security reasons’, especially when very busy airports have to be visited and there is a considerable chance for delays while being in the air.

Handwerg emphasizes that fuel is ‘a very important expense for the low-cost carriers’ and in general ‘many airliners’ give instructions to their pilots to use less fuel. “The rights of pilots are violated and they cannot take their responsibilities anymore’.

After an investigation, the Irish Aviation Authority IAA concluded in a preliminary report that the Ryanair airplanes ‘had enough fuel  on the day of the Valencia incident, but the company should still review their its policy’. Here are the pertinent snips of a Reuters article from September 20.

Three Ryanair aircrafts that made emergency landings in Spain in July were carrying more than the required level of fuel, but the company should still review its policy, the Irish Aviation Authority IAA.L said on Thursday.

The recommendation came after Irish and Spanish aviation officials met in Dublin this week following comments by Spanish authorities about incidents in their airspace involving Europe's largest budget airline.

Spain has called for tighter safety regimes at low-cost airlines, while Ryanair has accused the Spanish aviation authorities of falsifying information on incidents involving its planes, an accusation Spanish officials have rejected.

In a preliminary report made public by Ryanair (RYA.I), the IAA found that the three planes that departed for Madrid were carrying fuel in excess of requirements. Having to divert to Valencia with fuel close to the minimum diversion level likely presented challenges to the crew.

It recommended that Ryanair review its fuel policy and consider issuing guidance to crew with respect to fuel when flying into busy airports, particularly in poor weather conditions when diversions were likely.

You have two kinds of ‘enough’ in this particular situation:
  • Enough, according to the rules for the minimum amount of fuel that a plane has to carry on a certain flight;
  • Enough, in the meaning that you are able to divert to another airport without any problems, if it is impossible to approach your destination airport for any reason whatsoever;
It seems clearly that Ryanair met the first bullet, but failed at meeting the second one. This can be read in the concealed advice of the IAA (see first red and bold paragraph): ‘next time, take a few gallons more, boys!’

The fact that Ryanair starts to accuse the Spanish aviation authority of falsifying information, is not a recommendation in my humble opinion.

Besides that, this was not the only thing bothering Ryanair these last six months. After the third plane of Ryanair in four days had run into trouble on September 16, the Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws made a list of incidents involving Ryanair. Although none of these incidents led to an accident fortunately, it is a very disturbing list:

According to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, more than 1201 investigations have been opened between January and July on safety incidents involving low-cost carrier Ryanair. During 41 inspections by the AESA, the Spanish aviation authority, 51 defects have been found of which 15 were evaluated to be ‘very serious’. According to Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, there ‘is a conspiracy against Ryanair’. However, the facts are not speaking in his favor. The number of incidents with Ryanair aircrafts is mounting. Only last week: three times in four days a plane of the Irish low-cost carrier had to make a stopover. Yesterday, a plane had to land on the Madrid airport Barajas, due to technical problems.

On the mentioned list of 1201 investigations, the ‘highlights’ are: cabine air pressure problems, emergency landings due to fuel shortage, refusals to cooperate at unannounced inspections of the air safety services, diversions of flightplans, illegal refusals to board the plane.

Especially the fuel-policy of Ryanair is worrisome. The repetitive incidents with Ryanair planes forced the Spanish Ministry of Traffic to urge EU Commissioner for Traffic Siim Kallas and the Irish Aviation Authority IAA to improve airtraffic safety.

Unions and organizations of aviators in Ireland, Germany and Spain accused Ryanair this year, that the company forced its policy to fly with as little fuel as possible so vigorously on the pilots that these are ‘afraid to ask for extra fuel when they feel it might be necessary’.

Next to the incident on Madrid airport Barajas, there had been a second incident within the same 24 hour. A plane that had left from Bristol to the Catalan city of Reus, had to make an emergency landing, due to a damaged engine. Last week there had been two incidents concerning the air pressure in the cabin during Ryanair flights to Spain, forcing the planes to return to the airport of departure.

On August 30, a plane that flew from Barcelona to London Stansted had to make an emergency landing twice. First in Nantes, after a passenger had detected smoke and a weird smell of fire in the cabin. After a checkup in Nantes the same problem occured above the UK and the plane had to make an emergency landing at Gatwick.

On August 21, a plane had to make an emergency landing at Weeze after it got into trouble shortly after take-off at Magdeburg/Cochsted.

Another peculiar incident: during a landing in Dublin one of the motors of a Boeing 737-800 hit the runway. According to a report of the Air Accident Investigation Unit, that investigated the incident, the nacelle (hull) of the motor got damaged. This had only been found out after the plane had executed three other flights. There has been another, similar incident: at the end of July, a Ryanair plane ran into an American Airlines plane on the airport of Barcelona during taxiing. During this event the Ryanair plane got a big dent in its wingtip. Although passengers alarmed the cabin crew, the Irish pilots just resumed their take-off procedure and flew with this dent to Ibiza and afterwards to Barcelona.

This is where I stop quoting this article, but the list goes on and on. This article is a must-read for everybody that wants to fly with a low-cost carrier like Ryanair or is just interested in airline safety. People that speak Dutch can use the original text and others can use Google Translate or another translator.

After reading it, the article made me doubt if I would ever step in a low-cost carrier plane again.

On the other hand: please remember that Ryanair never experienced a fatal accident yet. Ryanair flies thousands and thousands of flights per year and although the list of incidents in this article seems very long, the chance that you are involved in such an incident is still very, very small from a percentual point of view. However, it only has to go wrong once, to have a fatal incident of major proportions, due to the high numbers of passengers in Ryanair planes.

One more thing: please notice that this article is about Ryanair, but that it without a doubt is applicable to other cheap airliners too. When you offer flights for the lowest price in order to stay competitive, but have to deal with increasing expenses for fuel, environmental surcharges and safety / security regulations, something’s got to give in the end. That something seems to be passenger safety, at least at Ryanair and probably at other low-cost carriers too.This is one of the reasons that I, when having a choice, prefer taking the car above the airplane.

This article reflects my personal opinions, unless quotes from other sources have been used. Where sources were printed in Dutch, I did my very best to translate those as accurate as possible.

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