Gudrun Limbrick looks at lessons that can be learned about both managing holidays and managing PR.

September 2017 was a terrible month in terms of PR for one of Europe’s largest airlines. Thousands of Ryanair flights were cancelled, some at very short notice, leaving passengers with ruined holiday and business plans or, in the worst cases, leaving people feeling stranded far from home. There was no natural disaster causing these cancellations, no bad weather, no unexpected wars, no staff walk-outs, no engineering catastrophes — the problem was simply a series of scheduling issues. It is no wonder that passengers vented their anger on social media and the newspapers filled column inches with their criticisms of Ryanair’s actions.

It has been reported that, in total, 400,000 passengers were directly affected by the cancellations and had to reschedule or cancel trips or book alternative flights. The Ryanair website stresses that, while this number of passengers seems large, it is small in the scheme of things — “over 99% of our 129 million customers will not have been affected by any cancellations or disruptions”. The problem is that while it may be a small proportion of a very large number of customers, a cancelled flight is a very big deal to each of those customers, and the press and social media coverage will have chipped away at the trust in Ryanair for a much larger number of potential customers. For Ryanair itself, the cancelled flights must represent millions of pounds in lost revenue and compensation payments.

So what catastrophe caused such a debacle? The answer appears to be a very simple one that all companies face — staff take holidays. The Ryanair Marketing Officer is reported as saying that “We have messed up in the planning of pilot holidays and we’re working hard to fix that.” In a press conference on 18 September, the Chief Executive, Michael O’Leary, said that the problem was a “one-off rostering issue” which, if left unresolved would have a drastic impact on punctuality levels. The Ryanair website says that the cancellations “will allow us to manage the exceptional volumes of annual leave we committed to delivering in the nine months to December 2017”.

So how can a company go so wrong at doing what should be part and parcel of the normal running of any company? There may be a couple of mitigating circumstances. Ryanair has said that the problem in part has resulted from a change in the holiday year. There have also been reports that pilots had chosen in large numbers to take their holidays towards the end of the holiday year and there has also been speculation that pilots may have been leaving Ryanair in numbers large enough to put pressure on the company’s ability to staff all flights. However, regardless of these possible factors, there is a strong argument that any company should have seen these problems coming. Ryanair did not appear to have seen them coming at all, as some flights were cancelled within hours of take-off, many within days, and others within weeks when it could be argued that problems like this should have been evident months in advance.

This is one of the lessons that could be learned from Ryanair’s failings. Customers can generally understand how a large storm, a bomb threat or a staff walk-out impacts on flight times and the risk of cancellation. It is still not, however, at all clear how pilots having holidays that are due to them can cause the eleventh-hour cancellation of thousands of flights. Giving a complete explanation, with appropriate apologies for shortcomings that are exposed by this, can go a long way towards re-establishing customer trust.

The second lesson companies could learn from this episode is one that all children know all too clearly. If you are going to have a plaster pulled off, pull the whole thing off at once. Ryanair cancelled thousands of flights in September and we all checked to ensure that our flight was not one of those listed. The media had a field day and social media was filled with the wrath of those whose flights were on the cancellation list. A few days later, when the dust had just about settled, Ryanair announced the cancellation of thousands more flights and the whole thing was stirred up again. We’ve all been waiting since for a third announcement, but none has happened yet fortunately. The announcement in two parts did far more damage to customer trust than a single, complete, announcement at the very start.

The main message for other companies has to be, however, don’t get yourself into this mess in the first place. There is no excuse not to monitor annual leave throughout the year. Learn from patterns of leave-taking in previous years, and plan for peak times. For those with large numbers of staff and complex rotas, software is available to help the planning process, and modelling can be used to look at what might happen given unexpected events such as a flu epidemic or a failed recruitment drive. Encourage staff to take their full allocation throughout the year and not carry too much over until the end of the year or the following year. While holidays are the right of staff and they deserve as much flexibility as is possible, it is also the role of the managers to ensure that holiday entitlement does not leave the company unable to function efficiently.

However, having said all of this, this is Ryanair, and perhaps what we should be looking at is not the mistakes that have been made, but how to survive those mistakes. Ryanair is no stranger to making mistakes and no stranger to bad publicity and yet it is the biggest airline in Europe in terms of the numbers of scheduled passengers. The current cancellation debacle does not seem to have cost Ryanair unduly — the company share price remains higher than it was last year and the company appears to be on course to be bigger than it was last year, or at least, we have heard nothing to the contrary. In the past it has similarly weathered PR storms — announcing that passengers may have to pay £1 to use the toilet on the plane for the sake of publicity be it good or bad in 2009; being investigated in 2012 by the Irish Aviation Authority for carrying too little fuel; a row about giving disabled passengers wheelchairs at Stanstead in 2002. In 2013, Ryanair was ranked the worst of Britain’s 100 biggest brands in terms of customer service. But Ryanair has continued to grow.

In the Dublin press conference at the time of the first announcement of cancellations, Michael O’Leary was bullish in the face of concerns about the bad publicity. He said his customers, despite their angry promises that they would never fly with Ryanair again, would come back to Ryanair because the flights are cheap. He pointed out that many of his existing customers have previously vowed never to fly with Ryanair again. Ryanair believe they know precisely what their customers want — and that’s cheap flights. The company does everything it can to provide this even if that means negative publicity, and it is not afraid to use negative publicity to remind customers that it has cheap flights. A few days after the first cancellations, the airline announced a sale of a million flights for just a few pounds each. While we wait to see if this strategy is working for Ryanair, perhaps all businesses could learn a little in terms of the value of self-confidence from the airline.

Last reviewed 31 October 2017