The true cost of low cost air travel is much higher than your €19 ticket.
31 Agosto 2018 12:42
Co-written by Anna Freeman, Martí Renau and Anna Pacheco
Ryanair: the black sheep of the aviation family. It’s the bad seed that habitually disappoints you and causes you more pain than enjoyment, but whom you have to tolerate regardless. The Irish company is now infamous for offering impossibly low fares - sometimes so low that you have to check it is not a website misprint - in exchange for a minimum guarantee of service. That minimum is getting you to your destination safely, and that’s about it.
This summer, the rabid consumerism with which we buy and travel on low-cost airlines came to a head. Ryanair experienced the biggest pilot strikes in its history. Up to 67,000 passengers were affected by the cancellation of almost 400 flights. 15 days before, 600 flights were affected due to the strike of cabin crew. Yet, despite Ryanair’s reputation for being a penny-pinching, investment-straddling empire, it has cultivated a consumer base like no other in Europe. Ryanair is now the continent’s biggest low-cost airline, and announced that it achieved a 9 percent increase in passengers in the year ended March 31 to 130 million, leading to an astronomical net profit of €1.45 billion.
Such success was achieved in spite of a pilot-rostering crisis last year that grounded 25 of its 400 aircrafts and the cancellation of thousands of flights, and a growing disgruntlement among its ranks. It remains to be seen how this summer’s strikes will affect future sales. But what sets Ryanair apart from its competitors - namely easyJet, Air Berlin and Vueling - is a unique model of capitalist aggression on top of a loophole-ridden, complex structure of employment agreements intended to cut costs at every turn. As one cabin crew member put it: “There are low-cost airlines… and then there is Ryanair.”
One defining rule of capitalism is that if something appears too good to be true, it probably is. The ubiquity of low-cost airlines, with Ryanair at the top of business in Europe, is that we now expect to travel on any day, at any time, and for a low price. Pedro Bravo, author of Excess Baggage (Exceso de Equipaje), says we ‘have the aspiration to travel, to do tourism, like other forms of consumption, and since we tend to be less-economically advantaged now, we have no choice but to travel in this way… it is easy to analyse the shadows of low-cost models, but it is difficult to stop buying a flight to Berlin for €30 next weekend’.
Therein lies the inevitability of flocking to companies like Ryanair, on which its whole business model is based around. CEO Michael O'Leary is the man everyone loves to hate, but investors love to do business with. He modelled the airline’s structure on American company Southwest Airlines, a pioneer in the service of low-cost airlines that axed its business class, in-flight service, and deficit routes. Rather than carve out a slice of the industry for itself, though, Ryanair actually created an entirely new way of travelling, and others companies have had to try and follow suit. Never has flying been so accessible and cheap; on the one hand democratising the formerly elite act of travel, and on the other spawning an out-of-control tourist model in cities across Europe and ravaging its workers of fair conditions. ‘This starts with a cheap plane ticket and ends with Airbnb in the centre of a city,’ Bravo adds.
Aside from the disastrous effects low-cost air travel and tourism can have on local communities (Airbnb, as pointed out, being a pivotal example), not to mention the environment, the inner mechanisms with which companies like Ryanair operate are becoming a huge sticking point. Lowification means cheapening; its employees included. 'You pay less to the workers, you land at the cheapest airport in the city, the stand where you will park the plane is as far as possible from the terminal and passengers have to be transported by bus ... this accounts for everything,’ explains Jorge, an air steward, who after working at Ryanair for a year-and-a-half, has decided to change airlines.
The capitalism dichotomy of supply meeting demand is Ryanair’s biggest ally; it is the only airline that operates out of many of its 1,800 routes, therefore the sole option for some travellers. Strikes over the summer months have a great impact on a company like Ryanair. Naturally, the action of those who demand an improvement of their labour rights is accompanied by the angry reaction of those who yearn to enjoy their holidays or journeys without any mishap. This anger over strikes and disruption should, though, be redirected at the company rather than its workers.
‘We are living in a culture of fear and the intense pressure is insane,’ says Steve Lemmens, a Ryanair cabin crew worker based in Madrid, and a spokesperson of SITCPLA, a Spanish labour union. ‘People are so stressed, tired, angry and upset, and until now we couldn’t speak out about the working conditions for fear of being fired.’ Incentivised bonuses, dubious contracts, threats and fear is a mainstay of life at Ryanair, he claims, and customers deserve to know what they are buying into.
Hitting targets for onboard sales is a great source of panic and stress, Lemmens says. Crew are under extreme pressure to reach their targets, and if they are not reached, supervisors interrogate why and even threaten to send people away to different countries unless sales pick up, according to Lemmens. ‘You get to this ridiculous point during your shift where you are counting how many coffees you have sold and stressing about selling an extra Twix bar,’ he explains. ‘It’s a sell, sell, sell environment, and you have to constantly be smiley and happy, and if you can’t sell, then what’s wrong with you?’ This system does not take into account different spending patterns either, such as disposable income or time of day of a flight. Additionally, cabin crew are not given free food and water while they work, as is customary on other low-cost airlines.
Most cabin crew members work through agencies and are not employed directly by Ryanair. The company has woven a complex web of arrangements through employment agencies that allow it to not appear as the employer of its staff. Lemmens explains that all cabin crew staff must start with an agency contract, which are zero-hour, with different opportunities offered from person-to-person. Through this system, a cabin crew member is only paid per flight, and rates, hours, and destinations vary hugely. Lower hour rates depend on geographical location, according to Lemmens, and cabin crew earn more in the UK and Ireland than in Spain and Italy, for example.
The precarious nature of the work can result in financial hardship and a lack of jobs. Although Lemmens himself is on a rare Ryanair contract, where he earns between 2,000 - 2,500 euros per month, most earn a lot less, with some seeing as little as €600 due to lack of demand, seasonal changes (there are more flights in summer), and contractual issues. A former Ryanair cabin crew member, Jorge*, corroborated Lemmens’s claims, and said that other low-cost airline workers, such as those for easyJet, earn at least €400 more than many of his colleagues at Ryanair. Dario*, another cabin crew member for Ryanair, said his basic salary is around €730, and he can earn more through sales onboard and picking up extra shifts, but the system as a whole is skewed. ‘I work with a friend, in the same rank, and they earn €1600/1700 per month and I’m on €1100-1300. This is just not fair.’
The same is true for Ryanair’s pilots. Most are employed as ‘freelance’ even though they wear Ryanair uniform, are disciplined for not following company rules, and must provide three months notice before ending their contact. They experience all the restrictions of a salaried employment without any of the benefits. Danny*, who has worked for three low-cost airlines, says Ryanair has a very low base salary and high incentives to work more, which can, in fact, make pilots take risks. An example he cites is that pilots are strictly forbidden from working if they are not at full health, but if you are working paycheck-to-paycheck, missing a day will result in a deduction in salary so pilots work anyway.
Passengers have faced hundreds of flight cancellations this summer because of pilot protests against the slow progress in negotiating collective agreements on conditions, base transfers and annual leave. The biggest one-day strike earlier in August resulted in a walkout by pilots in Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands, disrupting an estimated 55,000 passengers at the height of holiday season, with Ryanair cancelling around 400 out of 2,400 scheduled European flights. Although Ryanair said pilots were offered a 20% pay rise this year, unions have been fighting for higher salaries to match other airlines, and to level the playing field for the many working via agencies as contractors, rather than as employees.
Ryanair’s workers have a very specific problem that is separate to other low-cost companies: they have Irish contracts and operate under Irish labour laws. Staff also have Irish bank accounts even if they live and work in another country. Navigating Irish labour law creates a legal minefield for employees hoping to improve their conditions. ITF Civil Aviation secretary Gabriel Mocho Rodriguez, who is currently supporting Ryanair staff unions, credits this operational choice as an important way to discourage unionisation and collective organisation. ‘Contracts are written up as take-it-or-leave-it offers and it is only after workers sign them that they realise how bad their conditions are,’ he explains. And, if workers have a problem, they must travel to Dublin to discuss it.
It has only been in the past year that Ryanair’s founder, O’Leary, allowed union membership for employees; he previously said ‘hell would freeze over’ before he allowed trade unions into his workforce. O’Leary clearly understands the threat collective action has on his current business model that keeps labour costs low, but with an empire that dominates European low-cost travel, it was most likely inevitable. Even if the CEO does relish his reputation as a Machiavellian businessman, the tide is turning on him from the ground-up whether he likes it or not.
It feels prescient that the voices of Ryanair staff - as well as some others from different low-cost airlines - are being heard at a time when the issue of precarious labour and zero-hour contracts dominates an important part of public discussion. The so-called gig economy, which comprises the likes of tech giants such as Uber and Deliveroo, is facing public and legal scrutiny around the world for stripping workers of their rights by labelling them ‘independent service providers’. Yet while the alleged evils of the gig economy aren’t hard to point out, our relationship with them, as consumers, is much more difficult to justify.
Javier Martín-Chico, head of the Technical Department of the Spanish Union of Pilots (SEPLA), summarises the policy of O’Leary plainly: ‘I do what I have to do to keep your plane tickets at €19. Everything has a cost in life. You [the passenger] assume the risks.’ If, as Martín-Chico points out, 40-50% of the cost of a ticket covers the cost of fuel, the company must slash costs elsewhere to keep customers buying - and flying. It is relatively safe to assume that the super low-cost model Ryanair created isn’t going anywhere for now, so how might we become more conscientious as buyers?
‘Stop complaining about strikes, empathise more with the sector and those who work in it, protest, report everything that is reportable, and push for regulation and legislation,’ says Excess Baggage author Bravo, while also warning that the solution to collective problems is never individual. ‘We, on our own, are not going to fix the problem.’ Perhaps, overall, there needs to be a collective awakening that if travelling in this way has such a negative effect on our social and environmental fabric, flying should, ultimately, be more expensive. Martín-Chico makes the point: ‘What cannot be normal is that a taxi from Barajas to Madrid costs more than a flight from Dublin.’
*Editorial note: Ryanair issued an official statement to PlayGround ahead of this article’s release:
'We continue to negotiate with our people across Europe and have signed union recognition agreements with cabin crew unions with the Italian ANPAC/ANPAV unions, the UNITE union in the UK and the Verdi union in Germany.
'This week, we signed our first collective labour agreement with the ANPAC pilot union in Italy and hope that it will be shortly followed by a similar agreement covering our Irish pilots. We have invited our UK, German and Spanish unions to meet with us in the coming days so that we can negotiate and hopefully agree similar pilot CLAs in these other larger markets. These agreements demonstrate the real progress being made by Ryanair in its negotiations with its pilots and cabin crew and their unions across different EU markets.
'Ryanair uses a mix of directly employed and contract cabin crew, in exactly the same way many other EU airlines do.'