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Ryanair sparks safety fears over cost-cutting measures

Ryanair is in hot water once again after three of its planes were forced to make emergency landings in Spain due to low fuel levels, highlighting what one expert told FRANCE24 is a worrying new trend in the industry.


Budget airline Ryanair is in trouble once again over its cost-cutting practices.

The airline has found itself mired in controversy after three of its planes were forced to make emergency landings in the Spanish city of Valencia at the end of July due to low levels of fuel, sparking fears over passenger safety.

The incident prompted Spain’s government to announce on August 15 that it was opening an official investigation into the emergency landings, and it has since threatened to suspend the airline’s operating license, a move Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary dismissed.

It is far from the first time that the Irish company has come under fire for its cost-cutting practices. Just one day before Spain opened its investigation into the airline carrier’s emergency landings in Valencia, a major German pilots union, Cockpit, accused the company of putting “intense pressure” on its staff over the issue of fuel reserves.

Ryanair has made no secret of the fact that company pilots are expected to fly with the absolute minimum of fuel allowed by law. The fact is, the more gas you carry, the heavier a plane is, and the heavier a plane is, the more gas it needs to carry. Yet as fuel prices rise, Ryanair’s frugal measures have been increasingly viewed as a way to cut costs at the expense of passenger safety.

Facing a backlash over its fuel policy, Ryanair has scrambled to assure customers and aviation officials that it operates in compliance with European safety standards, underscoring that the company’s pilots have the last word on how much fuel a plane will carry in reserve.

Pilots ‘pressured’ to fly with minimum fuel reserves

The company’s insistence that its pilots get final say, however, triggered the controversy. Echoing Cockpit’s allegations, a number of Ryanair pilots have approached media outlets on the condition of anonymity to describe how the company keeps a list of its pilots and the amount of fuel they consume per flight.

“Those who are found to be flying with large reserves on numerous occasions are then called into a tense meeting with their superior and where they could potentially face consequences for their actions”, one pilot said.

Ryanair’s dilemma has ultimately tainted horizons for a number of European carriers, who have been hit with similar accusations. According to reports, Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has recorded that 28 different flights were forced to make emergency landings over the past two years in the United Kingdom due to insufficient fuel levels.

“We have received a number of complaints from employees at other airline companies that enforce practices similar to those imposed by Ryanair”, Philip Von Schöppenthau, secretary general of the European Cockpit Association (ECA), told FRANCE 24. The ECA is a union that represents over 38,000 pilots in 37 European states.

Not all of these companies are low-cost companies seeking to tighten their belts. More and more traditional airlines have begun to take up the practice.

“Long-standing carriers have also begun to compile pilot lists based on their fuel consumption”, said Schöppenthau, declining to name any specific companies.

Tip of the iceberg

For some, however, fuel rationing is only the tip of the iceberg. Airlines have also sought to slash spending by increasing work hours, allowing flights to take off in poor weather or even pushing back flight cycle times for pilots.

“There are a lot of issues that don’t directly impact the passengers as long as a company places safety as its top priority”, Schöppenthau said. “[However], safety sometimes takes a backseat to the current economic climate”.

According to Schöppenthau, “it has become more dangerous to take a plane in Europe” since the debt crisis began. As governments attempt to balance their books, aviation authorities have unfortunately fallen victim to budget cuts. As a result, air companies have been able to cut corners on safety protocol to reduce costs “because [these bodies] no longer have the resources to conduct thorough inspections”, Schöppenthau concluded.

After the publication of this article, Ryanair sent France 24 this response.


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