Anna Faherty, author of Communication for Professional Success, Social Media for Accountants and International and Remote Working considers the communication failures – and a couple of successes – during Ryanair's current woes.
Last week the no-frills airline Ryanair hit the headlines when it announced it was cancelling 40 to 50 flights a day for a period of six weeks. The company initially appeared to blame its own success, announcing that it had operated "a record schedule" during the peak summer months and now needed to let pilots and cabin crew take (or, as Ryanair put it, "must now allocate") annual leave. It also blamed delays on problems caused by air traffic control and the weather.
Cancelling flights, said Ryanair, would "improve the operational resilience of our schedules and restore punctuality to our annualised target of 90%". I don't know about you, but if I was due to take a much-needed holiday, or scheduled to return from one, and my flight was cancelled, I don't think I'd care about the airline's annualised targets. This is communication failure number 1: talking to your customers as if they are your investors. What customers want to know is whether they can still take their holiday, or return to work as planned. In that first announcement Ryanair failed to answer the fundamental question on every passenger's mind, saying only that it would do its "utmost" to arrange alternative flights and/or full refunds.
And when your customers don't get the information they need, what do they do? They try other means, calling your customer service teams and turning to social media. Unsurprisingly, Ryanair was probably overwhelmed, but tweets sharing customers' frustration, and the airline's failure to answer calls, made things even worse. This is communication failure number 2: leaving your customers in the dark. What's more, even travellers who weren't affected became worried, because the company didn't announce a full list of cancellations in one go. As Nick Trend, the Telegraph Travel consumer expert said, this threw the travel plans of everyone who had booked a Ryanair flight into doubt – for a six week period that probably amounts to at least 16 million people worrying about whether they would reach their destination or not. Trend doesn't mince his words when he calls this "a cock-up of monumental proportions".
Keeping an airline running efficiently is, as McKinsey points out "a striking dichotomy". On one level Ryanair does a fantastic job safely transporting over 130 million passengers every year. Yet, like many airlines, operations on the ground may be less than ideal. Of course, managing 2000 flights a day, across 33 countries, is quite an organisational challenge. McKinsey's view is that airlines have focused so much on safety (clearly a good thing!) that they don't use labour, materials and assets as efficiently as other industries. Ryanair's ongoing flight cancellations would seem to support this. In fact, the company announced on Facebook that it had "messed up" in its planning of pilot holidays. This is communication success number 1: taking responsibility for your mistakes. Yet this success becomes tainted when you realise it may not be the whole story.
As the details behind the crisis have continued to unfold, it seems Ryanair's fundamental problem is a shortage of pilots. This is communication failure number 3: deliberately obscuring the truth. While Chief Executive Michael O'Leary has now admitted the shortage, his revelation came almost a week after the announcement of the cancellations. And with the Irish Pilots' Union estimating that 700 pilots left the company in the last year, obscuring the truth probably isn't going to help Ryanair tackle the shortage. As one former pilot has written, Ryanair simply "cannot replace pilots as fast as they quit" – if this post was about management rather than communication failures, there would be one right there...
Yet in the midst of all this, there is one significant communication success: disgruntled pilots in negotiation with Ryanair joined forces using the mobile phone messaging platform WhatsApp. The app helped pilots from more than 30 bases coordinate a plan to get a better deal from Ryanair. As reported by the BBC, "until now they've been scattered and isolated, making them much less powerful". This is communication success number 2: using technology to collaborate remotely. Of course, this is a success for the staff, not the company. And this unified revolt could lead to more flight cancellations, which makes it pretty much a fail for customers. But it shows that, just like disgruntled customers turning to social media, staff have that power too. And it's a sign of something else too Ryanair clearly don't communicate well with their staff. In fact, that former pilot I've already mentioned says Michael O'Leary "openly insults his pilots". So there we have it, communication failure number 4: demotivating your own staff.
I don't know what the long term impact of Ryanair's current troubles will be. As one journalist has written, the airline has been "unnecessarily pissing people off" despite running their own "always getting better" programme. At the very least, perhaps they'll look carefully at how they handle both customer and staff communication in the future. Or perhaps this is one step too far and those pissed off people will look elsewhere for their cheap flights or jobs. Either way, it was a mixture of management and communication failures that got Ryanair into this mess, so both need to improve.