Pass the sick bag: Ryanair hits Swedish turbulence

It all started with a few minor bumps: a series of articles last month in SvD lifting the lid on Ryanair's allegedly poor personnel policies and dodgy safety procedures. But when union HTF made a cheeky protest at Nyköping's Skavsta airport last week, it was as if one of the low fares airline's diminutive Boeings had been struck by lightning. On Monday came the thunder clap: chief executive Michael O'Leary flew to Stockholm to put the record straight.

First of all, the allegations. In August, SvD’s business pages reported grumblings from Ryanair employees about low wages, fines for taking sick leave, long hours without breaks and staff being dismissed for contacting trade unions.

Last week, DN detailed a number of recent incident reports, in which Ryanair had been criticised. A report from British investigators into an incident at Stansted Airport in which an engine caught fire on landing claimed that cabin crew dealt badly with the situation and were poorly trained in handling such emergencies.

Another recent report from Irish inspectors looked at the circumstances surrounding a pilot who suffered a heart attack shortly after taking off from Charleroi in Belgium in 2002. It revealed the stress faced by pilots in coping with schedules which demand 25 minute turnarounds.

Such revelations prompted HTF, the trade union which serves flight personnel in Sweden, to take action. Last week, they went to Skavsta airport, used by Ryanair for their Stockholm flights, and handed sick bags to bemused passengers on their way to Paris bearing the legend ‘Magstarkt’ (‘strong-stomached’ or ‘disgusting’).

According to last Wednesday’s DN, they didn’t receive much support. First of all, they were kicked out of the departure hall by airport chief Dot Gade Kulovuori: “I don’t want the passengers to make a connection between the airport and the union’s action,” she said.

Businessman Alper Gungör is a Ryanair regular and seemed unconcerned: “There are certain things you just have to put up with if you want to fly cheap.”

Alice Rönning and her daughter were amused by the sick bags and commented: “We have actually wondered how they can have such low fares.”

So what of that stormy Stockholm press conference? Not surprisingly, O’Leary came out with all guns blazing. According to Tuesday’s SvD, he was particularly keen to refute claims of inadequate safety.

“These are simply false accusations. We have had a perfect flying record for 20 years and operate according to the highest European standards.”

O’Leary also threatened to sue DN unless the paper retracted allegations about the airline’s safety records.

He didn’t agree with the stories of his airline being anti-union either. “It would never occur to us to threaten or otherwise stop our staff from joining a union. What we can say is that we’ll pay more if they negotiate with us directly.”

O’Leary was predictably dismissive of the HTF protest. It was all a ruse to recruit new members. “They can’t get over the fact that our employees get paid more than they would with them negotiating on their behalf.”

Indeed, Wednesday’s Expressen brought another angle to the story – that behind the HTF protest is none other than the flailing giant SAS.

“This is often the reaction when a monopoly is no longer alone,” said Lotta Lindquist-Brosjö, Ryanair’s Nordic boss.

But isn’t all this fuss in Sweden having a negative impact on the Ryanair brand?

“No, absolutely not,” said O’Leary, who pointed out that on average, Ryainair staff earn more than SAS staff.

“Our customers want to fly cheap. I don’t think they care whether we have collective bargaining or not. Or how we treat our employees.”

It was by all accounts a combative performance by O’Leary. He also emphasised Ryanair’s productivity record and claimed his staff have the best terms and conditions in the business.

Unfortunately, SvD couldn’t answer the questions on all readers’ lips. Did Michael O’Leary fly Ryanair to Stockholm? And if so, did he have to pay for his sandwiches?

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet