A rough ride for Ryanair

Irish LCC Ryanair really isn’t having a good week, after losing its COO to easyJet, cutting its growth because of the Boeing 737 MAX grounding and facing industrial unrest among its UK pilots.

Losing a well-respected COO has to be a painful process for any airline, but the news that Ryanair COO Peter Bellew is leaving to become COO of easyJet has to be a spectacular double-blow.

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary previously said Bellew had “unrivalled knowledge” of Ryanair’s business model, having previously held the role of flight operations director until 2014. Bellew had even been tipped as O’Leary’s successor.

Furthermore, the tone of the July 11 internal memo announcing Bellew’s departure suggests a playful comradery between the two executives, with O’Leary joking that the upside of Bellew leaving was that “no one will ever have to listen to Peter singing or busking ever again!!”

Now Bellew’s new employer has been made public, it also creates questions over whether he will work the long handover period that was originally planned, which would have seen Bellew remaining with Ryanair until the end of December.

O’Leary rehired Bellew to handle the aftermath of Ryanair’s 2017 pilot-rostering crisis. He was tasked with leading a “significant transformation” in pilot relations, after Ryanair was forced to drop its historic resistance to union representation.

Nearly two years on, Ryanair is still feeling the legacy of that climb-down, as the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) union prepares to ballot its members on industrial action.

Labor relations at easyJet seem much calmer and Ryanair’s UK rival will undoubtedly benefit from Bellew’s operational experience – especially given easyJet’s continued focus on schedule reliability, which delivered unit-cost gains in the third quarter.

Finally, delays to the Boeing 737 MAX have forced Ryanair to backtrack on its growth plans for winter 2019 and summer 2020. Instead of taking 58 MAXs by May 2020, Ryanair is now estimating that it will only have 30 – almost half the original number – and even that figure is not certain.

The possibility of staff cuts and base closures because of those delays will be yet another blow to Ryanair’s already strained labor relations.

One can only begin to imagine what it was like to be Boeing in that meeting.

Victoria Moores victoria.moores@informa.com