Monday, November 12, 2012

An Uncomfortable Collision of Facts for Ryanair's O'Leary

Forgive me for giving Michael O'Leary more of what he wants - that being ink - but note the coincidence of his latest ridiculous statement in the Telegraph, "seatbelts don't matter" which was published the day after 130 passengers and crew members on Southwest Airlines flight 1905 to Denver were happily restrained by their seat belts as their Boeing 737 careened off the taxiway after hitting a patch of ice.

I think I know of 130 people for whom seat belts matter very much.

This is the same sort of nonsensical obliviousness demonstrated by gadget-happy air travelers who think because they are tech savvy, they are safety savvy. They agitate for eliminating the restrictions on using EMI emitting devices during critical phases of flight by concluding if planes aren't falling out of the sky, everything is hunky dory.

Digital nomads can be forgiven for a lack of nuanced understanding of the complexities of air safety but what's O'Leary's excuse?  The man is running an airline. Certainly he has some appreciation for the fact that there are frequent aviation safety events from which passengers walk away in one piece and for that they can credit thousands of designs and procedures learned one-by-one and often at the cost of human lives.

Cradling the JAL Dreamliner seats after a recent flight
Many factors contribute to the enviable safety record of commercial aviation including the lowly, maligned, misunderstood, and under appreciated airplane seat complete with belts and floor attachments. (About which, explosive news still to come.) 

In addition to having my own seat cradled for far too many hours in airplanes this fall, I have also spent a good amount of time visiting the folks who deserve some of the praise for the state of seat safety. 

A crash test dummy at Jasti in Japan
From Jasti, the crash test dummy lab in Numazu, Japan presided over by Yoshi Ozawa to the beehive seating center of BE Aerospace in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where Tom Plant  dazzled me with an exciting tale of the complexities of seat design (really!) I'm smart enough to know that great minds are at work each and every day and dismissing the products of all that gray matter is just moronic.

At BE Aerospace - seat design in process 
But that's not why I'm spending some of my extremely limited time trying to counter O'Leary's hot air. The third airplane seat coincidence is based on a personal conversation I had just last week. A smart young woman of about 32, told me flat out she didn't worry about any of that safety briefing guff because airplane crashes weren't survivable. If a high profile airline executive spouts the same thing, who can fault her for her doubts?

Every day there's some story in the news about an emergency landing, or runway event like Southwest's little episode in Denver this past weekend. People like my friend hear it, heck, it's on You Tube before the plane is at the gate, but they fail to make the connection between the anchorman's "moments of terror" characterization and happy ending that is the story's conclusion. 

Tom Plant of BE Aerospace at his office in Winston Salem
Chalk up survival success to egg heads like Ozawa and Plant and thousands of others who crunch numbers and smash doll heads so we can purchase a plane ticket knowing that the chances our own heads will crack open are infinitesimal. 

Now if all those great minds could just come up with a plan to smack some sense into O'Leary's noggin, we'd be all set. 


Ron Kuhlmann said...

As you noted, every time he makes one of these broad pronouncements, he gets lots of attention. Not only does he keep Ryanair in the news but he gets a chance to again set expectations (essentially none) for his customers. He is constantly updating the image that he wants to put forward, and that is of one opposed to the status quo. Most of the things he proposes are just for shock value, but he has hundreds of airplanes and when he gets annoyed with, say an airport and their charges, he makes good on his threats. While many may view him as a nutcase, he has built a huge organization on his own terms and that counts for something.

Christine Negroni said...

O'Leary's strategy reminds me of Akbar Al Baker, Qatar's boss who told me he'd sleep with the devil if it would help his airline. (See my previous post Holy Matrimony) Everybody charts their own course, and success is a subjective term. Ryanair is certainly a bigger airline, but is it a better one? Has O'Leary done much about which the aviation industry can say, "Thanks Mike, you made us all better."?

Derek said...

In terms of passenger experience, it is worth mentioning that Qatar and RyanAir are at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. So the objectives of the respective CEOs' bombast are quite different.

Christine Negroni said...

Quite right, Derek.

Mark Carolla said...

Great points, Christine. Thank you. This displays a flagrant ignorance of or disdain for a culture of safety at Ryanair. Do they teach this drivel to cabin crew? Mr. O'Leary is a caricature of Coneilius "Commodore" Vanderbildt, the robber baron who built the New York Central and his infamous "the public be damned" business model. Truly the guy does a lot of this to set the low standard of cheapness (you get what you pay for) of his airline. Unfortunately a lot of legacy airlines and even LCCs, in an effort to develop a market with the world's lager louts and those for whom the absolute cheapest fare is all that matters, are following some of his baits and switches and "ancillary fees" (think Spirit and now even formerly proud and classy carriers) are immitating some of his poor example when it comes to customer service. More importantly, Mr. O'Leary's spouting off becomes a real issue when it regards setting standards and a culture at Ryanair for safety and security. It can be argued that when the CEO of a big airline, a person who is supposed to be the leader of an airline, states something like "seat belts don't matter," his fitness to manage and lead that airline should be called into question as well as the safety standards and culture of that airline.

John Walton said...

Mark, I think your post misses the point of O'Leary's pronouncements, one that Christine hit straight on the nose: he wants the publicity.

He wants it for its own sake, but also because he wants people to write about how Ryanair is a cheapskate, cutting every corner it can, from staff charging their cellphones to a pound for the loo to standing room.

Why does he want that? Because whenever punters hear RYANAIR CHEAPSKATE they'll think "hmm, Ryanair's cheap". And when they're hunting for a flight, they'll consider it.

I should note that I've used Ryanair myself for point-to-point flying. It's a miserable experience, but it's cheap, and as you point out the legacy carriers are getting into the same game.

It all adds up to an interesting set of variables for flying around Europe, that's for sure.