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The importance of crisis communication – Lessons from Ryanair 

David Stewart, one of the Crisis Response Journal's Directors, looks at crisis communication planning in the light of the recent Ryanair cancellations.


Ryanair wrote to 400,000 passengers to tell them that their flights have been cancelled after it admitted to a “mess-up” on pilot rostering that left 18 million ticketholders wondering if their holiday plans would be ruined. It is estimated that £320 million has been wiped off the airline’s stock market value in the wake of the crisis (photo:  Przemyslaw Szablowski/123rf)

Ryanair is a budget European airline operating in Europe with a low cost basic flight offering where the profits come from the add-ons such as charges for seat selection, speedy boarding, additional baggage and food/drinks. Its CEO, a flamboyant Irishman, renowned for his blunt communication style, has courted controversy over the years with talk of introducing charges for using the toilet on the aircraft (which never actually took place, but the associated press and media coverage made sure he was rarely out of the news).

The airline recently announced a new strategy designed to ‘help speed up the boarding process’ by banning most carry-on bags and forcing customers to pay to have their bags placed in the hold.

With a slick communications operation required to schmooze customers into buying into its business model, one would imagine that the airline’s response at time of crisis would be similarly impressive. However, recent events suggest otherwise.

An internal staff scheduling error somehow meant that too many pilots were given leave at the same time. The Ryanair response was to announce, with minimal notice, that up to 50 flights a day over a six week period, would be cancelled – ultimately affecting 315,000 travellers (and therefore 315,000 customers).

The CEO then announced publicly that the planning of pilot leave had been ‘badly handled’. However, the crisis for Ryanair was only just beginning and the real nub of the issue was now how it handled the fallout.

Not unexpectedly, the initial public response was shock – newspapers were quickly filled with stories of ruined family holidays. The style of messaging was initially matter of fact, but customers felt betrayed. The UK consumer organisation Which quickly condemned Ryanair, not for its failing to plan staff leave, but instead, its communication to customers whose flights had been cancelled. Which said: “The email sent those who had their flights cancelled, falls woefully short in informing passengers about the compensation they may be due. The airline is required, by law, to outline the compensation and assistance rules when a flight is cancelled, something that, in our view, it has fallen way short of doing in this instance. Ryanair has failed even to use the word compensation on the face of the email.”

As if the external communication issues weren’t bad enough for Ryanair, the following days brought stories of internal strife. Some pilots and first officers were initially offered tax-free bonuses to cancel their leave. There was then suggestion of salary increases. However, instead of resolving one crisis, this seems to have caused another. Reports suggest that Ryanair pilots are considering a revolt and are seeking to renegotiate contracts across the board. Suggestions are that this is the latest issue in longer-term pilot dissatisfaction with terms and conditions – Ryanair jas recently lost 140 pilots to a rival carrier – and some pilots see this as an opportune time to demand enhanced terms and conditions. Some (unconfirmed) reports suggest the pilots are considering the possibility of taking mass sick days.

The cost of cancelling the flights alone has been estimated at some €22million and while the flight cancellation duration will only last for a few weeks, the fall-out may take much longer, and cost Ryanair much more.

In a competitive market, Ryanair has always managed to maintain its customer base through competitive pricing and edgy marketing. However, customers will only take so much risk and, if Ryanair suffers any more issues in the near future, previously loyal customers may take their business elsewhere. Similarly, the model of ‘stack them high and sell them low’ high volume flight numbers can only work with a ready and willing supply of pilots and cabin crew. Ryanair needs to resolve its internal issues quickly and in a way that prevents more public reporting on any internal strife.

Whatever the cause of an organisational crisis, the manner in which it is dealt with in the immediate aftermath is crucial to future business. In this current crisis, Ryanair has discovered challenges with its external and internal communications. Previously loyal customers and staff not longer feel the love, it seems, and the normally slick Ryanair communications and marketing teams will need to act quickly while, at the same time, its HR and Operations functions need to resolve the internal strife.

Any crisis management plan must include crisis communication as an essential element but, no matter how good the plan seems, the crucial time is when the plan is put into practice and, on this occasion, Ryanair appears to have been found wanting.

David Stewart, Crisis Management Limited

David Stewart is Director of Crisis Management Limited, and Global Operations Director for the Crisis Response Journal. With 14 years of experience in the area of crisis communication and publishing CRJ’s parent company, Crisis Management Ltd, can offer support and guidance to any organisation on the development of a robust crisis communication strategy and plan, as well as practical support at the time of need.

David was a career police officer in the UK, rising to the rank of Chief Superintendent. During his 30 years police service, he gained extensive experience of all aspects of policing and security He was the Police Silver Commander in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 Glasgow Airport terrorist attack and was the lead officer for 2 strands of the UK Counter Terrorism Strategy within Scotland’s largest police service. After leaving the police in 2013, David was appointed Strategic Policing Advisor for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Overseas Territories Division and also held the post of Security Programme Manager for the very successful 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.

He established and ran his own successful police and security consultancy company and subsequently worked on a number of related projects worldwide.  

David has MBA and BSc degrees and holds a number of professional memberships in the areas of Management, Risk, Security, Project Management and Emergency Management and was awarded the accolade of UK Chartered Manager of the Year in 2013. 

He has been published in two academic textbooks on the topics of Police Leadership and Programme Management and was formerly a visiting speaker at the University of St Andrews and lectured on Crisis Management at the Scottish Police College.

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David Stewart, 22/09/2017
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