I was having to fly quite regularly a few years ago, not for pleasure. This was just after the al-Qaeda shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had tried to destroy a Boeing 767 with plastic explosives and a detonator. I never saw any passenger make a fuss about the increased security which followed; we were all quite reassured to be shuffling barefoot through those snaking scanner queues.
There have been other terrorism alerts and foiled plots since. In 2006 an alleged bomb plot to blow up passenger jets bound from Britain to the United States using explosives smuggled aboard in hand luggage was uncovered, and security at airports was again increased. On this occasion Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary's response was to throw a hissy fit condemning the inconvenience of security measures. Ryanair reportedly threatened to sue the Government for compensation if airport security measures were not relaxed. Here was a company that seemed to put profit before the safety of its passengers.
Around this time O'Leary also ruled out joining the EU carbon emissions trading scheme. He is quoted as saying, "I am far too busy doubling Ryanair over the next few years to be joining any carbon emissions trading scheme." Nice.
Last month, in part of a private war with travel booking web sites, Ryanair stated that it would refuse to honour any online bookings unless they had been made through its own website. A spokesman for the airline said that it was trawling through bookings, identifying passengers who would be prevented from boarding. The Air Transport Users Council suggested that the airline does not want the travel trade selling on its fares because it makes money from other things it sells through its own website. The consumer watchdog 'Which' accused Ryanair of treating passengers (who were to be summarily turned away at the checkout with ruined holiday arrangements) as ''pawns'.
According to an exposé by the Sunday Times last month, Ryanair are now curbing the discretionary rights of pilots to request extra fuel, by imposing a cap on fuel safety reserves for its aircraft. An internal Ryanair memo, sent to pilots earlier this year, reportedly reveals that the company have insisted that any request by a captain for extra fuel should be the "exception", and refers to the normal limit being 300kg maximum reserve, providing about five minutes of extra stacking time for a Boeing 737. Although CAA guidance advises that sufficient fuel should be carried to cope with the standard stacking time of 20 minutes over busy UK airports, the company memo states: "Ryanair can statistically prove that 20 minutes' fuel is not required in LTN [Luton] or STN [Stansted]. Therefore it is not Ryanair policy to carry this fuel." Pilots are also refused extra fuel for observing altitude restrictions imposed by air traffic controllers.
Civil Aviation figures reveal that the number of fuel shortage emergencies in British airspace has doubled in five years. Under European rules, every plane must carry a "contingency" load of about 5% of a trip's fuel, and enough to divert to an alternative airport. Captains have a duty to anticipate delays from head winds, storms and re-routeing, and to request extra fuel to cope with this. Evan Cullen, a pilot with 19 years' experience and president of the Irish Air Line Pilots' Association, is cited as saying that commercial pressure on pilots to pare down the fuel they carry was compromising safety.
In response to reports that Ryanair pilots are condemning this move to restrict fuel safety margins as 'insane', an airline spokesman apparently retaliated that, "No pilot is allowed to fly with minimum fuel as these clowns claim," whilst admitting that pilots were allowed extra fuel only in "exceptional cases", and acknowledging that Ryanair had suffered a Mayday caused by fuel shortage within the last three years.
In 2007 Ryanair was voted 'the world's worst airline' for the second year running. A third of respondents in Britain voted the airline their least favourite, giving delays, cancellations, unfriendly staff, uncomfortable seats and poor leg room as the reasons (in one incident, Ryanair charged a man with cerebral palsy £18 to use a wheelchair).
Me, I can put up with a bit of rudeness and discomfort (although the company's proposal to allow use of mobile phones in flight is pushing it; aeroplanes are one of the few public spaces left where one is not subjected to the one-sided ramblings of loudmouthed prats, and about the only place you would be unable to escape them by any means). Compromising safety is another matter. I know I won't be flying Ryanair so long as it remains under the control of the ruthless and bombastic Mr O'Lairy.