Ryanair admits 'screwing-up on pilot roster' - it will take time to restore confidence
Ryanair says it will take time to regain customer confidence after a "screw-up" over pilot holiday chaos and cancellations hit hundreds here, while it is warning its Northern Ireland links to elsewhere in the UK could be at threat due to Brexit.
David O'Brien, chief commercial officer, told the Belfast Telegraph that while it's likely to apply for a UK operation certificate, that it will not guarantee the future of its Belfast and Londonderry links to London and Liverpool after the UK's exit from the EU.
In September, the airline left hundreds of Northern Ireland passengers - among 700,000 in total - furious after it cancelled flights and pulled 25 aircraft due to an error over pilot holiday rosters.
Mr O'Brien said he could not quantify how much damage has been caused to the company and its brand among customers here.
He said the "very specific rostering failure" let to a huge number of pilots being given holiday time off.
"There was a screw-up, a management failure, whereby at a very specific level, 50% of the pilot leave was allocated in the last four months of the year, which doesn't work."
He said the removal of its Belfast to Gatwick aircraft was "one of the least impactful decisions".
It's bringing back its London route a month earlier, but will instead be flying in to Stansted, rather than Gatwick, amid issues with its slots.
"I think we have to work hard to regain customer confidence," he said.
He said sales remain "solid" and he's confident bookings will return quickly once the route begins again next year.
He described the cancellations and pilot problems as "a certain blemish on an otherwise impeccable" record.
The airline is taking on a new boss to oversee its pilot management.
Tackling the issue of customer concerns following the cancellations, which forced many to book with other airlines, he said it has compensated those hit.
"It is logistically, very difficult, for an airline to go and find flights with another airline, for many people. But what we communicated was, you can have a refund, and in the case of those within the 14-day period, compensation... even if people had paid £9.99, they were still getting the compensation, which runs to hundreds of euros.
"And, other associated claims, such as re-routing, we will process as we receive them."
Speaking about the impact of Brexit on the airline, he said that following on from comments from the industry, including Air France, setting up an air operator's certificate (AOC) elsewhere in Europe could not ensure the protection of its flights after Brexit.
EasyJet has applied for an AOC in Austria in an apparent bid to allow it to continue flying in the EU.
Mr O'Brien said it was likely the airline would set up its own AOC in the UK, but that it would not guarantee the future of its domestic UK routes.
"In all probability, we will set up a UK AOC, but already the head of Air France says that is not going to be acceptable.
"A very significant part of our business is in the UK, the greater part of that is the UK to Europe.
"In the greater percentage of the range of the scenarios... I think that is likely to continue.
"But a scenario which is more likely, is that easyJet can't fly domestically in Europe, and we can't fly domestically in the UK.
"The good news for Belfast is, we have one UK route, and the remainder of our 14 routes are to Europe.
"It will be a number of weeks, and months of chaos... theoretically, if we couldn't fly in the UK, we couldn't operate our domestic route to London, and we wouldn't be able to operate our Liverpool and Glasgow to City of Derry Airport flights."
Ryanair remains on track to land record annual profits this year.
However, according to Mr O'Brien, the pilot problems are costing it around €25m (£22m) in refunds for its customers.