Michael O’Leary’s dead. No, no, he’s on the outside, looking in

Behind the wheel – An occasional series by Michael de Laine

“Timothy Leary’s dead. No, no, no, no, He’s outside looking in,” the Moody Blues sang in 1968. It is difficult to determine whether Ryanair’s adventures in Denmark were an Irish joke or a total misjudgement of the situation, but the airline’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, isn’t dead, he’s on the outside, looking in, wondering if other European countries will be inspired by the Danish trade union’s victory over his airline. Passengers are still more than willing to buy the Ryanair’s cheap tickets.

Timothy Leary’s dead. No, no, no, no, He’s outside looking in.

Timothy Leary’s dead. No, no, no, no, He’s outside looking in.

He’ll fly his astral plane, Takes you trips around the bay, Brings you back the same day,

Timothy Leary. Timothy Leary.

This is the first verse of ‘Legend Of A Mind’, written by Ray Thomas and performed by the Moody Blues on their 1968 album ‘In Search Of The Lost Chord’ (Deram SML 711), which circled about meditation, yoga, mantras, yantras and aum or om.

Timothy Francis Leary (who didn’t die until May 31st 1996; he was born on October 22nd 1920) was an American psychologist and writer who is best remembered for advocating psychedelic drugs.

Timothy Leary believed that LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, or ‘acid’) showed therapeutic potential for use in psychiatry. Among catchphrases depicting his philosophy are ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ and ‘think for yourself and question authority’.

Leary conducted experiments under the Harvard Psilocybin Project while LSD and psilocybin (a naturally occurring psychedelic compound produced by ‘magic’ mushrooms) were legal in the USA, but Harvard University sacked him and his associate, Richard Alpert, amid controversy surrounding the drugs and their effects.

“The most dangerous man in America,” is how President Richard Nixon once described Leary.

Recent weeks and days have brought that song to mind as Danish trade unions have battled against what they see as low pay, social dumping and unfair competition in air transport, personified by Michael Kevin O’Leary, chief executive officer of Ryanair.

Over the past 30 years, Ryanair has grown into a financially successful and popular cut-price airline. In Denmark, it’s operated out of Billund Airport in Jutland for several years. Located just beside Legoland, Billund Airport is a second-line airport about 260 km due west of Copenhagen. Ryanair has set up a base there – so crews could be located and live there and fly out early in the morning on two round trips a day.

Wanting to cash in on the Danes’ wish to fly as cheaply as possible, despite follow-on costs (it charges extra for e.g. some baggage), O’Leary and Ryanair negotiated successfully for slots from Copenhagen Airport, started to operate from the Danish capital earlier this year, and announced their intention to open a base there.

The Ryanair business model builds on reducing costs – pay, airport charges, company taxation. It keeps aircraft maintenance costs down by flying one model, thus standardising spares and routines; it sets its ticket prices at a level to attract sufficient business to give it a high load factor; and it aims at having a quicker turn-around time at its destinations than other airlines, saving time on the ground and thus airport landing fees.

But pay and employment conditions are together the bone of contention for the Danish trade unions. As an EU and Irish airline, Ryanair claims that pay and employment conditions need only adhere to Irish rules. And, by the way, Ryanair doesn’t accept or negotiate with trade unions. The Danish trade unions say that because Ryanair is opening a base in Copenhagen, the airline’s staff based there (and at Billund) are subject to Danish labour market regulations and agreements.

And in Denmark, the labour market is an area where employers’ organisations agree pay and employment conditions with employees’ organisations without outside intervention (well, almost). This is the so-called Danish model – collective bargaining, backed up by strikes, sympathy strikes, lock-outs and the labour court.

And a labour court ruling earlier this month said that the trade unions can legally demand negotiations for an agreement with Ryanair on the airline’s staff’s pay and employment conditions; and that sympathy strikes preventing baggage handling for Ryanair flights and fuelling of Ryanair aircraft at both Copenhagen and Billund Airports would be legal after due warning.

In true Kev fashion, Michael O’Leary held a press conference with a few Ryanair staff, to convince the general public that Ryanair’s staff have good pay and employment conditions. But journalists’ questions were strictly controlled, and mainly answered (or circumvented) by O’Leary himself, and no documentation for the assertions, in the form of contracts or pay slips, was provided.

Elsewhere, on the other hand, the trade unions produced documents from admittedly disaffected Ryanair staff listing several complaints, including low pay without pension contributions by employer, the requirement to buy own uniforms, and even the economic need to collect passengers’ empty bottles to get the refund on the deposits to eke out earnings.

Ryanair says its cabin staff earn between €32,000 (about DKK 240,000) and €35,000 (a little over DKK 260,000) a year without pension contribution by the airline. The cabin crew trade union, FPU, want Ryanair to sign a pay and work conditions contract similar to the one between FPU and Cimber Air, which also flew from Billund. Here, the cabin crew pay would start at just over DKK 260,000 a year, rising to DKK 312,000 a year, plus 10% pension contribution from the employer.

With the sympathy strikes due to start in Copenhagen on Saturday, Ryanair has now announced that it is closing its Billund base as well as the Copenhagen base. In future, Denmark will be served by Ryanair flights to and from Lithuania, the UK and Ireland. Ryanair’s decision to cut the number of its destinations in the winter schedule from Billund will hurt the Jutland airport – although other airlines could take over the slots.

It is difficult to determine whether Ryanair’s adventures in Denmark were an Irish joke or a total misjudgement of the labour market situation, but Michael O’Leary isn’t dead, he’s on the outside, looking in, wondering if trade unions in other European countries will be inspired by their Danish brethren.

As Lizette Risgaard, deputy chair of LO, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, says: “If everyone is paid as they are at Ryanair, nobody would could afford to fly.”

Although the dispute has caused Ryanair’s reputation to fall from ‘bad’ to ‘miserable’, according to a report in the Berlingske newspaper today, passengers are still more than willing to buy the airline’s cheap tickets.

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