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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 26 Mar 1998

Vol. 154 No. 17

Adjournment Matters. - Dublin Airport Industrial Dispute.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter. I propose to share time with Senator Ross.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

This matter arises from the disruption that occurred during an industrial dispute at Dublin Airport three weeks ago. The events surrounding this dispute were regrettable. I do not intend to deal with the whys and wherefors of this issue, but I hope there will be a satisfactory resolution of the problem. I was affected by the dispute because I flew out of the airport on the Saturday morning on a Ryanair flight but I could not return that evening. I was obliged to stay overnight and I returned by boat on the following day.

Ryanair is a successful airline. If it had not arrived on the scene people would be obliged to pay more to fly. Ryanair upped the ante and began to compete with the national airline which had previously followed a policy of fly with us or row your own boat. However, some of Ryanair's actions do not go hand in hand with its being a customer friendly organisation. I hope the Minister of State will relate my comments to the relevant authorities. Not everyone affected by the disruptions at the airport three weeks ago wants to take legal action. I have no wish to be unrealistic or to go over the top, but some people were upset because they were not dealt with fairly.

On the Saturday in question a Ryanair official distributed a document to passengers — it was probably intended for staff — which I will now read into the record:

POLICY — (Thorough Knowledge of) Delays/Disruptions Outside the Direct Control of Ryanair

e.g. Weather, Airport Closure, Air Traffic Control, Industrial Action reactionary as a consequence of any of the above

1. Delays/Disruptions Outbound

Ryanair will provide assistance in terms of Information only. (We will however, continue to do everything within our ability to operate the intended flights to schedule).

Passengers will NOT be given Meal Vouchers, Accommodation or Transport. (It should be emphasised that we take full responsibility for delays of our own making. However, as this delay, diversion, cancellation was due to factors outside our control, we are not in a position to accept liability).

It is clear that the company is basically saying that customers are on their own — they may have Ryanair tickets but the company does not care about them. Nothing stretches the imagination more than to believe that Ryanair had nothing to do with what was happening at the airport.

It is incumbent on the Minister of State — I am not being critical of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment or anyone else involved in this matter — in the interests of common sense, courtesy, etc., to inform the body charged with investigating this matter that Ryanair has a duty to its customers. I know people who were staying in another European capital who could not return on an Aer Lingus flight on the Saturday night but they were put up in a hotel. However, Ryanair informed its customers that they were on their own, that the company had no responsibility, that they should find their own way home and that something might happen the following day. That is not acceptable and Ryanair, among others, has much to answer for.

Ryanair might be a successful and profitable company but it has a duty to its customers. I do not know how many people were affected by the dispute but I am sure the number is quantifiable. Ryanair, a company which has made millions of pounds, cannot simply wash its hands of this matter. I hope the Minister will pass on my comments so that they are taken into account.

I thank Senator Cosgrave for sharing time. Ryanair represents the sad story of a great little airline pioneering against the monopoly of the national airline, being successful, breaking the monopoly and becoming an arrogant private company in its own right. Senator Cosgrave's experience is proof that this company has become too big for its boots. It is not the only story of this sort that I have heard about Ryanair.

When it was established, Ryanair was welcomed and was seen as a company that championed the consumer and took on a semi-State body which was overcharging, overstaffed and non-commercial. It was seen as one of the bright lights of Irish industry and entrepreneurship. Where has it gone wrong? As Senator Cosgrave indicated, it has gone wrong in its treatment of its customers and its workers.

I have come across many examples of the airline treating its customers in a cavalier fashion. It issued pamphlets which were, to say the least, misleading and it had hidden charges which it was forced to reveal. A £2 charge for credit card bookings was an example — people arrived at the airport to find they had to pay this extra charge because they had booked by credit card. To give Ryanair its due, it adjusted this as a result of complaints. However, it did not advertise the charge and did not let it customers know about it in advance.

Ryanair falls down in two areas. First in its treatment of its customers and second in its treatment of its workforce. The recent incidents at Dublin Airport show an arrogance on the part of the employers that make even champions of the free market blush. The decision to treat 39 employees in an uncivilised and unacceptable manner given the present economic and employment climate, is deeply regrettable. Ryanair did not need to take such a macho "supercapitalist" stance in not recognising the union. All it had to do was to allow 39 people to be represented by a SIPTU official. However, to make such an issue of the matter was to flaunt its superior and bullying attitude to its American investors and the public.

This approach was regrettable because an unnecessary confrontation has taken place for which the fault lies with Ryanair. It is a great pity that a good company which has been so successful is doing so much damage to itself, its image and to the spirit of free enterprise by the sort of incident Senator Cosgrave has outlined and by its general attitude to its customers and staff.

I thank Senators Cosgrave and Ross for raising this issue. This debate is about the financial and other consequences for the travelling public that resulted from the recent closure of Dublin Airport. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment wishes me to say that she has the greatest sympathy for people who were inconvenienced and may have suffered loss as a result of the escalation of the dispute at Dublin Airport earlier this month.

It was to my mind a needless, wasteful and destructive event. All involved should by now have reflected on the defective judgment exercised in bringing matters to such a ridiculous pass. The Government cannot control completely how people behave towards each other in their roles as employers, employees or trade union sympathisers. It should be evident that the senseless results of the action that closed Dublin Airport on 7 and 8 March is a condemnation of the role they played in the events. Parties to the dispute should reflect on that before they utter further threats or ultimata.

Senators will appreciate that beyond this the Minister is constrained in commenting on the particular or individual actions or impacts of the dispute. The inquiry team is looking into such matters and will report as soon as possible. The complexity of the situation that pertained is not assisting the speed of the inquiry. However, everyone will join in asking that all in a position to do so should give every assistance in expediting the inquiry. I will be as interested to see the inquiry's conclusions with respect to the conduct of disputes as I am to hear the Senator's constructive views.

With regard to those seeking to travel who suffered as a result of the disruption, I am constrained from making specific comments as I understand that they may have recourse to redress through the courts. However, I can refer Senators to the annual reports of the Director of Consumer Affairs for 1995 and 1996. He examined the general conditions of carriage under which consumers travel when they buy an airline ticket. He examined a number of these conditions, which are by and large the same or similar for other airlines. He acknowledged that due to circumstances beyond the airline's control there will be occasions when airlines may have to delay or cancel flights. Consequently, he has no difficulty with the terms which provide for this situation. Senators who wish to discuss issues to do with how airlines deal with their passengers during such a dispute should be aware that it is not a matter for the Minister. Although she has no mandate in this regard, she will be happy to bring the comments and ideas expressed to the attention of the Minister for Public Enterprise, especially with regard to the treatment of customers and workers.