Ryanair: An Empty Head, Two Heads, and a Pay Head.


Single-pilot airliners make financial sense, according to Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, and that point I can’t argue.

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Lerary

But what I can and do argue is that any airline run by a CEO who makes operational decisions based primarily on cash value–and O’Leary is the airline guy who introduced the concept of the pay toilet to the airline world–is an airline I’d never fly on, much less let my family travel on.

It would be like consigning yourself to an operating room whose surgical procedures were based on cash value to the hospital. Under anesthesia, hope for the best and by the way, did you pre-pay the resuscitation and de-fibrillation fees?

More important though is how fundamentally ignorant O’Leary is regarding the very product he sells. Let’s start at the beginning.

There have been many high-tech single pilot aircraft flying successfully for years. But the difference is, there was only one life at stake and a guaranteed escape plan if the airplane became un-flyable:

That escape option doesn’t exist on an passenger jet. But that’s not the only reason why two pilots are necessary for safe airline flight.

The basic philosophy of the airline operation is that layers of redundancy safeguard the thousands of passengers who take flight each day. It’s not simply a case that two or three pilots can divide the workload, which is true.

What’s more important is that it takes more than one pilot to divide the task of safe flight into the components that require simultaneous undivided attention in the critical phases of flight during which the aircraft and everyone on board are most vulnerable.

And that’s just in normal operation. The division becomes even more critical during an abnormal or emergency situation. Here are two prime examples.

We routinely take off from airports with tiny runways designed for the smaller propeller aircraft of the fifties and sixties. Jets, particularly when they’re heavy, require miles of runway to accelerate to take-off speed. Even more critical than that is the additional runway required to achieve flying speed if an engine fails.

Which adds another constraint: stopping in case there’s not enough runway to continue to take-off speed after an engine failure. That, on a short runway like in LaGuardia, Washington National, Burbank, Chicago-Midway and San Diego to name but a few, makes an instantaneous decision to abort a life and death question: do you have enough speed and runway to continue into the air? Do you have enough runway and not too much speed to stop?

Add to the stopping situation the wild card: is whatever failure for which you’re aborting going to affect your ability to stop? That is, with an electrical, hydraulic, landing gear or a few other potential failures–you can’t and won’t stop on the runway.

How does one person sort all of the variables of speed, runway length remaining, malfunctions and stopping capability and make the correct split second decision to stop or go?

The answer is, one pilot doesn’t.

Despite O’Leary’s theory that one pilot does most of the flying–and maybe it’s true–two pilots are needed for the big decisions like the above and many other split second decisions that have to be made in the critical landingĀ  phase, here’s the secret: divide.

The take-off situation I just described is what we call a balanced field. That is, there’s exactly enough runway to allow for an engine failure, then a continued take-off on one engine or a safe stop on the runway. This is not just a short runway contingency either–the miles long runways at both Denver and Mexico City are often barely long enough in the summer heat due to their mile-high altitude.

Either way, the safe stop depends upon all of the stopping systems–spoilers, brakes, hydraulics, electrics–all working. You have a split second to decide. And in all of the above locations, there is no overrun. You’re going off the airport at high speed, loaded with fuel.

When I take-off from a balanced field, I divide the focus and tasking this way: the first officer will make the take-off. He is the “go” guy, meaning if I don’t take over and abort, we’re flying. He has but one task, no matter what, one engine or two, malfunctions or not: fly.

I, on the other hand, am the “stop” guy. I’m only looking for the Big Four as we call them: engine failure, engine fire, windshear, structural failure. I’m looking for those and only those–not both malfunctions and take-off performance. Because my righthand man is zeroed in on that.

We both then have individual, singular focus on the critical items in two opposing but now separate dynamic realms. It’s simple. It’s smooth, it’s reliable.

And it’s not possible with a single pilot.

Same theory of separation is vital on low visibility, bad weather landings, only this time the roles are reversed: I’m flying and looking outside for critical landing references, the First Officer’s entire focus is inside on the instruments, looking for any anomaly that would require a discontinued approach.

The O’Leary method, apparently, is to simply roll it all into one and save a few bucks per plane on pilot salaries. Never mind split second decisions, separation of critical duties and focus and ultimately, your safety.

Which might result in a few bucks of savings on your Ryanair ticket. But be prepared to give it back to them in flight eventually anyway.

That is, if you can muster the courage to fly on an airline whose CEO sees everything in terms of dollars and cents–but has little common sense himself.

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11 Responses to “Ryanair: An Empty Head, Two Heads, and a Pay Head.”

  1. I think you have done exacty what Mr. O’leary wanted you to do, talk about it and thus giving Ryanair more notoriety. If you think that he does not know what he is doing when he says such bold things, think again. He is a master at media manipulation. And that has served him and Ryanair pretty well so far.

  2. Although I do believe in the possibility that in the future FedEx cargo will fly from the West coast of the US to their sort facility in the Philippines (or is it Guam) on an MD-11 sized UAV, the one pilot airliner might be the “Bridge Too Far” for the masses. At least in Mr. O’Leary’s lifetime. Hope so anyway.

    • I agree and in fact I’m surprised that there hasn’t been any fully automated cargo flying yet, given the UAV technology that’s available today. But boxes are pretty much expendable–I don’t think people are going to buy off on the complete reliance on electrically powered automation. Knowing what I know about jets and electricity and how they break, I know I’m not ready.

  3. Like Cary says, he knows how to generate publicity. Another thing he knows is how to make money doing it. I have often wondered if Ryanair was popular would they also be profitable? Seems wierd to me why people fly them. Cheap fares maybe?

  4. O’Leary is a nut case. I hate it when people say that the plane flies itself, and the pilot is just along for the ride.

  5. I have flown Ryanair to get around in Europe, not so bad they were short flights. I would think safety has to be foremost, so maybe it’s about the publicity of saying such outrageous things…….one can only hope….

  6. blackwatertown Says:

    In O’Leary’s defence, he seizes every opportunity to talk up his airline. I remember an episode when there was widespread public criticism of Luton airport for introducing charges even to drop off passengers at the terminal. Neither the airport, nor the main airline based there would speak on the radio. However, Michael O’Leary was happy to respond to the barrage of criticism, even though it had absolutely nothing to do wit Ryanair – they’re an airline, not an airport – and they don’t even fly from that airport. In a way, it was as well that he did come on to speak to radio listeners, because they were (without any foundation or logic) often holding Ryanair responsible for this airport drop-off charge anyway. Crazy, but there you are. At least he does not hide from his critics.

  7. I think any proposal to have single pilot airliners is totally ridiculous given the current state of technology. I’m an IT guy with a love of planes, and following on from your comment about knowing electricity and jets, I know about computers and a bit about jets, and anyone who seriously thinks computer-based systems could be installed to do the work of the second pilot is not living in the real world.

    You mention UAV’s for cargo – I think the only realistically reliable and safe UAV for hauling a decent load is the airship; nice and slow and not subject to a lot of those pesky aerodynamic issues that can cause even a two man crew to break into a sweat.

  8. Sorry if I am a bit late to comment here, i’m just going back over the posts.
    I just wanted to say that I am very surprised at peoples reaction to Michael O’ Learys “idea”.
    Do you honestly believe that he was serious. All he wants, and has ever wanted, is publicity, be it good or bad. The guy is a genius at marketing his airline.
    Last year (as I recall) Ryanair was the only airline in Europe making a profit-and it was in the hundreds of millions. Having flown with Ryanair on many occasions over the past few years, I can say that it is truely cheap and nasty. The cabin is bright yellow plastic on top with blue seats. All through the flight, automated advertisements play, talking about ryanairs hertz car offers etc. I have found the cabin crew to be quite disrespectful on most occasions, with no care for service, to the point where I almost get the feeling they dont want me there.

    Compare this to my countries national airlines flight attendants, who have an always friendly attitude, and who I would happily approach to ask for something. Also, there are no on-board advertisements, not even flight related stuff. The cabin feels more spacious (even though it’s an A320 instead of a 738). Not to mention they fly to actual airports that aren’t in the middle of nowhere.

    Who do i prefer to fly with- The second one (Aer Lingus).
    Who do fly with more often- ryanair.

    Why? -price.

    Simply put- mic o leary offers what people want-cheap fares. He does it the nasty way, but he does it, and thats all that most people care about.
    Regarding safety- Ryanair has never had a fatality.

    Oops, I went on for a while there, but hopefully you’ll see what I mean.
    Em.

  9. Enrico Caruso Says:

    O’Leary is an idiot. He and his “airline” make Spirit Airlines in the US look like Emirates.

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