Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Ryanair boss brushes off TV exposé of lapses in safety
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The Independent Travel

Ryanair: Caught Napping used secret filming to expose "the real cost of low-cost flying". The programme showed lapses in safety, security and customer service at the Irish no-frills airline.

Seven years ago, Dispatches showed British Airways pilots filmed drinking shortly before flying, breaking the so-called "bottle-to-throttle" limits. The BA pilots were subsequently fired - but Michael O'Leary, chief executive, told me after watching this week's documentary that "We're not going to sack anyone". Indeed, off-duty staff at Stansted were invited to an "Oscars" party at the airport to watch the programme. "Most of them were laughing all the way through it," O'Leary told me. The crucial test for the airline, though, is what travellers thought of it.

"PASSENGERS DON'T MATTER. If you piss them off there's plenty more that will take their place" - one pilot's summary of Ryanair's corporate philosophy. Like almost all the characters in this interesting programme, his face was electronically blurred - though I imagine his voice will enable the airline's chief pilot to identify the gentleman in less time than it takes to say "doors to manual". The same goes for all the other pilots and cabin crew who were less than complimentary about Ryanair's business practices, such as the stewardess who insisted "If you pay one pence [sic] for your ticket you can't expect to have a lifejacket under your seat".

The two characters whose faces were never blurred were Charlotte Smith and Mary Nash, the reporters who enrolled as cabin crew and filmed covertly at Ryanair between July and November last year. We followed the women through their training, then in their working lives tackling everything from delayed flights to the aftermath of air sickness. En route, we learnt some fascinating stuff about Ryanair's operations. In most airlines, cabin crew are paid as they train, and get free uniforms; but Ryanair demands £1,400 for a training course and deducts £25 a month for their working clothes. Payment is on a piece-rate basis: £14 for short flights, £19 for longer hauls.

THE KEY allegations concerned safety and security. Trainee cabin crew were told which were the important points to write down during their security lectures. In the subsequent examination, they were allowed to refer to the notes. "Writing your name and the date on it should be the hardest part," said a secretly filmed instructor.

The programme found breaches in the practice of matching passengers' passports to the names on boarding cards at the departure gate. Make that standard practice, I say. Only on flights to, from or over the United States are the names on the flight manifest checked against security records, at which point the actual identity of the traveller is relevant. But on short hops in Europe, on which every passenger is routinely searched before being allowed "airside", the check is meaningless. It is ludicrous to suggest that a flight could be endangered because I happen to have a boarding pass that reads Mouse/Mickey or, indeed, O'Leary/Michael. Talking of whom, what did the Ryanair chief executive make of the Dispatches programme? "If that's the best they can do after five months of secret filming, I guess we're doing all right."

BACK TO seat 1A: how worried should you be if you find yourself sitting in the left-hand seat of the front row of a Boeing 737-200? Not at all, if it is a Ryanair jet, since the airline retired the last of this type of plane last year. And on other airlines? Well, if the CAA says it is safe, that's good enough for me. But if you're not convinced, just say: I'm happy to swap places for the best seat in the house.