11 October 2009

Ryanair -vs- BBC

A forthcoming BBC documentary in its flagship Panorama programme has been dismissed as a 'hatchet job' by the PR machine of the company involved - Ryainair. Tomorrow's Panorama is titled 'Why hate Ryanair?' and investigates why the company is so unpopular amongst its regular travellers, while at the same time identifying the early successes that have helped the budget airline to become a leading player in the short-haul aviation industry.

They used to refer to themselves as 'The World's Favourite Airline' - the BBC plans to expose criticism by travellers who think Ryanair is anything but.

In a bitter dispute that erupted on Friday, Ryanair's PR people went into overdrive, having produced a press release titled: 'BBC Panorama censors the truth'. What seems to have annoyed the company in the first instance is that Panorama's reporter refused to interview Ryanair's chief executive Michael O'Leary "either live or unedited", as had been requested.

Additionally, Ryanair claim that the programme will "contain falsehoods" and that the BBC has failed in its duty to allow the company an adequate right of reply. Stephen McNamara, Ryanair's head of communications, said that his department has "wasted the last six weeks responding to Panorama's false claims" and that the programme's refusal to interview their Chief Executive is because they are aware their claims do not stand up to close scrutiny and would be blown-out-the-water by Mr O'Leary.

Ryanair's logo - missing a much-needed hyphen betwixt 'low' and 'fares', such is the way...

For the BBC's part, they claim an interview with Mr O'Leary was sought, but that his PR team wanted to impose conditions on how this was to be carried out (presumably Ryanair's request to either interview their CE live or show an un-edited version). The BBC simply ask viewers to watch tomorrow night's programme, fronted by Jeremy Vine, and make their own minds up.

With a furore suitably created, we've both decided we'll be watching Panorama tomorrow! The main bulk of the programme's criticism is believed to centre on the add-ons charged by Ryanair over and above the cost of its flights. The company came in for widespread criticism recently by introducing a £40 fine for passengers who don't print-off their boarding pass before travelling to the airport (Ryanair passengers effectively check-in at home), as well as charging passengers £5 extra per ticket if paying by credit card (though they're not alone in this!).

Another criticism the programme is likely to surface is the cost cabin crew are expected to pay for their uniform in their first year (£300). This is in the form of a bond and those who remain employed by the company for longer than a year get the money back. Most bus companies who train drivers to pass their PCV Category D test offer some form of training bond, though in most cases this ties drivers to work for the firm in question for at least 2 years, save being charged a pro rata early-release-style fee.

Cabin Crew pay a £300 uniform bond when starting with the company, and receive the money back after 1 year's continuous service. Is this such a bad thing? The bus industry's been doing it for decades!

It seems the BBC hasn't ensured the programme's reporter, Vivian White, made the most of tax-payers' money, by permitting him to fly to Dublin using rival airline British Midland (who don't offer the budget prices Ryainair do), only to inform Ryanair's PR people that an interview with Michael O'Leary would not be possible unless done to White's requirements.

One part of me is pleased to see the BBC isn't afraid to cause controversy in forthcoming programmes, especially since the corporation's retreat into its shell following the Dr Kelly/Andrew Gilligan fiasco, but the other is a little uneasy at whether or not the claims they're likely to make are spurious and flaccid. I suppose we'll have to wait and see.

BBC's Panorama is shown on BBC One at 2030hrs. A preview can be seen here. (GL)