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Acts of Leadership: Neil Sorahan, Ryanair

Neil Sorahan is CFO of Ryanair Group, Europe’s largest airline. In this episode of Acts of Leadership, Jordan Greenaway and Sam Patchett discuss this summer’s travel mayhem, as well as Neil’s comments on who is to blame. His punchy claims are not the first from Ryanair, who have become renowned for being outspoken on issues within the industry.

Ryanair plane

Neil Sorahan is CFO of Ryanair Group, Europe’s largest airline. In this episode of Acts of Leadership, Jordan Greenaway and Sam Patchett discuss this summer’s travel mayhem, as well as Neil’s comments on who is to blame. His punchy claims are not the first from Ryanair, who have become renowned for being outspoken on issues within the industry.

About Neil Sorahan

In almost 12 years at Ryanair, Sorahan has created an airline that customers flock to. Before being appointed CFO in 2014, he was Treasurer from 2003 and Finance Director from 2006. By reducing the costs of flights within Europe, he has made travel more accessible to the masses, with Ryanair becoming Europe's largest airline by passenger numbers.


Jordan Greenaway: Welcome back to Acts of Leadership, our regular podcast at Transmission Private. Each episode we discuss a news story that is making headlines for the right reasons, whether it's a CEO leading the way, an investor rethinking how to make an impact, or a brand bucking the trends.

I'm Jordan Greenaway, Managing Director of Transmission Private. Let's get started.

On this episode, we're talking about Ryanair Group and its Chief Financial Officer Neil Sorahan.

Today I'm joined by Sam Patchett, our head of PR at TP. So Sam, can you give us a quick overview on Neil himself?

Sam Patchett: I can indeed, Jordan. So Neil has been CFO of Ryanair Group since 2014, but he's worked for the company for almost 12 years. He was the Treasurer from 2003 and the Finance Director from 2006.

Sorahan has quite an established media presence really. I mean, he's been in the media many times before, he's commented on the growth or lack thereof of Ryanair. He's not afraid to get his opinion out there.

Jordan Greenaway: Thanks for that introduction, Sam. Very useful and a very interesting career at Ryanair which I think is actually personally an interesting company. And we are looking at a particular intervention that he's made in the media, I think about a week ago now, or about two weeks from this recording, in which he gave an interview and a quote to The Times.

So Sam, just talk us through that story briefly.

Sam Patchett: Yeah, sure. So, the article looks at the current travel mayhem in the UK. We've all seen the headlines, we've all seen the stories, tens of thousands of flights are being cancelled and delayed. This is down to labour shortages, and increased demand from holiday makers as people are willing to travel again.

Obviously during the pandemic, the industry let thousands of employees go in order to prevent financial disaster but they may have slightly overdone it because the industry has since struggled to recruit and train enough staff as the economy recovers and people start to travel again.

So there's been a lot of finger-pointing as to who's to blame. Politicians are blaming the airlines, the airlines are blaming the politicians. All while consumers are being left to deal with all sorts of issues, such as delays and cancellations. Neil Sorahan, however, he's come out and said that airports had one job to do which was to recruit enough baggage handling and security staff.

Sorahan also mentioned that various governments have been guilty of not staffing up appropriately, despite having the schedules months in advance.

Why would Neil Sorahan make these claims?

Jordan Greenaway: Thanks so much Sam, really, really helpful outline.

While I was preparing for this discussion, I did a bit of a search online and it's not just The Times that reported on this story. I think there was CNBC, there was the BBC even, and they all headlined on this accusation or this kind of punchy, interventionist quote that the airports had one job and they effectively let the airlines down.

I think if you see that headline, you click and read the story. Everyone likes a bit of conflict, everyone likes a bit of an argument. But why is the CFO of one of the world's, and as you said Europe's biggest airlines having a bit of a go at the airports? The average person on the street might say is it really the type of thing that the CFO of an organisation should do?

Is this the type of intervention that an established, credible, professional executive should be getting involved in? Should Neil have made this intervention and more particularly, Sam, in your opinion, why?

Sam Patchett: First and foremost, if we step back, let's just get a sense for the scale of the situation.

It's an absolute catastrophe for the entire aviation industry. Part of me says, you have to have a little bit of sympathy for the industry. I mean, there's been huge disruption caused to travel over the past few years – we all know that due to COVID, but also because Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and industrial action as well is starting to have an impact as well.

But a bigger part of me says airlines have got a hundred percent control on how many flights they put on sale, they've got full visibility across flight schedules for the months ahead. So, the least they can do is ensure they have sufficient resourcing to handle that.

As for why it is he's come out and said it, and why he's pointed the finger at airports specifically in their inability to cope. In my mind Jordan, people don't often think about the supporting infrastructure that airlines have to rely on. When we hear about delayed and cancelled flights, we think, well, the airlines mustn't be sufficiently staffed, the airlines mustn't be sufficiently equipped.

Very rarely do we think, well, the airport mustn’t have enough baggage handlers or the airport mustn't have enough security staff. So I think it's just his way of planting a seed and putting the idea in the public dialogue and saying, look, it's not always the airline's fault. Give us a bit of a break here.

Jordan Greenaway: Really interesting, Sam, and I had been thinking about this one quite a lot over the last couple of days.

And initially I was a little undecided as to whether this was a good idea for him to give as a quote, but I've come down on the side, actually pretty firmly, of thinking this was a good idea.

And here's the reason why: because if you want to be perceived as a leader in an industry, it's important that you talk about the top, most timely topics.

I've had so many people sit in front of us in an industry, be it transport, infrastructure, energy. Who says, oh, you know, I wanna talk about ESG, or our impact, or the great work that we're doing.

Yeah, definitely. That's an important part of the discussion, but what's leading the news agenda?

What's the actual thing that's playing on the minds of consumers and your industry at large? And Neil said –⁠ the thing that's playing on the minds of the whole industry is the fact that we've got these whole big delays. So it'd be silly for him to sit there and not comment on it. Leaders comment on the most timely of topics. So I think actually, if you want to be a leader, if you want to be positioned as a leader or to actually shape the discussion, there's no point only picking safe topics.

You've got to see what's in the headlines, what do people care about and give your unvarnished true, authentic opinion.

Sam Patchett: 100% Jordan, you make some really, really good points, some really, really interesting points there. And to add to what you're saying, I think it's important to keep in mind that it's Europe's biggest airline. As we discussed before they have the market share, they have the influence, they have the power, they have the capital to throw a bit of shade at the industry, to come out, stick their head above the parapet.

And furthermore, maybe it will actually make airports sit up and take notice, and think okay, well it's time that we make changes and maybe we should get our act together.

I think in the grand scheme of things, 100%, you can't just focus on the good, you have to be realistic, you have to tap into what the media, what the public, what's on top of the public agenda at the time.

Why did Ryanair comment when they did?

Jordan Greenaway: And that brings us to our next section, actually, Sam, which is why now. And I know that you kind of dropped this question to me before the actual podcast.

Number one, why now rather than in six months, right? You can't lead a discussion if you talk about these issues six months down the track.

People are gonna be saying, yeah alright fine but why didn't you say it then. But also, there's a second important point here.

And I think when we discuss comms, PR, and interventions, somewhat, or it's easy to think in terms of just the impact that these interventions have on the profile of the individual who's saying them. But actually putting out a quote or intervening into a dispute, or a discussion, or to the news agenda, isn't only about shoring up your reputation.

It's also about steering the discussion in the industry, and I bet the airlines looked at this article and probably thought, well christ, actually we'd better do something, we'd better respond to this, hopefully, productively, and positively.

So it's not only about how this is perceived in the public at large and the lasting impression that this might make on Neil's profile, it's also how did the rest of the industry respond to this? How has it guided and steered subsequent actions? So actually it's more than just about shaping perceptions, it's also about triggering action in the industry at large and changing how things are done.

Sam Patchett: Absolutely Jordan, but I'm gonna challenge you on that one and flip that on its head a little bit. On the surface, you could also look at it and say, well, all he is doing is adding to what has already become quite a heated debate.

He's stoking the flames, he's adding to the fire. And one thing that I've noticed about all the dialogue coming out from the industry in light of all these travel disruptions in the last few months – there's very little accountability. No one's willing to put their hand up and say we got this one wrong or we didn't plan properly.

And, I think that's starting to have a really big impact and a negative impact on consumer confidence. People are gonna start to think, well if they can't sort it out between themselves, there's obviously not gonna be any solution any time in the near future.

And this will translate into less people buying flights as they simply can't be bothered putting up with this travel chaos anymore. So all in all, I 100% see where you coming from Jordan.

In the best world, in an ideal world, the airports will hear Sorahan's comment and go, okay, we need to fix this, we need to come up with solutions. But on the other hand, it could be very unproductive because people are just losing more trust, losing more faith in the industry.

Jordan Greenaway: No, I get that completely Sam, and I think you're absolutely right. There's two kind of little ripostes I would throw back. And I think actually the real answer is –⁠ it's a balance. It's always going to be a balance, but riposte number one would be: Ryanair is pretty famous for being punchy.

And I think if you have that reputation, then actually the rest of the industry looks at you and goes: I understand the point, dismiss the tone, because that's always their tone.

And I think that is how it'll be perceived in the industry at large. My second riposte is this: whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, I think it's the reality that if Neil released a quote saying in order to solve this problem we need a new industry body where we collectively come together –⁠ he probably wouldn't have achieved the same level of cut through as with this quote.

And I think Neil's probably playing that media game a little bit with that, and if he wants to get that message out, he has to sit there thinking how do I frame this so that the media covers it.

And he's probably come to the conclusion that this is a good and effective way to increase the reach there. And actually, I mean, for all well and good he's actually been very, very successful. There was broad coverage of this. But I do agree that I think the constant attacks on both sides probably end up over time eroding public trust in our business leaders, in our media as well.

Ryanair: looking to the future of the aviation industry

Sam Patchett: There's absolutely a balance that needs to be found, not just in this context, but whenever you're going out to media or to speak into the public, you know, a balance between finding that cut through and actually improving the state of affairs or finding solutions to a problem. On that note, Jordan, on the topic of finding solutions to a problem, that's one thing that seems to be lacking in this particular discussion. Sorahan only really seemed to comment on who was to blame. It would be great for his public image if he looked to the future and suggested how the airlines, airports, and governments could actually prepare so it doesn't happen again.

He does look to the future in some way, telling the airports to get their planning better, especially ready for next years travel peaks, but he probably could have gone a bit further. I'm just wondering Jordan, what your thoughts on that are?

Jordan Greenaway: Really, really interesting. The one thing that was missing from Neil's comments was – fine he's placed the blame, punchy comment, it gets him out there into the media and it lets him steer the discussion on a timely topic.

But maybe he should have also said, we also have to look five years ahead as an airline, right. This problem may be here for a long time yet, and as Ryanair we're going to get ahead of the curve and we're going to introduce this new type of technology or change our company this way to get around these problems.

So even if airports in a year or two are still letting us down, here's the way we're gonna be at the forefront of solving this problem.

This kind of goes back to the discussion that we had in our last episode, which I encourage everyone to go and listen to, which was around how Exxon was also saying, look, we're an oil company, but here's how we are thinking 20 years ahead. Ryanair could have said here's our short-term problem, but here's our long-term solution.

Maybe that would've balanced it, Sam.

Sam Patchett: Well, and on top of that, Jordan, I don't think there's any reason why Ryanair couldn't have suggested some solutions to the short-term problems either. There's been a lot of generic musings about needing more staff or needing to plan better.

But the next step I think is to actually say, how is this done? Where do you find more staff? How do you plan better? Aviation really needs to take a bit of ownership and show that they do have a solid plan in the short-term to get out of this mess, because until they do that I think people are simply gonna lose faith.

So anyway, Jordan, I'm really interested to see what happens next with all of this travel disruption, what will be done to prevent the same thing from happening again. It's gonna be interesting to see how it develops.

Jordan Greenaway: A hundred percent. We can agree on that, Sam. It's really gonna be interesting to see what Neil and the rest of Ryanair says in the future.

So on that note, thank you for joining us for this episode of Acts of Leadership. Tune in next time for more discussion of how the leaders of today are making waves. To find out more about Transmission Private and our work supporting entrepreneurs, CEOs, executives, and people like yourself who are listening, with their personal profiles.

Go to www.transmission-private.com.

Transmission Private publishes a monthly newsletter that tracks the future of reputation management for private clients.

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Transmission Private publishes a monthly newsletter that tracks the future of reputation management for private clients.