Expert advice

Workforce: Lessons for NHS in Ryanair pilot crisis

When the supply of pilots fell short of demand, Ryanair cancelled flights. But the NHS has limited scope to manage demand during winter, leaving little room for manoeuvre should there be a major flu outbreak, says workforce expert James Buchan.

When the supply of pilots fell short of demand, Ryanair cancelled flights. But the NHS has limited scope to manage demand during winter, leaving little room for manoeuvre should there be a major flu outbreak, says workforce expert James Buchan

pilot
Passengers boarding a Ryanair flight in Vilnius, Lithuania. Picture: iStock

With winter looming, thoughts may turn to jetting off somewhere warm for a break. This could mean flying with Ryanair, which has been cancelling flights.

It may be little comfort as you weigh up the options of a staycation or a week in the sun, but the Ryanair experience has a lesson for the NHS as winter approaches.

According to one UK newspaper, the reason for the flight cancellations was ‘Europe’s worst-ever case’ of pilot shortages.

This was created by two factors: annual holiday entitlements, and airline industry regulations determining maximum working hours for pilots. These ‘flight time limitations’ set out the maximum hours pilots can work, such as 100 hours in any 28 days.

Caught out

Ryanair was reportedly caught out by a regulatory change that required airlines to assess pilot flying hours over the calendar year rather than the financial year that started in April.

Combined with staff holiday entitlements, this left the airline with too few pilots on its roster to cover flights in September and later in the year.

Ryanair runs with a ‘lean structure’ to maximise profits, but this leaves little margin for error when something goes wrong. Put simply, projected supply of pilots fell short of demand.

Seasonal peaks

Like the airline industry, the NHS has seasonal peaks and troughs. Winter means flu, and increased patient volume in an already ‘lean’ organisation. NHS bed occupancy rates for overnight acute beds are over 90%.

This is higher than in most other countries, and leaves little room for manoeuvre should there be a major flu epidemic. Factor in nursing shortages, and the potential for a growing imbalance between supply and demand is all too clear.

Ryanair reduced ‘demand’ by cancelling flights, but the NHS has limited scope to manage demand during a winter flu outbreak. It might be time to book that week in the sun.


James Buchan is professor in the faculty of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh 

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