Ryanair faces first-ever round of strikes

The Dec 15 action by pilots and flight attendants in Italy would be Ryanair’s first-ever strike

By BLOOMBERG

FRANKFURT • Ryanair Holdings plc’s first-ever round of strikes risks spreading from Italy to Ireland and Germany as unions across Europe intensify a push for the discount airline to recognise independent labour representation.

Members of the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association said on Tuesday it told the carrier that they’ll halt work for a day on Dec 20 over Ryanair’s refusal to recognise labour groups. Italian crew already plan a four-hour walkout on Dec 15. Vereinigung Cockpit, which represents flight-deck crews in Germany, said on Tuesday that Ryanair pilots based there plan stoppages “at any time”, though declined to specify a date.

“Our goal is to begin wage negotiations with Ryanair” following stepped-up efforts in the past month to gain recognition by the airline, Vereinigung Cockpit president Ilja Schulz told journalists in Frankfurt. While the company has set up employee groups for discussing labour issues, pilots throughout Europe “are unanimous — they want their own representation”.

The unionisation effort could disrupt flights just as the busy Christmas travel season heats up, giving Ryanair a taste of the labour hassles that legacy carriers like Deutsche Lufthansa AG have endured for years. Unions are seeking better working conditions at Ryanair, challenging a low-cost business model that helped make the Irish company the region’s biggest budget airline.

“Ryanair will deal with any such disruptions if, or when they arise, and we apologise sincerely to customers for any upset or worry,” the company said in a statement, confirming it had received notice of a strike from the Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association union in Ireland. “While some disruption may occur, Ryanair believes this will largely be confined to a small group of pilots who are working their notice and will shortly leave Ryanair, so they don’t care how much upset they cause colleagues or customers.”

Shares of Ryanair were little changed on Tuesday, closing at €16.90 (RM81.12) in Dublin after a 3.9% drop on Bloomberg’s report on Monday of the vote to support labour action in Ireland. CEO Michael O’Leary has repeatedly fought employees’ attempts to gain union representation.

Amid deteriorating labour relations, the carrier is bringing back Peter Bellew as COO following a stint at Malaysia Airlines Bhd to patch up labour relations.

The Dec 15 action by pilots and flight attendants in Italy would be Ryanair’s first-ever strike. Employees have also formed local labour councils in Spain, Sweden, Portugal and the Netherlands.

Vereinigung Cockpit said it won’t strike from the afternoon of Dec 23 through Dec 26, the height of the Christmas holiday travel period.

While under German rules a walkout of less than 24 hours doesn’t require a mass vote of employees, the union has “taken all steps to ensure legal requirements are fulfilled”, said James Phillips, a member of Vereinigung Cockpit’s international-relations panel.

Ryanair said in an email that it “has received no notification of any industrial action by its German pilots, so we suspect this is more public relations activity” by the union. “If any such action takes place, Ryanair will deal with it head on, but we will not deal with or recognise” Vereinigung Cockpit, which the airline said is a union representing only pilots at rival Lufthansa.

The union represents a majority of Ryanair pilots in Germany, Schultz said, adding that meetings to survey cockpit crews at the carrier’s airport bases across the country showed “feedback is very, very clear — they want to stand up and fight for their rights”. He declined to give figures.

In Dublin, Ryanair contends that just 28% of its 300 pilots voted to go ahead with labour action. The union says it’s drawn support from more than 90% of the full-time employees who are eligible to vote. Many pilots who fly for Ryanair out of Dublin come from agencies that aren’t allowed to take part in the balloting.

Staffing problems already created some disarray at Ryanair earlier this year. A scheduling mix-up required the airline to squeeze six months of pilot leave into half that time, creating a shortage that caused it to scrap flights for 700,000 customers, and disrupted Ryanair’s timetable into next year.