Ryanair is bracing for mass travel disruptions on Friday as pilots across Europe begin a coordinated 24-hour strike to push their demands for better pay and conditions at the peak of the busy summer season.
The Irish no-frills airline said it would be scrapping some 400 out of 2,400 European flights scheduled for Friday as pilots in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands walked off the job.
Around 55,000 passengers would be affected by the strikes, said Ryanair, which has offered customers refunds or the option of rerouting their journey.
Ryanair has slammed the strikes as “unnecessary” but pilots counter that the carrier has refused to engage in meaningful dialogue about collective labour agreements since it began recognising unions in December 2017.
Germany will be worst hit by the industrial action, with 250 flight cancellations at 10 airports.
The country’s powerful Cockpit union said it had called on Ryanair’s roughly 480 Germany-based pilots to walk out from 03:01 am (0101 GMT) until 02:59 am Saturday.
It accused Ryanair of “categorically” ruling out higher personnel costs for cockpit crew, leaving no room for a compromise.
“Ryanair alone is responsible for the escalation we are now seeing,” Cockpit president Martin Locher told a press conference on Wednesday.
In the Netherlands, Ryanair filed for an urgent court order to try to prevent Dutch pilots from joining the industrial action.
But the Haarlem District Court on Thursday ruled against the airline. “The strike may go ahead,” judge Theo Roell said.
In the Netherlands around 22 flights from Eindhoven airport could potentially be affected, the ANP news agency reported.
But Ryanair, in a statement said “there will be no cancellations (of flights to and from the Netherlands) as a result of the unnecessary strike action by the Dutch pilot union.”
And in a later statement, Ryanair said that despite the “regrettable and unjustified strike action” more than 2,000 flights – 85 per cent of its schedule – would operate as normal across Europe on Friday.
Customers were notified as early as possible and a majority of those affected had already been moved to another Ryanair flight, the airline added.
The unprecedented simultaneous strike action is the latest headache in a turbulent summer for Europe’s second-largest airline.
It already suffered a round of strikes by cockpit and cabin crew last month that disrupted 600 flights in Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain, affecting 100,000 travellers.
Ryanair, which flies in 37 countries and carried 130 million passengers last year, averted widespread Christmas strikes last year by agreeing to recognise trade unions for the first time in its 33-year history.
Since then, however, it has struggled to reach agreements.
The company is eyeing profits of around 1.25 billion euros (S$1.97 billion) this year, and boasts lower costs per passenger than its competitors.
But Ryanair pilots say they earn less than counterparts at other airlines like Lufthansa.
Unions also want the airline to give contractors the same work conditions as staff employees.
Another key complaint of workers based in countries other than Ireland is the fact that Ryanair employs them under Irish legislation, arguing most of its employees work on board Irish planes.
Staff claim this creates huge insecurity for them, blocking their access to state benefits in their country.
THREAT TO MOVE JOBS
At a Frankfurt press conference on Wednesday, Ryanair’s chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs said the company’s German pilots enjoy “excellent working conditions”, earning up to 190,000 euros (S$301,500) annually, which he said was more than their peers at budget rival Eurowings made.
He added that Ryanair had already offered a 20-per cent pay increase this year, and that 80 per cent of its pilots in Germany were now on permanent contracts.
Ryanair has repeatedly said it remained open to further talks with pilot representatives.
But its combative chief executive Michael O’Leary has also warned the airline may shift jobs and planes to more profitable areas if the turmoil continues.
It has already threatened to move part of its Dublin fleet to Poland, which could cost 300 jobs, including 100 pilot positions.
Unions have strongly condemned what they see as Ryanair’s attempts to play countries off against each other.
Peter Scherrer, deputy secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation, said he welcomed Friday’s cross-border show of unity by pilots because it made it harder for management to ignore their demands.
“I think it also sends a signal to other companies where workers are played off against each other,” he told Germany’s regional broadcaster RBB.