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How pilots defeated Michael O'Leary: the real inside story


Ryanair's Michael O'Leary. Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

Ryanair's Michael O'Leary. Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

Ryanair's Michael O'Leary. Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

Ryanair announced it will recognise unions for the first time in its 32-year history and may avoid strike action by agreeing to meet to meet with trade union Impact on Tuesday, a day before the planned 24-hour strike.

Ryanair’s chief people officer Eddie Wilson wrote to unions in Ireland, Italy, Spain, the UK and Germany yesterday inviting them to talks in order to recognise them as the representative bodies for Ryanair pilots in each of those countries.

Strike action in Ireland planned for Wednesday by staff Ryanair pilots, who are members of the Irish Airline Pilots' Association (Ialpa) may be averted after the airline's management agreed to meet with trade union Impact on Tuesday.

Ryanair had earlier told the union that the company was unable to meet with them until Wednesday. However, on Saturday the airline issued a statement announcing that it would meet with the union on Tuesday, a day before the strike.

"Ryanair today confirmed that the German pilot union and IMPACT/IALPA have agreed to Ryanair’s offer of meetings to agree union recognition on Wednesday 20 December," said the statement.

"Ryanair has also offered to meet IMPACT/IALPA and their Ryanair pilot committee on Tuesday 19 December if that would suit them better," added the statement.

Mr O’Leary held a conference call yesterday with chief pilots across Ryanair’s almost 90-strong base network. He told them the offer of union recognition was genuine.

Pilots in Ryanair mobilised fast after the rostering fiasco in September which saw around 20,000 flights across Europe cancelled.

Pilots and unions across Europe have been methodically tightening the screws on Ryanair for months, demanding union recognition, the right to bargain collectively, and better working conditions.

Despite Mr O'Leary vowing that he would never recognise unions, it was clear that there was a groundswell of support among Ryanair pilots to stand their ground and initiate change, no matter how much Ryanair wanted to deny it.

Mr O’Leary had incensed his own pilots following the airline’s annual general meeting in September, in the midst of the rostering failure, by dismissing the complexity of their work. He later insisted his comments had been taken out of context.

In early October, he penned a letter to his 4,200 pilots, urging them not to leave for rival airlines. This from the billionaire chief executive who once described pilots as “glorified taxi drivers”.

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Meanwhile, Ryanair went on a hiring scramble. It needed to shore up its pilot numbers, especially as its fleet continues to expand.

Seasoned pilots, meanwhile, were busy making sure they would be on solid legal ground if they decided to take industrial action. It was an arduous task given the 87 bases in the Ryanair network. But across Europe, they linked up with unions, forming Ryanair councils under those unions’ umbrellas so that when they took action they would have legal and organisation backing.

Pilots were carefully plotting the strategy that would lead to this week’s events. They just thought it would take a lot longer.

Weeks ago, the Irish Independent was aware that strikes close to Christmas were a real possibility and were being considered if Ryanair didn’t proactively respond to pilot demands.

While publicly Ryanair dismissed the pilot movement, it was clearly concerned.

The extensive reporting in this newspaper – including reports that revealed the significant resolve of pilots to achieve their aims – led to Ryanair initiating legal against this reporter and INM, the publisher of this newspaper.

The airline’s communications became erratic.

Replies from the airline to business-like queries from this newspaper regarding the pilots’ efforts to unionise as well as the threat of strikes, were increasingly personalised, and lacked the tone one would expect from a large corporation in its dealings with anyone.

Meanwhile, the airline drafted in its own former executive, Peter Bellew, in an effort to help quell the pilot dissent.

He was working as chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, but parachuted from there to join Ryanair as its chief operations officer. He probably played a pivotal role in Ryanair’s unprecedented announcement yesterday.

But as it came clear pilots had organised across Europe and were preparing industrial action, Ryanair started to threaten them. That incensed them ever further.

The airline said that any of its pilots or cabin crew who went on strike would be hit with pay cuts, changes to working rosters, and no promotions.

Pilots who spoke to the Irish Independent were incredulous. Their organisers told them to stand firm in the face of the onslaught, and stressed they would fall if they became divided or wavered. But it was under Ryanair management that the ground was moving. The sheer momentum behind Ryanair’s pilots across Europe had reached critical mass.

Once the pilots in Ireland announced they would strike next week, the Portuguese followed suit. Pilots in Italy were already set to strike yesterday, and Ryanair staff pilots in Germany who were union members were preparing behind the scenes to strike next week.

There was a chain reaction under way. For Ryanair, the danger was it would completely lose control of the situation. The fuse had been lit. But Ryanair, like a scene from a movie with only seconds left to avert catastrophe, has clipped the right wire. The countdown had stopped. Or so it seemed.

See the full story in today's Irish Independent.

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