Sunday 25 August 2019

Ryanair stand-off with pilots threatens biggest chaos since 2017 roster fiasco

Action: The walkout by Irish-based Ryanair pilots in 2018 cost the airline €120m.
Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins
Action: The walkout by Irish-based Ryanair pilots in 2018 cost the airline €120m. Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins

Shawn Pogatchnik

Ryanair has pledged to keep its customers on course for their holidays even if its pilots in Ireland and Britain go on strike later this month.

Should it proceed and pilots walk off the job en masse, the double whammy would be likely to ground many if not all flights in Ryanair's two biggest markets, representing the biggest disruption to the airline's services since its pilot rostering fiasco in 2017.

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But the situation remains just as uncertain as Brexit, given that:

:: Irish pilots won't confirm until tonight whether they will join their UK colleagues on the picket line;

:: The Irish Air Line Pilots Association (Ialpa) reserves the right to target different days than those identified by UK pilots - August 22-23 and September 2-4;

:: There's a big difference between a vote to strike and a strike actually happening.

Many votes to strike result in eleventh-hour concessions and agreements that avoid strikes. The prevailing labour law requires a minimum seven-day notice, and UK pilots in Wednesday's announcement gave Ryanair twice as much time - two weeks - to talk.

However the UK union, like its Irish counterpart, has a lengthy list of issues including pensions, loss of licence insurance, maternity rights and pay transparency - and says Ryanair has yet to put anything official on the table.

In its response to the UK threat, Ryanair signalled both it was willing to talk but also to test union power.

While the British Air Line Pilots Association (Balpa) said 80pc of Ryanair pilots voted to strike on a 72pc turnout, Ryanair billed the UK vote as unrepresentative of its pilots' majority feelings - because, it said, only around 450 of the airline's 1,250 UK-based pilots cast a vote to strike.

This message suggests, as last summer during sporadic one-day strikes, Ryanair may try to stymie any strike action by counting on non-union pilots and dissenters to keep as many routes as possible operational.

Still, Ryanair later reported the 2018 walk-offs had cost it €120m in lost business, refunds and extra costs - not an experience an airline that just reported a 21pc drop in profits would want to repeat.

Ryanair issued a statement to the Irish Independent vowing that any customers facing strike disruption would reach their destinations, even if they had to be transferred to different services.

"There will be no travel chaos," the Ryanair statement said. "We are urging Balpa to return to talks and avoid this ill-judged and ill-timed industrial action.

"Should this potential strike action go ahead, any customers who may be impacted will be notified by email/SMS and will be re-accommodated onto alternative flights or refunded."

When asked to clarify whether its flight transfer pledge would involve competitors' services, Ryanair declined to comment.

The European Cockpit Association, which lobbies for pilots' rights across Europe, says Ryanair has pursued a piecemeal approach to negotiating with unions since being forced into recognising organised labour over the past two years.

Its secretary general, Philip von Schöppenthau, accused Ryanair of being too focused on its relentless expansion, including three acquisitions since 2018, when it needed to secure collective agreements with its existing workers.

"One year was sufficient for Ryanair to acquire and develop two new airlines - Malta Air and Ryanair Sun in Poland - and to buy a third one, Laudamotion in Austria," he said. "But in all this time Ryanair has failed to negotiate long-hoped-for Collective Labour Agreements (CLAs) with its crew in several major countries.

"The outcome is that only three pilot unions in Europe - Italy, Belgium and Portugal - have signed more comprehensive CLAs, leaving thousands of Ryanair crew across Europe still without protections to terms, conditions and application of labour rights."

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary last week warned the airline could lay off 500 pilots starting in September. He cited weaker business, high fuel costs, Brexit uncertainty and delays to Boeing deliveries.

Mr von Schöppenthau said that position looked like a threat designed to deter or punish strikers.

"With a future flying programme larger than this year's, even with the delayed arrival of 'growth' 737 Max aircraft, and management continuing to recruit pilots, it is difficult to see these ever-changing warnings of a pilot surplus as genuine," he said.

Ryanair's difficulty could be Aer Lingus's opportunity. Most fares on Aer Lingus short-haul flights to sunnier climes in August already are selling at a premium, and no promotional discounts kick in until September.

Irish Independent

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