Remember last summer’s travel misery as a wave of union strikes at Ryanair paralyzed hundreds of holidaymakers’ flights? The scenario is likely to repeat itself in the comings weeks, with staff walkouts now planned in Ireland, Britain, Spain and Portugal. Ryanair assures it expects minor disruption to operations, but the prospect of the two sides resolving their ongoing dispute is dim.

On August 8, 2019, members of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA), representing half of Ryanair’s UK-based pilots, voted in favor of industrial action, set to take place on August 22-23, and September 2-4. Multiple strikes at airlines and airports are already anticipated in the UK alone (British Airways, London’s Heathrow (LHR) and Gatwick (LGW) airports).

Following their British counterparts’ move, on August 9, a similar vote was carried out by some 180 of Ryanair’s directly-employed pilots in Ireland – members of the Irish pilot association (IALPA). The pilots, represented by the Fόrsa trade union, plan to stage a two-day strike on the same days as the airline’s UK-based flight crew – August 22-23.

BALPA expected to meet with Ryanair for mediated talks on August 15, 2019, but the airline insisted the union has to re-engage in the negotiations directly first, according to an agreement signed between the two parties in 2018, Reuters reports. Mediated talks with Fόrsa did take place in Ireland on August 14, 2019, but to no avail.

Although BALPA’s general secretary Brian Strutton expressed desire to resolve the dispute, it seems Ryanair is not giving in to the union’s demands. According to the union, it had filed a detailed claim of its members’ demands in March 2019 but since has seen no progress in negotiations with the airline.

The UK pilots’ list of demands includes pensions, loss of license insurance, maternity benefits, allowances, and a “fair, transparent, and consistent pay structure”. A similar proposal, which sought pay levels and structures that are “in line with sector norms” for Ryanair’s Irish-based pilots, was also submitted earlier this year by IALPA.

According to the union’s assistant general secretary Ian McDonnell, “Ryanair’s directly-employed Irish-based pilots are simply seeking pay levels that are common and competitive in the commercial airline sector, from a company that made a more-than-healthy profit of €1 billion last year.”

Ryanair strikes back

Responding to the collapsed talks with Fόrsa, Ryanair has called the union’s demands “unrealistic and unimplementable”, saying its pilots are already among the best paid workers in Ireland. The union is seeking pay increases of up to 101%, taking the current annual pay from €172,000 to over €347,000.

Ryanair says it has done “everything in its power” to avoid flight disruptions. “However, no company can concede to grossly unreasonable demands from its highest paid workers for a further pay increase of over 100% (when they already agreed and received a 20% pay increase earlier this year) at a time when the airline industry is in crisis,” the airline’s Chief People Officer Eddie Wilson said in an official statement.

“We remain willing to engage in Mediation with our pilots and Fórsa but call on them to avoid disrupting our customers’ travel plans in pursuit of what are clearly unrealistic and unimplementable pay proposals,” Wilson concluded.

As for its UK-based pilots, Ryanair also highlighted that a 20% salary increase has already been agreed upon last year. According to the airline, its Senior Captains’ earn up to €200,000 annually, which is more than competitor airline pilots’ in Norwegian or Jet2. The company has called BALPA’s planned strikes “ill-timed”, particularly due to the threat of a “no deal” Brexit on October 31, 2019.

“We have written to BALPA asking them to return to talks, and we apologise sincerely to customers for any uncertainty that BALPA’s ballot may cause them. We hope BALPA will now work with Ryanair to minimise job losses instead of undertaking ill-judged and ill-timed industrial action,” the airline stated in response to the union’s vote in favor of the walk-outs.

Wishful thinking or calming reassurances?

The impact of coordinated stoppages at major European airlines in the summer of 2018 bit into airlines’ bookings and hit their profits. According to Wilson, although strike threats could worry some potential customers, the peak August travel season still brings in the highest number of advance bookings for the budget carrier.

“Our hope is that we’re going to cover the majority of the operation both in the UK and Ireland, and unless you hear from us, your flight is going ahead as normal,” Wilson was quoted as saying by Reuters. “We’ll be protecting as a priority the summer destinations and there may be some cancellations on multi-frequency routes between Ireland, the UK or on UK domestics where people can make free changes, etc. There will not be travel chaos.”

Unrest spreads

Recently, reports have surfaced that the Irish low-cost carrier is planning to close a number of bases in Europe due to Boeing 737 MAX delays. Ryanair spokesperson confirmed the news to AeroTime: "As announced on July 16, 2019, due to the late delivery of up to 30 Boeing MAX aircraft this winter a number of Ryanair bases will be cut or closed this winter.” Although the carrier did not specify which bases are to be shut, threats of industrial action at some of them have hinted as to which they might be.

In July 2019, Ryanair's Portuguese cabin crew, represented by the SNPVAC union, announced its plans for a five-day strike in August; it has since been declared the walkouts would be stage on August 21-25. SNPVAC accuses Ryanair of failing to uphold an agreement in place since late 2018 that included terms on holiday pay, 22 days of annual leave per year, and full compliance with Portugal's parental law, Euronews reported at the time. In August 2019, news emerged the airline will be closing its base at Faro Airport (FAO), according to The Portugal News.

The latest to join the unrest are Spanish cabin crew unions USO and Sictpla, which announced on August 14, 2019, they would be holding a 10-day strike in September, EL País writes, although the exact dates of the industrial action have not yet been released. The unions want Ryanair to walk back on its decision to close several bases in the country - Gran Canaria (LPA), Tenerife South (TFS) and Girona (GRO) airports.

Ryanair recognized trade unions for the first time in its 30-year history in December 2017 in order to avoid massive winter holiday strikes. A series of disruptive strikes have ensued in 2018, forcing the airline to sign collective labor agreements with several pilot unions throughout Europe.

 
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British Airways (BA) legal attempts to halt its pilots’ industrial action have now been defeated twice in court. The UK’s flagship carrier recently lost appeal against the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA), whose members have voted strongly in favor of an industrial action. The airline had taken the union to court in an attempt to block pilots’ planned strike threatening the busy summer period.