Ryanair Faces First-Ever Strikes in Union Holiday Offensive

(Bloomberg) -- 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 recognize independent labor representation.

Members of the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association said Tuesday it told the carrier that they’ll halt work for a day on Dec. 20 over Ryanair’s refusal to recognize labor groups. Italian crew already plan a four-hour walkout on Dec. 15. Vereinigung Cockpit, which represents flight-deck crews in Germany, said 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 labor issues, pilots throughout Europe “are unanimous -- they want their own representation.”

The unionization effort could disrupt flights just as the busy Christmas travel season heats up, giving Ryanair a taste of the labor 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 apologize sincerely to customers for any upset or worry,” the company said in a statement, confirming it had received notice of a strike from the IALPA 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 euros in Dublin after a 3.9 percent drop on Bloomberg’s report Monday of the vote to support labor action in Ireland.

Chief Executive Officer Michael O’Leary has repeatedly fought employees’ attempts to gain union representation. Amid deteriorating labor relations, the carrier is bringing back Peter Bellew as chief operations officer following a stint at Malaysia Airlines Bhd to patch up labor relations.

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

Legal View

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 PR activity” by the union. “If any such action takes place, Ryanair will deal with it head on, but we will not deal with or recognize” 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 percent of its 300 pilots voted to go ahead with labor action. The union says it’s drawn support from more than 90 percent 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. Employee poaching by rivals exacerbated the problem. The company has offered higher pay and expanded hiring but has said it will reverse course on concessions if the pilots in Dublin strike.

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