Ryanair Strike Pushes Panicky Customers Into Pricey Bookings

(Bloomberg) -- Ryanair Holdings Plc’s worsening spat with pilots and cabin crew has created confusion among panicked customers as they race to salvage travel plans disrupted by strikes.

Travelers holding tickets from affected airports told of an online race to find alternative journeys with the Irish airline or switch to rival carriers, only to see prices spiraling higher as hundreds of others chased the same seats.

Some succeeded in securing new flights, only to be told by Ryanair that their original departures would still operate, leaving them with a hefty bill for a trip they’d never make. And for others the walkouts have brought heartache as long-anticipated journeys are canceled and loved ones left disappointed.

“I’m skeptical towards Ryanair now,” said Copenhagen-based fashion student Fabienne Goetsch, who postponed a trip home to Dusseldorf, Germany, after finding alternative tickets were beyond her means. “I haven’t seen my family in months and it’s a special weekend because it’s my grandmother’s birthday.”

Ryanair canceled more than 400 flights Friday, disrupting the travel plans of at least 55,000 people as the labor dispute reached a new peak with walkouts by pilots in Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. That exceeds the 300 scrapped on two days last month when cabin crew in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Belgium walked out.

Still Flying

The airline said the majority of affected passengers have been accommodated on its other flights and that all were informed as early as possible about the option, as well as the right to a refund or rerouting. More than 2,000 services or 85 percent of the schedule are operating as normal.

“We want to again apologize to customers affected by this unnecessary disruption and we ask the striking unions to continue negotiations instead of calling anymore unjustified strikes,” the airline said by email.

Among passengers who ended up buying seats they didn’t need was Pico Wilbrenninck, a real-estate agent in Rotterdam whose wife and children were due to fly back from Reus, Spain. Faced with cancellations and unable to find alternative seats with Ryanair he shelled out on tickets at IAG SA’s Vueling arm -- only to hear that the originally service would operate after all.

“It’s completely unclear where I now go to get a refund,” Wilbrenninck told Bloomberg after spending 500 euros ($573) on the additional fares. “Who is responsible -- the pilot union or Ryanair? Where do I report my claim?”

Another traveler, bound for Dublin from Brussels, double booked after hearing news of the latest strike, before discovering that her initial flight was going ahead and that there’d be no refund.

Late Reprieve

Arlette Moerman, a project manager in Rotterdam, was luckier after flights to Lisbon for her and five others seemed set to be scrapped. With Ryanair offering an alternative that truncated a two-week holiday by four days she conducted her own search and was poised to buy replacement tickets at another carrier when her inbox pinged with an email saying the original trip was back on.

“I will only be confident when we are in the air and flying,” Moerman said, adding that she understands the reasons for the strikes, citing Ryanair’s corporate culture.

Some of the confusion may have stemmed from the airline’s attempts to keep planes flying by drafting in pilots from non-striking countries to operate at bases where local crews had stopped work. Services to strike-hit airports with planes and staff originating elsewhere are also unaffected, adding to the bewilderment of passengers.

In addition to refunds or alternative flights, affected travelers are also due “the right to care” and in some circumstances may qualify for compensation, Enrico Brivio, a spokesman for the European Commission, told reporters in Brussels on Friday.

“This has to be analyzed case-by-case,” he said. “Passengers who believe their rights under the regulation have not been respected should contact the body in the member state where the incident took place.”

Profit Pinch

Germany’s Vereinigung Cockpit pilot union, whose members walked out for 24 hours from 3:01 a.m. Friday, has warned Ryanair to expect more strikes. It says the carrier has shown no willingness to improve salaries, acknowledge seniority or ease up on requirements for pilots to move between bases, and that it must accept that personnel costs will rise.

Ryanair hit back saying it won’t bow to demands that would jeopardize the low cost base that’s made it the European No. 1 on short-haul routes. The summer of strife is starting to take a toll, with passenger numbers growing at the slowest pace this year in July and the carrier posting a 20 percent drop in profit for the three months through June.

Executives have also warned unions that the strikes are making customers wary of booking, though for German student Goetsch any doubts about Ryanair’s reliability are tempered by its competitive prices.

“I already booked new flights for next weekend,” she said. “I really hope it works out this time.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.