RYANAIR, Europe’s largest low-cost airline is known for three things: affordable fares, a record of punctuality and the abrasive personality of its chief executive, Michael O’Leary. This summer the biggest set of strikes by pilots and cabin crew in the airline’s history puts the first two of these at risk—though not the third.
Owing to a pilot shortage last September, Ryanair has been trying to attract more staff to keep up with its breakneck expansion. Part of that effort included pay rises of up to 20% and the recognition of trade unions for the first time. Several groups of pilots and cabin crew are already taking advantage of their right to strike: more than 600 flights have been cancelled this week alone.
But Ryanair’s softer approach to its staff does not include tolerance of strikes. On July 25th, the gloves came off with striking pilots in Dublin. They had wanted the airline to change its rostering system to allow older pilots to pick the best routes and times to work. Ryanair reacted by threatening 100 pilots and 200 cabin-crew in Dublin with redundancy if they did not agree to the airline’s terms, saying that it would move six of its 30 aircraft based there to Poland, where demand for its flights is growing faster. It also published several real pay-slips on its website showing that some of its pilots earn over €200,000 ($226,000) a year—much more than virtually everyone who travels on their planes—to weaken public support for the striking workers.
The threatened cuts could be a cover for Ryanair shifting capacity out of Ireland because of softening demand for air travel there. Ireland will be the EU economy hardest hit by a potential no-deal Brexit, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But there is a simpler explanation of why Ryanair is refusing to give in to the strikers, however reasonable their demands. Competitors in eastern Europe, such as Wizz Air of Hungary, have access to cheaper labour and are starting to give Ryanair a run for its money. If Ryanair gives up its cost discipline on staff pay, the airline’s executives fear that the likes of Wizz could undercut it. Excessive pay demands by Italian unions made Alitalia go bust last year; Air France’s intransigent workforce is sending that airline in the same direction. Ryanair does not want to go down that road, whatever the cost. And so passengers should buckle up for more delays and cancellations.