State of the union

This first appeared as a Comment in the 5 November issue of Flight International

Europe’s favourite bad-boy airline chief executive Michael O’Leary is back in the news again. The recently formed Ryanair Pilots Group (RPA) has thrown down a gauntlet to the Ryanair chief executive, who picked it up and tossed it over his shoulder as he walked off with studied nonchalance.

In challenging Ryanair, the RPG has also thrown down a gauntlet at the feet of the European Union. The Group has challenged O’Leary to recognise it as a representative body for Ryanair’s pilots, on the grounds that he had stated he would talk to them if they could prove a registered membership of more than half his flightcrew. Now, the RPG claims it has crossed that threshold. Ryanair’s response, however, is that the RPG does not exist, alleging that it consists of pilot union activists employed by competitor airlines.

Nevertheless the RPG, by its action, has highlighted some interesting shortcomings in EU employment law.
Assuming the accuracy of its claims to represent more than 50% of Ryanair pilots, that still does not oblige the airline to recognise it as a representative body under the laws of Ryanair’s state of registration – Ireland – and EU employment law on the subject does not exist. Meanwhile, O’Leary did once suggest he might take the RPG seriously. When challenged by the media at a press conference in Sweden on 29 August, he said he would talk to the RPG if it got “more than 1,601” of Ryanair’s pilots as members. Presumably he imagined that would never happen, but the miscalculation is at most a bit embarrassing for O’Leary now.

There is a fine irony in this situation. Ryanair ­operates its 57 bases throughout Europe because EU law supports free trade. Hence, the EU recognises the total airline as a corporate entity and deals with it as such. But its pilots have no legal framework in which to set up a body to represent the carrier’s EU-wide workforce. That is, the EU recognises companies, but unions exist only in individual member states.

Meanwhile, Ryanair is in dispute with France, Germany and Italy about income and social security taxes because of its policy of requiring more than 70% of its pilots to be self-employed. This enables it, as an Irish airline in an EU-wide marketplace, to sidestep what some member states allege are its social obligations.

The RPG may be morally right in calling on the EU to adopt “new structures and new ways of thinking”, but for the foreseeable future Ryanair can cherry-pick the European legal marketplace.

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