Pilot group warns of potential pilot exodus at Ryanair

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The pilot group seeking recognition by Ryanair has stepped up its efforts, claiming a survey of over 1,100 flightcrew members showed nearly three-quarters were considering resignation due to discontent over employment conditions.

It is the latest salvo in efforts by the Ryanair Pilot Group to gain recognition at the Irish budget carrier, which has no union representation among its approximately 3,000 pilots. Ryanair has consistently dismissed the work of the group, arguing that it does not represent the carrier’s staff and is run by European pilot-union members who are employed by other airlines.

RPG’s latest attempt to raise its profile came during the recent ILA Berlin air show, where the group presented the results of a staff survey in which, it says, over 1,100 Ryanair pilots took part in March.

Nearly 73% of the participants indicate they are planning to leave the airline, says the RPG. Half of the respondents want to leave within two years, and about a third do not want to wait longer than a year, it adds.

There has been a “huge increase in the outflux” of pilots, suggests the group’s interim council chairman Evert van Zwol. He adds, however, that 87% of the employees wanting to leave indicate that they would stay if the airline improved pay, employment conditions and “respect” for staff.

A central concern is the employment model Ryanair is using, whereby pilots sell their labour to the airline via an intermediary agency. The RPG terms this “disguised self-employment” and says that nearly 86% of survey participants expressed a wish to be directly employed.

A further grievance aired by the group relates to staff representation. Ryanair is using a system comprising employee representative committees. But the RPG claims the ERCs are “unaccountable and unrepresentative”, because they do not lead to a unified organisation across the airline, and cover only directly employed pilots.

Ryanair declines to comment on what it terms “secret surveys conducted by this Dutch company”. The RPG’s interim council is registered in the Netherlands.

Van Zwol is a KLM captain and former president of the Dutch pilot union VNV. The RPG wants to replace its existing interim council once Ryanair recognises the union, he says.

The airline is discouraging pilots to form staff representations other the ERCs or undertake industrial action through “punitive” use of the staff roster system, argues the RPG.

Ryanair has refused to deal with pilot organisations that do not represent the majority of its cockpit workforce. At least 1,601 members would be required for recognition, the airline’s chief executive Michael O’Leary has said.

Van Zwol insists that while the RPG has “well over 1,600 members”, Ryanair continues to refuse any dealings with the group. He declines to reveal the exact number of members as it is “sensitive” information. “If we had 100% of the pilots, we would reveal it,” he says. But he suggests that a “considerable number” of pilots are “afraid” of joining RPG.

The RPG interim council chairman says he has not met O’Leary but would be open to any measure, such as the use of third-party arbitrators, to establish a relationship with Ryanair. He argues that there is a “real chance” Ryanair could change, partly because staff unrest could unsettle airline investors.

He concedes that unions need to take into account the specific requirements of their industries. In regard to the employment model, RPG recognises the airline’s need for flexibility to respond to seasonal flight schedule fluctuations, says van Zwol. However, he adds that as Ryanair is not a start-up any more, it needs to “change behaviour”.

While there is “no plan for concrete industrial action during the summer”, there was a “quite high percentage” of pilots indicating in the survey that they would take “collective action”, says van Zwol.