Michael O'Leary's landmark move at the end of last year to open the door to union recognition at Ryanair was aimed at settling simmering labour unrest. But a summer of disruption, in part the result of industrial action by pockets of its staff around Europe, illustrates the scope of challenges faced by the Irish low-cost carrier.

In July, it was forced to cancel 300 flights as a result of strike action by cabin crew in Belgium, Portugal and Spain, although it played down the impact of action by Italian staff.

More cancellations have followed on 10 August with a round of fresh stoppages from staff in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. The Irish carrier expects to operate around 85% of its schedule today, and said that a walkout by Dutch pilots would cause no cancellations. The airline earlier said that 250 of its flights to Germany on 10 August would be cancelled as a result of the strike by pilots represented by Vereinigung Cockpit.

Labour pressures have been exerting on the pan-European low-cost giant for nearly a year since it was obliged to cancel a wave of flights when the scale of its pilot-rostering problems fully emerged. Amid the cancellations backlash that followed, pilot unions pushed for better terms and sought to advance their long-held aspirations of securing recognition at the carrier.

Ryanair initially countered by offering flightcrew improved pay and conditions. Ultimately, though, the airline opted to drop its steadfastly held position against union recognition at the end of 2017, amid the threat of planned strike action wrecking its Christmas schedules.

It has since held recognition talks, and struck deals with a number of pilot and cabin crew unions across several of its European bases. Most recently, that has included recognition agreements with the Italian union FIT-CISL which joins ANPAC and ANPAV as a joint negotiating body for the low-cost carrier’s directly employed cabin crew in Italy – and German cabin crew union Verdi.

In its first-quarter results presentation on 23 July, the carrier said 45% of its pilots and around two-thirds of its cabin crew are now covered by union agreements, and that 90% of its pilots had agreed 20% pay increases this year.

Amid this progress though, the scope and pan-European nature of Ryanair the airline has 86 bases across a range of countries mean that there remain plenty of challenges. While the airline is able to point to still operating over 2,000 flights carrying around 400,000 passengers on 10 August, amid the widespread industrial action, that still leaves in the region of around 400 flights cancelled and the related disruption and negative publicity.

That publicity has been heightened by unions bringing their disparate disputes with the airline which span the issues of pay and base-transfer arrangements, plus demands to be covered by local employment rules together on the same day.

Some of Ryanair's highest-profile labour challenges have been in Ireland, where Ryanair pilots represented by Irish union IALPA staged their fifth strike in a month on 10 August.

Trade union Forsa, of which IALPA forms part, says it is seeking a "fair and transparent approach to base transfers", and in its 2 August statement complained that Ryanair management had agreed to just two hours of talks since the first strike.

The airline on 25 July had warned that it was planning to reassign Dublin-based aircraft to a Polish subsidiary, potentially making 300 crew members, including 100 pilots, redundant. That came days after Ryanair warned that it was not ­prepared to "concede to unreasonable demands that will compromise either our low fares or our highly efficient model", noting that if these strikes continued to damage customer confidence, forward prices and yields in certain country markets, it would have to review its winter schedule.

Ryanair did, however, on 3 August propose mediation in its dispute with its Irish flightcrew, a move Forsa welcomed as a "positive development".

The precise impact of the labour challenges for Ryanair is still to become clear. The carrier was forced to cancel around 1,000 flights in July, which it attributes to air traffic control stoppages an issue it continues to highlight proactively and weather disruption, as well as industrial action at the airline. Ryanair still increased passenger numbers 4% in July to over 13 million. But that is below its rolling annual passenger growth rate of 7%.

On the financial side, it had in May said that its non-fuel unit costs for the year to March 2019 would rise by up to 6% as a result of higher salaries for cockpit and cabin crew. It projected a slight fall in full-year net profit to between €1.25-1.35 billion ($1.44-1.56 billion), and this guidance was left unchanged after the first quarter, with the airline saying that the strikes damage yields but not traffic.

Source: Cirium Dashboard