Coronavirus: Employer’s resource centre — live guidance available here

Ryanair encounters turbulence as pilots unofficially unite

BY Sophie Macphail
Employment Law & HR
BG Purple

Ryanair have been forced to cancel thousands of flights, citing the mishandling of holiday schedules as the main reason. A change in the way annual leave was calculated meant that too many pilots and crew had been given four-week breaks at the end of the holiday year, leaving the airline short staffed. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary is hoping to prevent further cancellations by forcing individuals to take some of their planned holiday in the new year. Ryanair have offered a one-off payment of £12,000/€12,000 to captains and £6,000/€6,000 to first officers but pilots are demanding new contracts, not monetary compensation.

This crisis has flagged up further discontent amongst pilots over their working conditions. Pilot representatives have growing concerns over the number of pilots leaving for greener pastures. In contrast to Ryanair’s statements, it is their view that unhappy crews are leaving quicker than they can be replaced and that this is the key reason for the cancellations. Some of the pilots’ main demands for change include pay rise without inflation, sick pay as a right and all staff having the right to direct employment after a limited time period. They are also looking for a transparent leave and base system, paid training days and no positioning on off days.

Pilot associations are reportedly due to meet at bases across Europe, despite the fact that Ryanair’s pilots have always been non-unionised, with a large number indirectly contracted through limited companies. There was an attempt to lead change in 2012 through the creation of the Ryanair Pilot Group, an unrecognised union. However this failed to deliver for a number of reasons. There were concerns over what would happen if Ryanair retaliated as pilots did not feel they had the power to disrupt the company.

Now pilots and their representatives are starting to see progress. They are taking advantage of online groups, WhatsApp and social media to unofficially unite in their cause. Indeed, over 46 EU bases have joined forces over pilots’ working conditions and it is expected that more will join them.

Some of the flight crew are said to be considering unofficial action such as mass sick days. This was a problem that Air Berlin recently encountered which saw a sixth of their pilots call in sick. This was undoubtedly in response to the news of potential redundancies to be made by the airline, which declared bankruptcy in August. Interestingly, these pilots were unionised but this had not been implemented as an official strike.

The predicament Ryanair finds itself in serves as a stark warning to employers that employees can use their numbers to their advantage, even if this is not done through an official union route. Employers may still face group complaints and need to think seriously about how these are dealt with. There is also a word of warning in relation to changing terms and conditions without the input of employees. The change of annual leave policy has not only led to scheduling issues but rising discontent. If you are considering changing your employees’ terms and conditions, you should get in touch with your Employment Solicitor or HR Consultant to discuss the best way forward.

© Copyright of Law At Work 2021 Law At Work is part of Marlowe plc’s employee relations division