Ryanair faced its worst one-day strike on Friday after a walk-out by pilots in five European countries disrupted the plans of an estimated 55,000 travellers with the budget airline at the height of the summer holiday season, an official said.
Ryanair, which averted widespread strikes before last Christmas by agreeing to recognise unions for the first time in its 30-year history, has been unable to quell rising protests over slow progress in negotiating collective labour agreements.
About 40 Ryanair pilots in Sweden went on strike on Friday, the Swedish pilots’ union (SPF) said. “Today our members are on strike to demand their rights,” SPF Head, Martin Lindgren, said in a statement.
The union said it wanted its members to have basic labour rights, and the right to select its representatives in talks with Ryanair.
In the Netherlands, however, no flights were cancelled in spite the decision of Dutch pilots to strike, Ryanair announced on Friday.
The discount airline has hired non-striking foreign pilots as substitutes.
To date, the 24-hour stoppage also affects pilots in Belgium, Germany and Ireland.
As far as the strike’s impact in Sweden is concerned, Ryanair cancelled 22 flights to and from Sweden.
The strike affected most of Ryanair’s flights to and from the regional Skvasta airport, about 100 kilometres south of Stockholm.
Skavsta airport was prepared to assist passengers affected by the strike but so far only “a handful’’ have turned up and they “were easily accommodated,’’ Skavsta Airport Managing Director, Peter Steinmetz, said.
The strike has been “well communicated,’’ he added.
Ryanair had a late evening flight from Skavsta to London Stansted as well as one flight to Naples, Italy, that were not affected by Friday’s labour action.
Ryanair said it had informed passengers affected by the cancellations.
In response to unions serving strike notices, Ryanair had announced the cancellations in recent days of 250 flights in and out of Germany, 104 to and from Belgium and another 42 in Sweden and its home market of Ireland, where around a quarter of its pilots were staging their fifth 24-hour walkout.
“What I find unjustified is that the pilots draw the short straw, because people want to fly cheaply,” said Daniel Flamman, one of several passengers said at Frankfurt airport who said they sympathized with the pilots.
“It’s annoying that it’s happening in the summer holidays, but it’s the only means they have.”
Ingolf Schumacher, pay negotiator at Germany’s Vereinigung Cockpit (VC) union, said pilots had to be prepared for “a very long battle” and that it could take months to push through change at Europe’s largest low-cost carrier.
The unrest is one of the biggest challenges to face long-term chief executive Michael O’Leary, who was once quoted as saying he would rather cut off his hand than recognise unions and on another occasion crossed a picket line of baggage handlers to help load a plane.
The outspoken O’Leary has in recent years tried to soften Ryanair’s abrasive public image, fearing it could be counter-productive for Europe’s most profitable airline.
The strike topped the 300 flights a day Ryanair had to cancel in July when cabin crews in Belgium, Portugal and Spain went on strike for 48 hours.
A Dutch court also rejected a case from Ryanair seeking to block pilots in the Netherlands from joining Friday’s strike, but the Irish airline said all of its flights there would run as scheduled.
Ryanair operates more than 2,000 flights a day, serving 223 airports across 37 countries in Europe and North Africa, and insists it will not change the low-cost model that transformed the industry and has made it Europe’s most profitable airline.
Apologising to customers, Ryanair said in a statement that it took every step to minimise the disruption and called on striking unions to continue negotiations instead of calling any more “unjustified strikes.”
It has further angered unions by threatening to move jobs away from bases affected by the stoppages, and began carrying that out in Dublin where it cut its winter fleet by 20 percent and put over 300 employees on preliminary notice.
Ryanair has said that strike action will hit average fares because it takes up seats that it could otherwise have sold at a high last-minute price.