DUBLIN/BERLIN • Ryanair endured its worst one-day strike yesterday after a walkout 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.
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.
In response to unions serving strike notices, Ryanair announced the cancellations 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.
The airline said it expected the travel plans of 42,000 travellers to be hit by the action in Germany alone, with the majority of passengers being put on other Ryanair flights and the remainder either refunded or rerouted.
Unions are pushing for better pay and conditions at Ryanair and want collective labour contracts governed by local laws, rather than Irish ones.
Mr 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 Mr 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.
"It's annoying that it's happening in the summer holidays, but it's the only means they have," said Mr Daniel Flamman, one of several passengers Reuters spoke to at Germany's Frankfurt airport who said they sympathised with the pilots.
At Charleroi Airport, Belgium's second-largest and a major Ryanair hub in the region, striking staff gathered in the departure hall and held up banners reading "Ryanair must change - Respect us".
"Ryanair is the only multinational in Belgium that doesn't respect the Belgian law and that's not normal," said Mr Didier Lebbe, a representative of union ACV-CSC, whose demands include securing its pilots pay when they are on stand-by.
Among other issues, unions are also seeking changes to Ryanair's practice of moving staff to different bases without much notice, and a reduction in hours.