Picture: AFP/PAUL FAITH
Picture: AFP/PAUL FAITH

London — The timing looked terrible. As the busiest travel weekend loomed and budget-minded Brits prepared for a quick holiday, UK pilots for Ryanair Holdings called a strike, threatening ugly scenes at airports around the country.

The chaos didn’t happen. All of the discount carrier’s flights operated as scheduled on Thursday, with minor delays from congestion, the airline said. Friday also ran smoothly, with normal departures and landings in the morning. In the end, what looked to become a nightmare for an estimated 260,000 passengers on 1,700 planes turned into a storm in a tomato juice cup.

Ryanair was able to avert a travel meltdown by reshuffling pilot schedules, with some who weren’t down to fly on the strike days stepping in to do so. The company may also have brought in crew from other countries, analysts said, though Ryanair didn’t respond to a request for comment on possible aid from abroad.

The carrier has a surplus of pilots and cabin crew for several reasons, including the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX, high pay and tough conditions for airlines elsewhere, according to Stephen Furlong, an analyst at Davy Holdings in Dublin. As a group who already work for Ryanair, there’s no additional cost for moving them around, he said.

“Given all this, I don’t believe that the unions will succeed in any way and I am not sure the pilots want to either,” Furlong said.

The walkout by members of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) started at midnight Thursday after Ryanair failed to block it with a legal injunction. The union said in a statement that the protest over pay and conditions was “causing huge cost to the company”, without referring directly to the impact on flights. Balpa declined further comment.

What’s shaping up to be a flop for pilots is, in turn, a vindication for Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, who has battled labour demands at every turn of his career. The combative leader once famously proclaimed that he would cut off both his arms and that “hell would freeze over” before he agreed to recognise unions. Yet — and with all his limbs intact — Ryanair agreed to allow worker representation in 2017, and strike action has since become a more prevalent feature of the airline’s daily life.

Ryanair rose as much as 32c, or 3.8%, to €8.8 in Dublin. The stock has lost 18% in value this year, the third-worst performer on the Bloomberg world airlines index of 28 members.

O’Leary upped the ante in the labour clashes last month when he told pilots and flight attendants that hundreds of jobs must go and bases close to cope with a possible no-deal Brexit and slower growth after the grounding of the MAX jet. O’Leary is a fierce critic of the UK leaving the EU, and he’s one of the biggest buyers of Boeing’s latest single-aisle aircraft.

Cabin crew at Ryanair’s Spanish bases have threatened to strike in September over plans to close three locations unless unions agree terms. Staff in Portugal are in the midst of a five-day action over holiday allowances and dues.

Bloomberg