Travellers wait in front of a passenger jet belonging to Irish discount airline Ryanair at Charleroi airport in southern Belgium. Picture: REUTERS
Travellers wait in front of a passenger jet belonging to Irish discount airline Ryanair at Charleroi airport in southern Belgium. Picture: REUTERS

London — Ryanair Holdings grounded dozens of flights on Thursday as pilots in its Irish home market walked out after failing to agree to new contracts as part of a move toward unionisation at the low-cost carrier giant.

As of 6am local time, Dublin Airport’s website listed departures to 16 cities including London, Birmingham and Manchester, England, as canceled, with a similar number of arrivals also scrapped. Ryanair had said it would cancel up to 30 of its 290 flights at Irish airports during the 24-hour labour action.

Ireland’s Fórsa trade union said on Twitter that its members at the Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association began the walkout at 1am as planned.

While the strike is the biggest Ryanair has had to face, the carrier said in a statement that the impact will be "limited", with all customers due to travel on affected services offered alternative flights, ferry bookings or a refund. The trips scrapped are all on short routes to the UK where the airline generally has multiple daily frequencies, helping minimise the strain on the network.

"We respect but regret the decision of 25% of our Irish pilots to go on strike, but believe they should take up our offer of working groups so we can resolve these issues," the airline said on Twitter on Thursday.

Most Ryanair pilots aren’t directly employed by the airline and therefore aren’t represented by the union and weren’t balloted for strike action, Bernard Harbor, a spokesperson for the Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association, said by phone on Thursday. The 120 pilots who were balloted make up more than 90% of directly employed Ryanair pilots in Ireland, he said. Of those, 95 took part and 94 voted in favour of a strike.

Fórsa had said late on Wednesday that talks with Ryanair had ended after seven hours of talks with "very little progress". Negotiations got no further than a discussion of seniority issues and the possibility of establishing a working group, spokesperson Niall Shanahan said.

Second strike

The strike is only the second by employees of the airline after pilots in Germany walked out for a few hours in December without major disruptions. Ryanair has become more vulnerable to industrial action after a staffing crunch last year forced it to recognise trade unions, though CEO Michael O’Leary has said he’s prepared to endure disruption rather than bend to union demands that would threaten the low-cost business model.

Germany’s Vereinigung Cockpit pilot union is also balloting Ryanair members in a dispute over pay and working conditions, with the outcome due later this month. Spanish, Portuguese and Belgian cabin crew are due to strike on July 25 and 26, with Italian flight attendants joining the action on July 25. And the Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association has said it plans to notify Ryanair of additional walkouts "in due course".