Ryanair Pilots Win Support of Southwest Crews in Union Bid

Updated on
  • U.S. discounter’s aviators join American’s in offering help
  • Management crisis has resulted in 20,000 flight cancellations

Pilots at Ryanair Holdings Plc got a boost in their bid to unionize from counterparts at Southwest Airlines Co., the U.S. carrier that provided a blueprint for Europe’s biggest discount operator.

As the crisis surrounding the cancellation of 20,000 flights continues to swirl, the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association are ready to help their Ryanair colleagues, offering to host meetings as well as provide assets and resources, Jon Weaks, the union’s president, said in an interview.

“I’m preparing a letter to send offering support,” said Weaks, whose union represents 8,700 pilots and is based in Dallas. “We’re on standby to help them in any way.”

The backing from flight crew at the biggest U.S. discounter follows an offer of legal, organizational and financial assistance from American Airlines Group Inc.’s Allied Pilots Association last week. The involvement of Southwest is symbolically significant as Ryanair Chief Executive Officer Michael O’Leary used the company’s business model as a template after taking the top job in 1994.

Weaks said he is willing to travel to Ireland to meet with Ryanair’s pilots, although no financial assistance has yet been offered and his union’s involvement remains preliminary. U.S. labor groups are aiding Ryanair staff as they seek to stem the spread of outsourced recruitment and contracts, though Weaks added that organizing pilots has been tough given management’s anti-union stance.

Ryanair shares have declined 3.7 percent since the initial cancellations were announced on Sept. 15.

Model Company

Even as Ryanair faces potential upheaval from organizing pilots, it has stablilized operational issues, with 98 percent of passengers refunded or re-accommodated on alternative flights, according to the company.

While the airline “deeply regretted” scrapping flights through the winter flying schedule, the move has lifted punctuality, with 97 percent of flights leaving on time last week after dropping to under 70 percent in the weeks leading up to the crisis, Chief Marketing Officer Kenny Jacobs said in a statement Monday. 

O’Leary last week made the rare move of directly appealing to pilots with an improved pay deal aimed at stemming defections to competitors including Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA and the U.K.’s Jet2.

“It’s like indentured servitude,” Weaks said of the relationship between Ryanair and its pilots. “O’Leary likes to take the good things” from Southwest co-founder and former CEO Herb Kelleher, but “doesn’t follow through on walking the walk.”

A spokesman for Ryanair said pilots have been offered a 20,000 pound ($26,400) pay increase, and don’t need help from the Southwest union. He cited a previous failed attempt to organize Ryanair crews that was led by the Southwest labor group and pilots from other operators including KLM and Air France.

Ryanair said on Oct. 6 that its chief operations officer, Michael Hickey, would be stepping down. The current crisis arose after Ryanair failed to adequately prepare for a change in regulations that require it to squeeze six months of annual leave into its final quarter, prompting the scrapping of services for some 700,000 customers.

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