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Can Cheap Air Fares and Good Working Conditions for Airline Workers Co-Exist? Ryanair Seems to Think Not

Can Cheap Air Fares and Good Working Conditions for Airline Workers Co-Exist? Ryanair Seems to Think Not

You would, quite frankly, be hard pushed to find anyone who doesn’t like a bargain airfare.  Sure, passengers value a schedule that meets their needs, a comfortable seat, good food and an increasingly more common demand, a WiFi connected aircraft.  But if the success of low-cost airlines has taught us anything, it’s that passengers want to get from A to B as cheaply as possible.

And why not?  The vast majority of plane passengers have only got a certain amount of disposable income – whether travelling for business or leisure.  The cost of living is only going one way and we want to spend our hard earned cash on enjoying our holidays – not wasting our budget just on getting to the destination.

If that’s the case, there’s never been a better time to fly.  The competition, sparked by de-regulation in the 1980’s onwards has driven down airfares to all-time lows.  Estimates suggest, for example, that in the last 30 years, average airfares in the U.S. have dropped by as much as 50%.

There are, however, external stressors on airfares – rising oil prices and airline consolidation, especially in Europe will likely mean airfares are pushed higher at some point soon.  Not that many passengers will immediately notice – the intense competition from discounters mean most airlines are willing to take a hit on yields rather than lose out to their rivals.

The good news for passengers is that we get to explore more of the world for less.  Flying was once seen as something that only the rich could afford – that, thankfully, is no longer the case.

And the one airline that has arguably done more than any other carrier to democratise air travel is Ryanair.  The Irish-based low-cost airline carried more passengers last year than any other airline in Europe.  In fact, with nearly 129 million passengers choosing to fly with Ryanair in 2017, the budget carrier beat the total number of passengers carried by British Airways and Lufthansa, combined.

Somehow, Ryanair managed to achieve those astonishing figures despite a major pilot rostering fiasco which saw thousands of flights cancelled last year.  And facing down a wave of strike action by both pilots and cabin crew, the airline is still growing.  The latest figures for July saw the carrier grow year on year by 4%.

The airline, headed by loud-mouthed chief exec, Michael O’Leary has a fiercesome reputation for a rather avant-garde approach to customer services.  Yet passengers still flock to the carrier – attracted by ridiculously low headline airfares.  Ryanair somehow manages to bat away any public relations disaster which comes its way by simply launching yet another sale.

But at what price does this all come at?  In the last few months, pilots and cabin crew at the airline have finally taken a stand against what they see as unfair working conditions – something that Ryanair seems to suggest is necessary in order to keep fares low.

We’ve already seen cabin crew in Portugal, Spain, Belgium and Italy walk out on strike in protest.  Pilots in several European countries, most notably Ireland, have done the same.  Ryanair reacted by threatening to layoff around 300 pilots and cabin crew at its Dublin base – saying it would move aircraft to a Polish subsidiary.

And even more walkouts are expected – the next wave is slated for 10th August when pilots in Ireland, Sweden and Belgium will hold a 24-hour strike.  Pilots in Germany and the Netherlands are also expected to join as well.

Ryanair calls the dispute “unnecessary” – the airline says its workers are well paid and are offered attractive working conditions (for the low-cost airline sector).  But workers advocacy groups disagree – they accuse Ryanair of what they call “social dumping”.

They argue that Ryanair employs underpaid agency staff with few rights in order to keep profits at the airline high.  The International Federation for Transport Workers says cabin crew and pilots at the budget carrier have “legitimate demands” but they’ve seen an “irresponsible and immature response” from the company.

It’s not just Ryanair that is putting pressure on workers in order to achieve a return for investors.  The Air France KLM group saw profits drop some 80% on the back of strikes led by workers who are demanding a pay rise after years of austerity at the airline.

And British Airways faced a summer of strife last year after new hire cabin crew, called “mixed fleet” went out on strike because of what they called “poverty pay”.  British Airways eventually agreed to hike pay rates but wages are still way below what older crew enjoy.

In its latest salvo against the unions, Ryanair has taken aim at FORSA – an Irish union which it accuses of trying to bring an end to the days of cheap airfares.

“It is bizarre that FORSA who in the main represent middle and lower ranking Irish public service workers, many of whom are the very people who avail of Ryanair’s low fares, are instead pandering to a handful of Aer Lingus pilots,” the airline said in a written statement.

Ryanair accuses FORSA of trying to “wreck the Ryanair business model and presumably return to the old days of when high Aer Lingus fares when only the wealthy can avail of air travel.”

Is Ryanair saying that cheap fares rely on employing lower paid workers with fewer benefits?

We would argue its perfectly possible to find that balance.  The likes of easyJet prove its an achievable aim – but that probably doesn’t suit Ryanair’s mission to dominate European aviation at all costs.

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