The combative chief executive of Ryanair, 57-year old Michael O’Leary has once again angered unions with inflammatory comments that were reported in Saturday’s edition of London’s The Times newspaper. The article in question was examining Ryanair’s responsibility to pay out compensation to passengers in the event of strike action (like the kind that affected thousands of customers in the summer) with quotes attributed to O’Leary seemingly calling his workers “layabouts”.
“If you have to pay compensation every time someone goes on strike, you remove management’s ability to face down the unions,” O’Leary was quoted as saying. He continued: “They know you have to roll over. It’d be the only industry where a bunch of layabouts can go on strike and run up a big compensation bill.”
His comments follow an unprecedented legal move by the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to take enforcement action against the Dublin-based airline over its refusal to pay out the so-called European Denied Boarding compensation for flight disruption resulting from industrial action. Ryanair was forced to cancel hundreds of flights in the summer after pilots and cabin crew staged walkouts in several European countries.
O’Leary has previously said that Ryanair has no responsibility to pay out compensation, which can amount to as much as €600 per passenger, for industrial action that is beyond its control. Under the EU 261 legislation, airlines can avoid compensation claims if they can prove the delay or flight cancellation was beyond its control. Until recently, strike action was thought to be an “extraordinary circumstance” exempt from compensation claims but a recent court judgement about a wildcat strike at TUI Fly does raise doubts about that thinking.
The comments have done little to improve relations with the powerful British pilots union, BALPA. In a statement, the union’s general secretary, Brian Strutton slammed O’Leary, saying that his “true colours seem to be showing through once again.”
BALPA signed a union recognition deal with the airline in January to represent British-based Ryanair pilots. The recognition deal is just one hurdle in negotiating a full collective labour agreement that will protect workers pay, benefits and working conditions – so far, BALPA and Ryanair have not agreed a formal deal.
“Ryanair’s true colours seem to be showing through once again as O’Leary talks about “facing down the unions” and insults his staff as “a bunch of layabouts,” Strutton explains.
“I don’t know if he’s goading the unions into more strikes or if he just can’t control what he says, but he’s fuelling the industrial unrest in Ryanair every time he speaks about it.”
It was recently revealed that Ryanair has only signed union recognition deals in eight out of 21 countries in which crew are based. The airline agreed to start recognising unions for the first time in its history late last year after workers threatened mass walkouts in the run up to Christmas. The airline’s chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs claims O’Leary “has changed” in his attitude to unions but many critics say he doesn’t have the right mindset to change Ryanair’s working culture for the better.