Ryanair lashes out at ATCOs' right to strike, again


As political and debate over public sector unions rages in the US, Ryanair has again lit off on one of its favourite subjects: air traffic controller strikes. The trigger point is once again Spain, where airport workers have threatened to strike over the planned privatisation of national airports operator AENA.

Spanish unions have announced that they intend to hold 22 days of work stoppages over six months: three days during the Easter holiday weekend in April, five days in May, three days in June, six days in July and three days in August. Potentially, 12,500 ground staff employed by AENA could be involved in the industrial action. Ryanair is already engaged in legal action against AENA and Spanish unions over the Dec-2010 strikes, which forced the carrier to cancel approximately 500 services early in the month and saw the Spanish government revert to public emergency laws to force the ATCOs back to work.

Spain is one of Ryanair’s most important markets, with eight bases – including three new bases in 2010 - and 11 other destinations in the country. The carrier handles more international traffic to/from Spain than national carrier Iberia. Ryanair estimates that the strike action over the Easter holiday period alone will result in it cancelling 300 flights, affecting for 57,000 passengers.

With the strikes expected to cause travel chaos over the Easter hoiday, Ryanair has reiterated its calls for the European Union to legislate out of existence the right to strike for ATCOS. It argues that the provision of air traffic control should be determined an “essential service”. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has repeated his opinion that the policy on air traffic services in Europe should be the same as that in the US, where most public sector unions are banned from striking.

Ryanair has a general antipathy towards unions. Mr O’Leary made very public comments in Dec-2010 that ATC staff who participate in illegal strikes should be sacked wholesale, in a similar situation to the PATCO strikes in the US in 1981.

The carrier’s public stance is hardline, but hardly out of keeping with the sentiments of other airlines in the region. After the Dec-2010 strikes, Association of European Airlines Secretary General Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus roundly condemned the strike action and held the episode up as an example of the “pressing need for an overhaul of the European ATC system, and the disproportionate power of a relatively small number of individuals to block the whole system”.

The International Air Carrier Association has urged the Spanish Government to consider declaring a state of emergency to keep Spanish airports fully operational during planned action.

Ryanair’s renewed calls for industry deregulation comes at an interesting time in the development of Europe’s aviation system, with privatisation once again coming to the fore. Air traffic management has been fully or partially privatised in the UK, Germany and Sweden and AENA hopes to partially privatise air traffic control in Spain under its general airports privatisation plan. IATA Director General and CEO, Giovanni Bisignani, has voiced his belief that the UK Government should sell its shares in UK NATS.

Ryanair is pressing for its own version of European ATM privatisation, advocating deregulating Europe’s ATC services to allow non-striking ATCOs in other countries to keep air services operating. The carrier believes that if one country could manage the airspace of neighbouring countries, this would prevent flights being cancelled or delayed during industrial action.

ATC strikes have also given Ryanair another angle to attack the EU261 passenger regulations – which the carrier has also volubly complained about. Ryanair believes reform is necessary to relieve airlines of the "right to care" obligations, in such force majeure cases as ATCO strikes or natural disasters, which are clearly outside of airlines’ control.

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