Ryanair canceled around 400 flights in Europe, most of them in Germany, as pilots in five countries staged strikes as long-running tensions between the Irish LCC and its workforce come to a head.

Pilots in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and Ireland followed calls by their respective unions, which was coordinated to maximize pressure on the airline, although demands differ by country.

Ryanair operates around 2,000 flights per day in the summer.

The airline recognized unions for the first time in December 2017 to prevent pilots in Ireland from going on strike just before the Christmas holidays. That move was preceded by what Ryanair said was a mistake in vacation planning in the pilot rosters that forced the airline to cancel around 18,000 flights between October and March and reduced capacity growth from the previously planned 9% to 4%. Ryanair also grounded 25 additional aircraft during the period to match aircraft capacity with crew availability.

At the time, the carrier denied it suffered from a crew shortage and a higher than usual number of pilot resignations, a claim that was rejected by many in the pilot community. Unions nonetheless saw a window of opportunity for their demands to be recognized.

Following the largest ever pilot strike at Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier, union representatives made clear they are prepared to sustain a long dispute and that further walkouts even at short notice will follow if management does not come up with new offers. In Germany, both pay and conditions are subject of negotiations. Pilot union Vereinigung Cockpit wants a higher level of guaranteed pay (versus variable pay for extra flying), job security, better medical insurance and pension contributions, among others.

Ryanair has previously said labor costs should not rise and it is not willing “to change the business model.” The airline threatened to move six of the 30 Dublin-based aircraft to Poland for the winter if demands make more Irish routes uneconomical.

Ryanair COO Peter Bellew pointed out earlier this week that some German markets were “marginal” and that ultimately the airline could make a “commercial decision” if the level of profitability was insufficient. He added that there are currently no such plans.

The comments were perceived as threats to kill jobs in the German public.

“Antagonizing the workforce is never a good idea,” Bernstein Research analyst Daniel Roeska wrote in a note to clients. “Threats of action to move capacity around the network could lead to [even] greater levels of cooperation between unions across Europe, as they will try to leverage their combined strength—a strategy that forced Ryanair to accept unionization in the first place in December.”

Roeska anticipates rising labor costs and lower productivity. He also sees an earnings-per-share decline in the coming two years, with upside margin potential only emerging in 2021.

Ryanair faces significant uncertainty in the coming two years. Labor costs are just one issue, but it could also be hit by a further rise in fuel costs, which it is unlikely to be able to pass on to consumers. Brexit is also likely damaging to its UK business and makes the airline more dependent on growth opportunities in countries such as Germany where union power is significant.

Jens Flottau, jens.flottau@aviationweek.com