Ryanair offers union recognition as pilot strikes loom

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London (AFP)

Ryanair on Friday offered to recognise unions for the first time as the Irish no-frills airline faces its first strike action by pilots going into the festive period.

"Christmas flights are very important to our customers and we wish to remove any worry or concern that they may be disrupted by pilot industrial action," Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary said in a statement announcing a conditional offer to recognise pilot unions in Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

O'Leary's statement came as Ryanair pilots and flight attendants in Italy prepared to begin a four-hour strike from 1200 GMT, adding to a simultaneous Italian air traffic control stoppage and a day-long stoppage at struggling Alitalia.

The Dublin-based airline said it would recognise the unions "as long as they establish committees of Ryanair pilots... as Ryanair will not engage with pilots who fly for competitor airlines".

The Irish union Impact said it had yet to receive a letter inviting it to talks.

"When we have, we will consider the contents and respond," a spokesman said.

Further ahead, Ryanair pilots based in Ireland and Portugal have strikes planned for Wednesday. Germany-based pilots have agreed to unspecified strike action.

"Putting the needs of our customers first... is the reason why we will now deal with our pilots through recognised national union structures and we hope and expect that these structures can and will be agreed with our pilots early in the New Year," O'Leary added.

Voicing confidence that a deal would be reached, Ryanair chief operating officer Peter Bellew told BBC radio that it was "time for change".

He added in an interview: "We need to move on. We have in the past changed the business model... (we) became more customer focused."

Next week's industrial action planned for Ireland was backed by 94 percent of pilots directly employed by Ryanair in the eurozone member.

However, a majority of pilots used by the airline in Ireland are not directly employed by the company.

Ryanair has meanwhile been forced to cancel 20,000 flights through to March because of pilot scheduling problems stretching back to September.

Air traffic control delays and weather disruption also contributed to the cancellations, according to Ryanair.

Despite such difficulties, Ryanair still expects to deliver annual profit after tax of 1.40-1.45 billion euros ($1.65-1.71 billion).

The airline is also seeking to capitalise from the recent collapse of smaller competitors in an oversupplied market.

Austrian carrier Niki ceased operations on Wednesday after its owner Air Berlin went bankrupt in August.

Short-haul British carrier Monarch Airlines declared bankruptcy in October.