For the past month or so, Irish discount airline Ryanair has been faced with a PR disaster. On September 18, it announced plans to cancel up to 50 flights a day until Halloween because of an error in how it schedules time off for pilots.

“We have messed up in the planning of pilot holidays and we’re working hard to fix that,” the airline said on its Facebook page.

In hopes of remedying the problem, Ryanair began offering pilots based in London, Dublin, Frankfurt, and Berlin a tax-free cash bonus of €12,000 (about $14,300) to return to work for an extra 10 days. It also offered a €10,000 ($12,000) annual raise to pilots who want to keep flying during the staffing crunch.

But it looks like the pilots are using the scheduling error to argue for better salaries and working conditions.

A draft letter obtained by The Guardian, which has been circulating at Ryanair bases in Europe, said that the pilot workforce will “rescind the goodwill that has been extended toward the company for many years, including working days off and turning up early.” In short, the pilots write, they will now “work to rule.”

What that means is that the pilots will no longer go beyond the terms of their contracts.

The problem, the pilots write, is that in order to receive the cash bonus the airline is offering, they would have to have worked 800 flight hours in a year to be eligible for the bonus. “Pilots have checked their logbooks and many have never achieved 800 flight hours in a single 12-month period ever,” the letter says.

The pilots also say there is too much ambiguity about the offer’s conditions, including the number of days off they would have to work to get the bonus, and whether Ryanair would even allocate enough days for pilots to earn the bonus.

Ryanair pilots are being offered advice and encouragement by pilots at airlines across Europe, who are also being faced with downward salary pressure due to the emergence and popularity of discount airlines.

One pilot, who was not named in the Guardian story, said, “There has been a race to the bottom in terms and conditions which is led by Ryanair, and it’s having an impact throughout Europe. It’s sucking guys out of Europe to the Middle East and China, where terms and pay are better.”

The pilots are expected to demand that Ryanair offer them local contracts with full employee rights under the employment law in the country where they are based.

Meanwhile, the airline expects to pay compensation claims of up to €20 million (almost $24 million) to passengers whose flights were cancelled due to Ryanair’s pilot scheduling error.

Photo: Pilots on the flight deck of a Ryanair jet. Credit: StockphotoVideo /