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Ryanair defiant as German pilots and crew walk out

Irish budget carrier Ryanair was defiant Wednesday as dozens of flights were disrupted in a walkout by German pilots and cabin crew, the latest flare-up in a bitter Europe-wide battle for better pay and conditions.

"We are not easyJet, we will not roll over every time we are threatened with a strike," chief executive Michael O'Leary told reporters in London.

Some 150 out of 400 Ryanair flights to and from Germany were cancelled because of the walkout, which the firm slammed as "unnecessary", warning that it may have to close some bases and slash jobs if the stoppages drag on.

Germany's Cockpit pilots' federation and the Verdi service workers' union called the 24-hour strike after they said talks with Ryanair management were deadlocked.

"We hope that this strike shows a significant effect, that the company realises the employees won't accept rotten working conditions and bad pay any longer," said Verdi spokesman Andreas Splanemann at a demonstration by cabin crew at Berlin's Schoenefeld airport.

O'Leary described the latest German walkout as "somewhat unsuccessful".

"We do not want strikes but we are willing to put up with them if it means defending our cost base and our ability to offer lower fares," he said.

Ryanair shares were up 1.3 percent in late trading in London.

The unrest comes as Ryanair is already bracing for a mass coordinated walkout by cabin crew in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

Union leaders are expected to announce details of the stoppage in Brussels on Thursday.

They have vowed to stage "the biggest strike action the company has ever seen".

Ryanair has been clashing with worker representatives ever since it took the unprecedented step last year to start recognising trade unions in a bid to avert widespread Christmas strikes.

Last month, Ryanair pilots in five European countries including Germany held their first-ever simultaneous walkout, causing some 400 flight cancellations and travel chaos for 55,000 passengers.

- Job threats -

The 33-year-old airline has however struck some labour agreements since then, reaching its first-ever union deal with Italian pilots in late August.

In Ireland, pilots voted to accept an agreement on improved working conditions last week.

The breakthrough prompted Ryanair to back down from an earlier threat that it would move several aircraft and 300 jobs from Ireland to Poland.

The Cockpit and Verdi unions, which represent some 400 Germany-based Ryanair pilots and 1,000 flight personnel, condemned the airline's attempt to squeeze them with a similar threat.

"This is how Ryanair deals with its employees: putting pressure on them, scaring them and threatening job losses," Cockpit's vice president Markus Wahl told AFP.

Ryanair's chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs denied the company was "making a threat".

"If you have ongoing strikes, that's the economic impact," Jacobs told a Frankfurt press conference Tuesday.

- '190,000 euros a year' -

The no-frills airline boasts lower costs per passenger than its competitors and is eyeing profits of around 1.25 billion euros ($1.45 billion) this year.

But staff have long complained that they earn less than counterparts at rival airlines.

Another key gripe of workers based in countries other than Ireland is the fact that Ryanair employs them under Irish legislation.

They say this creates huge insecurity for them, blocking their access to state benefits in their country.

Unions also want the airline to give contractors the same work conditions as staff employees.

Ryanair counters that it has already offered significant pay increases and more local contracts.

It said German pilots can make "up to 190,000 euros a year".

But Cockpit's Wahl said that only applies to "a handful" of people, with starting salaries around 39,000 euros and the most experienced fliers taking home around 110,000 euros a year in fixed pay, which can be topped up depending on flight hours.

Wahl said pilots were fighting for more pay overall, and specifically a higher fixed-rate salary.

The Verdi union said Ryanair cabin crew earn a basic gross salary of 800 to 1,200 euros a month on average, far below what rival easyJet pays.

"The wages are so low that they are insufficient to ensure a decent living," Verdi board member Christine Behle said.
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