Zero-hour contracts and no food or water: inside the savage machine of low-cost flights (

September 3, 2018

By Anna Freeman, Martí Renau and Anna Pacheco

This summer, the rabid consumerism with which we buy and travel on low-cost airlines came to a head. Ryanair experienced the biggest pilot strikes in its history. Up to 67,000 passengers were affected by the cancellation of almost 400 flights. 15 days before, 600 flights were affected due to the strike of cabin crew. Yet, despite Ryanair’s reputation for being a penny-pinching, investment-straddling empire, it has cultivated a consumer base like no other in Europe. Ryanair is now the continent’s biggest low-cost airline, and announced that it achieved a 9 percent increase in passengers in the year ended March 31 to 130 million, leading to an astronomical net profit of €1.45 billion.

Such success was achieved in spite of a pilot-rostering crisis last year that grounded 25 of its 400 aircrafts and the cancellation of thousands of flights, and a growing disgruntlement among its ranks.


Ryanair’s workers have a very specific problem that is separate to other low-cost companies: they have Irish contracts and operate under Irish labour laws. Staff also have Irish bank accounts even if they live and work in another country. Navigating Irish labour law creates a legal minefield for employees hoping to improve their conditions. ITF Civil Aviation secretary Gabriel Mocho Rodriguez, who is currently supporting Ryanair staff unions, credits this operational choice as an important way to discourage unionisation and collective organisation. ‘Contracts are written up as take-it-or-leave-it offers and it is only after workers sign them that they realise how bad their conditions are,’ he explains. And, if workers have a problem, they must travel to Dublin to discuss it. (emphasis added).

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