Aer Lingus industrial action causing hundreds of cancellations– what does it mean for your flight?

Departing Dublin: Aer Lingus Airbus A330 prepares to fly to the US (Simon Calder )
Departing Dublin: Aer Lingus Airbus A330 prepares to fly to the US (Simon Calder )

Pilots working for Aer Lingus are continuing an indefinite “strict work to rule” in their pursuit of a pay claim.

Members of the Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association (Ialpa) also walked out on strike from 5am to 1pm on Saturday 29 June, aiming to disrupt the start of of the school holiday exodus for many families.

Millions of passengers are booked to fly on the Irish airline over the summer – including from the UK via Dublin to North America.

Aer Lingus says it told the union that “industrial action at this time of year would cause very significant disruption and have a devastating impact on customers and their families going into the summer holiday season”.

The airline has decided to ground at least 26 flights each day during the work to rule as it seeks to minimise the risk of flights being grounded on the day, with many more on the day of the strike

Direct Aer Lingus UK services from Manchester across the Atlantic, and the Aer Lingus Regional operation – provided by a separate carrier, Emerald Airlines – are unaffected.

These are the key questions and answers.

What is the dispute about?

In a ballot in pursuit of a 24 per cent pay claim, pilots voted 99 per cent in favour of industrial action on an 89 per cent turnout.

Captain Mark Tighe, president of Ialpa, says the pay claim simply equates to inflation since the last wage rise in 2019.

“Aer Lingus have increased their profits by 400 per cent to €255m [£216m] last year,” he says. “Our pay claim is entirely affordable, and Aer Lingus management need to quickly change position if they want to avoid this dispute escalating.

“We are in this position because management have failed to provide us with a meaningful offer on pay that accounts for inflation and the sacrifices made by pilots to save Aer Lingus during the pandemic.”

He accuses Aer Lingus management of insisting pilots “sell their working conditions in exchange for any increase in pay”.

Captain Tighe says: “We are absolutely not prepared to do that, especially when Aer Lingus is making enormous profits.”

The airline says it hoped to “continue to engage in meaningful direct discussions on productivity and flexibility proposals to enable increased pay” but Ialpa refused it.

“Profitability levels in Aer Lingus are the lowest in the IAG group with operating margin significantly lower than pre-Covid levels, making continued investment in the business by IAG challenging,” the airline says.

“Investment of such profits in paying exorbitant increases to already very well-paid pilots is simplistic in the extreme.

“Ialpa demanded an unsustainable level of increase in pilot pay that was not supported by any increases in productivity or flexibility. Our pilots are highly regarded colleagues, and they are rightfully well paid for the work that they do.

“Aer Lingus pilots are more than fairly compensated compared to the market.”

The airline also says the union’s “failure to engage in the various independent processes in a responsible manner jeopardises our growth plans including our plans to fly to more destinations”.

What does a “strict work to rule” mean?

Pilots are refusing any flexibility with their work. Ialpa says, in particular, its members will insist on:

  • “Not working overtime, or any other out of hours duties requested by management

  • “Only working the published rosters and not accepting or working any amendments to published rosters

  • “Not logging into the Aer Lingus portal or ‘e-crew’ [an online rostering system] outside of work hours.

  • “Not answering phone calls outside of work hours.”

In a perfect world, the Aer Lingus operation would continue as normal. But aviation is a very dynamic industry and much can go wrong with the best-laid plans – including, for example:

  • Mechanical problems

  • Air-traffic control restrictions

  • Bad weather

  • Disruptive or ill passengers

Normally in any airline there is a degree of flexibility and goodwill among staff to adapt the operation in order to get people where they need to be. If that is removed by the pilots, disruption can swiftly ensue.

What sort of problems could arise?

Air-traffic control slot delays across Europe are common in summer, with pressure added by the closure of a large slice of airspace in eastern Europe. Being told to wait on the ground for an hour or more are not unusual. In such circumstances, airlines will typically shuffle their fleets and crews to minimise the disruption for everyone, but Ialpa indicates this will not be possible.

Across the Atlantic – an extremely important market for Aer Lingus from Dublin and Shannon – summer storms are common. An unexpected delay at, say, Chicago, could mean that the pilots go beyond the normal basic flight duty period.

The captain is allowed to extend the flight duty period by two hours “in the event of unforeseen circumstances” at his or her discretion. This will often mean the difference between completing a flight or leaving passengers stranded. The indication from the Irish pilots’ union is that flexibility would not be granted.

A scenario in which bad weather or a mechanical problem meant a long delay on the ground in the US could mean passengers stranded overnight, with the aircraft being stuck at an American airport rather than back in Dublin ready for its next mission.

What is the effect of the work to rule so far?

In response to the work to rule, Aer Lingus has cancelled an average of 26 flights per day during the first two weeks of the action (with many more on the day of the strike).

Most are links from Dublin and Cork to the UK and Continental Europe. A daily round trip from Dublin to New York JFK is also grounded.

The airline says: “Customers whose flights are impacted will be communicated to directly via email/SMS, or through their travel agent, advising of their options. While we will endeavour to reaccommodate customers where possible the levels of disruption may not make this possible..“

If my flight is disrupted, what are my rights?

You could decide not to travel and request a full refund (vouchers for future travel are also on offer, but you should always insist on cash).

The airline says you can “change your flight online” and that if the new one is cheaper – which frankly is extremely unlikely – any fare difference will be refunded.

But the vast majority of passengers will want to fly as close to their original plans as possible.

As an EU airline, Aer Lingus must comply with European air passengers’ rights rules. These stipulate a duty of care in the event of delays and cancellatioons.

Regardless of the cause of disruption, the airline must get passengers to their destination as soon as possible. On the London Heathrow-Dublin route, this could mean Aer Lingus buying you a ticket on British Airways.

For European destinations, the options include Ryanair and Continental carriers such as Air France and Lufthansa.

In the event of a transatlantic cancellation, Aer Lingus could have to buy seats on Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, United or WestJet. Given that so many flights are very heavily booked, though, it may take time to find spare seats.

Your first step should be to call the airline in the UK on 0333 004 5000 or in Ireland on 01 761 7834.

If you want an alternative flight and there is one on Aer Lingus on the same day, you have little choice but to accept it – or take a cash refund.

If, though, Aer Lingus does not have seats available on the same day, then you can insist on travelling with an airline that does have space available.

Invite Aer Lingus to buy the ticket for you, as it is required to do. If the carrier declines, then you can book it and claim the additional cost back from Aer Lingus. This may be a tedious process, but the airline cannot reject a reasonable claim.

How badly are UK passengers affected?

During the school summer holidays in Northern Ireland, many families travel south to Dublin to fly to Mediterranean destinations. They are entitled to be found alternative flights if seats are available.

The Aer Lingus Manchester-North America operation is unaffected, as are Aer Lingus Regional flights from various UK airports to Dublin. But those regional flights often carry passengers who are heading for the US and Canada – using the excellent pre-clearance facility for US Customs and Border Protection, which means you arrive in an American airport as a domestic passenger.

Someone with a booking from, say, Birmingham via Dublin to Boston, could insist on being rebooked on Air France, KLM or another airline if seats are available.

Aer Lingus Regional flights to and from George Best Belfast City are unaffected.