In this episode of Unreported Europe, Euronews' Hans von der Brelie meets the airline staff and passengers paying the price for the financial crisis engulfing the aviation industry following the coronavirus pandemic.
Few dispute the global airline industry is facing its biggest ever crisis. The economic havoc unleashed by COVID-19 has grounded most carriers. In Europe, Air France, British Airways and Lufthansa have all announced tens of thousands of redundancies. Low-cost companies, like EasyJet and Ryanair, also plan huge job cuts.
"This is a form of blackmail"
In Frankfurt we meet Francesca Rinaldi. A flight attendant for Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier, Ryanair. In addition to her job she also sits on a bargaining committee representing the airline’s staff in Germany.
Salaries are between 1200 to 2200 euros a month, but in March, April and May, the grounded cabin crew stopped receiving their normal salary and were placed on "Kurzarbeitergeld", or German social benefits. This amounted to between 500 to 750 euros per month, topped up with 250 euros from Ryanair.
Every day Francesca connects with the carrier’s unionised cabin crew in other parts of Europe to talk about the critical situation. They fear job and pay cuts.
"In France, the company has proposed to reduce our salaries by ten percent and also cut our working hours. That would see salaries fall to 900 euros a month net - which is the poverty line in France. This is a form of blackmail, because they said quite clearly that if we don’t accept this proposal, the company will be forced to cut 27 surplus cabin crew posts,”explains Damien Mourgues, a Ryanair flight attendant based in France.
Speaking to Gustavo - another Ryanair flight attendant and trade union leader based in Spain - Francesca explains the situation in Germany.
Francesca Rinaldi: "Here in Germany they are threatening implicitly, but also pretty explicitly, with a surplus of 571 cabin crew out of 940 - so they want to get rid of almost 60 percent of the cabin crew here in Germany... So I wanted to know: What is the situation in Spain, if you have been blackmailed or under threat?"
Gustavo Silva: "We have Ryanair saying: either you sign or we will have 351 (crew members) that will have been fired. This is not negotiating, this is dictating... and at the same time they go down on the remaining working conditions - so this is social dumping, it is a proper example of social dumping... (An underpaid colleague and) mother of one child had to go to the Red Cross to ask for food because she did not have enough money to survive not even ten days in a month."
''The Ryanair model''
Heading to Francesca’s favourite spot to watch planes at Frankfurt airport, bad news comes in from Prague. Ryanair has fired three unionised leaders of the bargaining committee in the Czech Republic. It means Francesca’s counterparts in that country are now jobless.
"All the airlines are facing a crisis and every airline is now negotiating: if we do allow now Ryanair to do 'aviation dumping' again, as they did in the 1990s, we are basically giving the authorisation to all the other airlines, as they did it already before, to just copy paste the Ryanair model. This is just something we have to avoid with all our strength and that's what we are fighting for,"Francesca insists.
Euronews asked Ryanair for an interview at a location and time of their choosing. The company refused.
Getting a refund: no easy ticket
It's not only cabin crew paying the price for the aviation sector’s difficulties. Since lockdown restrictions went into force across Europe, tens of thousands of passengers have struggled to get cancelled flights refunded. Airlines have cited "extraordinary circumstances”.
We met up with Basti and Binoj, who are determined to get their money back. The two have been good friends since nursery school. Together with other childhood friends, they had planned to fly to Mallorca with a low cost carrier. Basti booked all the flights. But instead of enjoying a relaxing Easter holiday, as the six friends did the year before, he is now struggling to get a refund.
“I've already gone back to them several times: regarding the outward flight, I filed two refund requests - both were refused. As an alternative they offered a voucher of lower value. Regarding my refunding request for our return flight, until now I haven’t heard anything at all... 84 percent of Ryanair customers, just like us, are still waiting to get refunded for their cancelled flights," explains Sebastian Vögel (Basti).
"people generally don't want vouchers"
In Düsseldorf, we head to the regional consumer protection agency to meet Anke Hering and Beate Wagner. They have developed a new mobile app called "flight trouble". Since COVID-19 struck, it’s become pretty popular, with around 600 downloads per day.
“The problem people are facing is a huge number of flights have been cancelled, Anke says, adding: "The airlines send them messages, such as: "Your flight has been cancelled, so we’ll give you a voucher'. But people generally don't want vouchers. They need their money back. Actually people should get a prepaid ticket refunded within seven days. It is not always easy to find the right contact address for the airlines. Those addresses are sometimes pretty well hidden... When using our app, a sample letter is generated, in English or German. The app automatically completes the right address and sends a letter to the airline."
Consumer protection lawyer Beate Wagner says: "When flying from an EU member state, the European Union’s Air Passenger Rights Regulation must be applied. In this case the prevailing legal norms are clear. If the flights were cancelled, passengers can choose either to get the price of the ticket completely reimbursed or they can accept another flight. That means a passenger can decide either: 'I want my money back', or: 'I agree to accept a voucher to fly at a later date."
With empty terminals and mounting losses Europe's aviation sector may never be the same again. Who will foot the bill for its rescue? The companies? The employees? The customers? We already know that in Europe, taxpayers will be called upon to contribute billions of euros of state aid which has been announced for certain companies.