LONDON — Ryanair, Europe’s biggest budget airline, has for the first time recognized pilot unions across the Continent, reversing a longstanding policy in a bid to head off strikes planned around Christmas.
The move comes with the airline — known for ultralow fares and aggressive cost-cutting — caught in controversy over its treatment of workers. A scheduling issue this year forced Ryanair to cancel more than 20,000 flights, casting a spotlight on the variety of unusual labor agreements it has with its pilots, many of whom are classified as independent contractors rather than full-time employees.
On Friday, the airline signaled a shift in that policy. With its pilots in parts of Europe threatening to strike over the busy Christmas travel period, Ryanair invited pilot unions in Britain, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain to talks. The company had previously insisted that employees negotiate through internal channels, but pilots had resisted doing so for several months.
The scheduling chaos in the fall prompted an outcry within the ranks over terms of pay, which galvanized pilots to set up their own groups across Europe for negotiating with the company, demanding collective bargaining and more secure contracts.
“Christmas flights are very important to our customers, and we wish to remove any worry or concern that they may be disrupted by pilot industrial action next week,” Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair chief executive, said in a statement.
“Recognizing unions will be a significant change for Ryanair, but we have delivered radical change before,” he added.
Ryanair called on Friday for the unions to cancel any potential industrial action, “so that our customers can look forward to traveling home for Christmas without the threat or worry of pilot strikes hanging over them.”
In recent months, the airline had vowed not to meet with or recognize any union, claiming that rivals were seeking to capitalize on the bungling of its schedules to “demean and disparage our collective success.”
It maintained in on Friday, however, that it would acknowledge only representatives from Ryanair and that it would not “engage with pilots who fly for competitor airlines in Ireland or elsewhere.”