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Passengers disembark from a Ryanair aircraft at the airport in Modlin, near Warsaw, Poland Image Credit: Reuters

One year after Ryanair Holdings Plc chief executive officer Michael O’Leary shocked the airline industry with his decision to finally recognise trade unions, the two sides can’t agree on how much progress has been made in their talks.

The Irish budget carrier’s combative leader once said he would cut off both his arms before agreeing to negotiate with unions. Yet — and with all his limbs intact — the CEO has opened talks with employees in all major markets. That’s led to collective labour agreements with pilots in Belgium, Germany, Italy and Ireland, the carrier says.

Ryanair hails these as breakthroughs as it adapts to the new reality, while unions warn that talks have been rough and more progress is needed. That’s supported by a summer of industrial action across Europe that forced Ryanair to cancel hundreds of flights.

“From my point of view, Michael certainly has changed,” Kenny Jacobs, chief marketing officer at Ryanair, said at a recent media briefing in London. “He’s a commercial animal, so ultimately he made the decision with the board that we would recognise unions and we’ve got on with it.”

Yet in most jurisdictions, “Ryanair is either still negotiating, in dispute or yet to initiate negotiations over working conditions,” said Liz Blackshaw, campaigns director at the International Transport Workers’ Federation. Jon Horne, president of the European Cockpit Association, agrees, describing negotiations in the last year as “piecemeal and disorganised.”

Ryanair is working toward securing full contract deals in the majority of its markets by March, according to Jacobs. But the ITF, ECA and the European Transport Workers’ Federation all argue that a completed labour agreement has only been reached in Italy and that the majority of workers have yet to see any substantial improvements in pay or conditions.

“Given it was inconceivable this would happen last year and the large number of culturally diverse European countries Ryanair flies to, they have had an enormous job,” said John Strickland, a director of JLS Consulting in London, which advises aviation companies. “It’s been a bumpy road but good progress has been made.”

Ryanair shares have slumped by 28 per cent this year, valuing the company at €12 billion ($13.5 billion).