(Adds comment from Spanish union)
By Andrés González
MADRID, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Ryanair has been cutting fares by up to 30 percent to fill flights to Barcelona and other cities in Catalonia as holiday-makers are nervous of political upheaval in the Spanish region, Chief Executive Michael O’Leary said on Tuesday.
Tourist numbers in Barcelona dipped after an attack in August left 16 people dead and an illegal independence vote prompted scenes of police violence and mass protests, but have since rebounded.
Ryanair still plans to increase capacity in Spain as a whole sharply in the coming year, adding 9 percent more flights in the year to March 2019, O’Leary said, compared with an increase of 6 percent in its network as a whole.
“To fill the aircraft we had to lower the fares (for flights to Barcelona) very significantly,” O’Leary told a press conference in Madrid. “The fares are significantly lower as we approach the summer than they were last year,” he said, though demand for travel to Madrid remained strong.
Capacity in Spain has increased in recent years as operators have moved from destinations in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of attacks on tourists.
The number of international tourists visiting Spain broke records for a fifth straight year in 2017, climbing 8.9 percent year-on-year to 82 million.
One threat to Ryanair’s rapid expansion plans are relations with pilots. While strike threats in December were averted by a pledge to recognise labour unions for the first time, the airline has so far managed to reach a recognition agreement with only one of the seven unions with which it is in talks.
O’Leary said Spain’s SEPLA pilots’ union had not yet responded to offers of a pay rise and terms for union recognition and Ryanair was considering bypassing the union and offering the increase directly to pilots - something it has done in Ireland.
SEPLA said in a statement it had told Ryanair it would not negotiate with it until it allowed it to represent both pilots employed directly and those employed indirectly as contractors.
It also said it would recommend pilots reject a proposed salary increase as long as it was dependent on recognising Ryanair’s system of employee councils at airports, which it said are appointed unilaterally by management.
The union said it had offered to poll pilots on the proposed pay increase, but that Ryanair had refused to give it a list of serving pilots. Ryanair did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. (Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by David Holmes and Adrian Croft)