Ryanair has been cutting fares by up to 30% to fill flights to Barcelona and other cities in Catalonia as holidaymakers 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% more flights in the year to March 2019, O'Leary said, compared with an increase of 6% 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% 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 only managed to reach a recognition agreement with 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.
"With SEPLA we're trying to say: let's have a vote on the Spanish pilots' pay increase, even when we're trying to finalise the agreement. If you don't, we'll offer it directly to the Spanish pilots," he said.
SEPLA last week said it would launch a legal action against Ryanair and said it had been naive to think management wanted to change "toxic labour relations." (Reuters)